September 1, 2006  

Five long years

The Pentagon still imagines war as it should be, rather than as it is

The nature of this war has still to be understood. It’s now five years since the attacks of Sept. 11. Where are we? Where are we going?

In many ways, we don’t know where we are, but we have no one to blame but ourselves for our confusion. The fact is that there are profound differences of opinion — still — over what happened on 9/11. In my view, the war for the future of the Middle East began long ago, in 1979, when the old order in the region began to collapse. That was the year the Soviets invaded Afghanistan, the year Saddam Hussein came to direct power in Baghdad, the year of the Iranian Revolution and the year Sunni extremists seized the grand mosque in Mecca to denounce the corruption of the Saudi royal family. Since that year, the region has lurched from crisis to crisis and the chimera of stability vanished in the haze of the Persian Gulf.

Since that year, Islamic radicalism, both the Shiite and Sunni varieties, have proven to be stronger forces of history than we in the secular, post-Enlightenment West can credit; as our own Ralph Peters has put it, this is not a war of ideas but a war of ideas against faith. These are enemies who believe the political order is not to be negotiated among men but has been dictated by God, and there can be no compromise. In particular, the revival of Iranian-led revolutionary Shi’ism, expressed most recently in the Hezbollah war with Israel in southern Lebanon but most frighteningly by the nuclear ambitions of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad, suggest to me that we are in not only for a “Long War,” but a larger and wider war as well.

Yet many Americans — and most of the rest of the West — still do not see this struggle as a war, or they see it as a limited war. For them, the fight is narrowly defined, targeted almost solely at Osama bin Laden, the senior al-Qaida cadre and the leaders of directly aligned groups. It is still a war on terrorism, a global manhunt more like a campaign against organized crime than a war over political issues.

This myopia persists in the face of our experience since Sept. 11. Over the past five years, the U.S. has invaded two countries, removed the existing governments, and entered into protracted irregular wars to secure its gains — and now we see the Israelis doing much the same thing in southern Lebanon. Further, the U.S. military has increased its presence throughout the greater Middle East, attempting to buttress friendly regimes while promoting internal reforms. These were actions undertaken neither for conquest nor to secure inexpensive energy supplies; indeed, the cost of oil has skyrocketed. Rather these were operations undertaken because they were the only effective means of defeating the enemy, both in the near and longer term. There was, and is, no real way to separate the terrorists from the larger political order in which they nest. The manhunt operations are but one campaign in the larger fight.

If we can come to accept the nature of this war — large, long and even more ideologically driven than the Cold War struggle against the Soviets — we can better see where we are. In the aftermath of 9/11, the U.S. struggled to understand the vulnerabilities of the American homeland; for all the fumbles on the home front, there has yet to be a follow-on attack. Expectations might have been otherwise. In taking the fight to the enemy, the initial response was nothing short of stunning; the invasions of both Afghanistan and Iraq were far more successful than anticipated. The special-operations-style manhunt has produced its fair share of successes, even though bin Laden remains at large. I would even argue that U.S. forces have adapted reasonably well to the challenges of counterinsurgency operations and irregular warfare. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld lamented that we began this war with the force we had on hand, but that force has not only acknowledged and adapted to the tactical challenge, it has proved its esprit to be remarkably resilient.

At the same time, it’s clear that tactical acumen and military professionalism can get us only so far. The U.S. military, and above all the land forces, remain too small to accomplish the tasks set before them. The Bush administration has failed not only to grasp the duration and the scope of its commitment to Iraq, but it also has failed to look beyond Iraq; not only do we have few options for expanding the reach of American forces inside Iraq, we also have even fewer options for acting elsewhere.

The result is an undeniable loss of strategic initiative. This is most obvious in the case of Iran. The belief that Tehran was a problem for a future day — one I confess that until recently I shared — is now belied by events, not just the Iranian determination to continue with its nuclear program, but also its provocations in Iraq, through Muqtada al-Sadr and the Mahdi Army, and in Lebanon, through Hezbollah. The extent of our strategic exhaustion is measured not only in Iran but also in Syria, Pakistan and elsewhere in the region. It is measured in how we’re supporting our allies, too: Does Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki believe the U.S. will stay the course or leave a free Iraq to fend for itself? Do the Lebanese people, who have only just expelled the Syrians from Beirut, expect help in securing their south, or will the U.S. acquiesce in a U.N. peacekeeping force where there is no peace to keep?

If we cannot see clearly where we are, we will continue to grope our way forward. President Bush remains deeply committed to the effort begun after 9/11; he still speaks and acts like a man who sees himself at a crossroads in history. Cardinally, Bush has not mobilized the nation for war. It was not and is not necessary to go to a full war footing, to world war levels. But some larger sacrifice is necessary, and it is the president’s job not just to make this clear but also to lead Americans to make those sacrifices.

Nor has the president been able to inspire or drive his lieutenants to realize his policies. The biggest failure has been at the Pentagon. Both civilians and uniformed leaders can share the blame, much less for initially misunderstanding the nature of the war in which they found themselves — war rarely goes precisely according to plan — but more for their continuing failure to lay out the requirements for victory. Rather, the message of the Quadrennial Defense Review was that the military would not again fight this kind of war. The Defense Department is still imagining war as it should be rather than war as it is.

Beyond the executive branch, neither the Congress as an institution nor the Democrats as the opposition have risen to the moment. The Republican leadership on Capitol Hill has been paralyzed by events, caught profoundly out of its depth. In a time of war, Congress has busied itself with domestic initiatives — gay marriage, minimum wage hikes and the like — from the 1990s, from the pre-9/11 mind. Democrats remain prisoners of their animosity toward the president. It does not seem to occur to them that, one day, the responsibilities of wartime leadership will pass to them. It is not a job they are preparing themselves for.

To chart a path toward victory — that is, a thoroughgoing political change across the greater Middle East — the U.S. has two tasks. The first is to imagine a comprehensive strategy that responds to the nature of the challenge; that accounts for the kind of war this is. This is less a global war than a contest for the future of the Islamic world; that is, a large but diffuse regional conflict with global implications. The fact that there are so many states and nonstate actors in the equation makes any solution complex. At the same time, the basic outlines of a strategy should be clear. First, this cannot become a nuclear conflict. Such weapons in the hands of radicals — be they Shiite or Sunni — is unacceptable. Second, the Levant and the Arab heartland are the central front. If we are defeated in Iraq, it matters much more than if we withdraw from Afghanistan or the Horn of Africa. Third, the conflict for the Middle East cannot become a locus of great-power confrontation. In particular, the People’s Republic of China cannot remain as a protector of rogue regimes such as Iran nor a proliferator to unstable regimes such as Pakistan. The measure of China’s role as an international stakeholder — the benchmark advanced by the administration — will largely be assessed by its behavior in the Islamic world.

The second task is to create the military means to win the war. While this requires the U.S. to build alliances, it also requires us to build our own forces, our land forces. This is a war to be won on the ground, where the yardstick for progress is political. We can destroy irregular forces again and again, only to see them rise and be reconstituted. We cannot defeat them from afar.

Whether we have learned these lessons is an open question. There are good reasons to want to deny them: They are unpleasant truths, promising no rapid, decisive operations but rather a long, hard slog; about as many Americans have died in Iraq and Afghanistan as died in the Twin Towers and the Pentagon five years ago. How will we meet the challenges of the next five years of this war?

Tom Donnelly