In mid-April, President Joe Biden announced that America’s longest war would be coming to an end, and soon. That it has, much sooner than Biden, or just about anyone else, including the U.S. military, thought possible. It took the Taliban, a force of some 75,000 fighters, less than four months to break the back of government resistance in Afghanistan and seize the capital, Kabul. This astonishing victory, another profound humiliation for the United States, was due as much to weakness and dysfunction of the Ghani government and its security forces as to the strength and coherence of the Taliban fighters.
What Biden knows, but will not say in public, is that for the third time since 1975, the United States has failed to achieve its primary strategic objective in a very costly major war. In Afghanistan, that main goal was to establish a stable, pro-Western government as a bulwark against Islamic extremism. That never happened.
Since America’s disastrous crusade in Vietnam ended in 1975, U.S. forces have also engaged in a wide array of peacekeeping, stability, and nation-building campaigns of varying complexity and duration in countries including Lebanon, Grenada, Haiti, Bosnia, Panama, Pakistan, and Somalia. Here, too, the results more often than not have been less than satisfactory, frustrating, and even, at times, embarrassing.
Why does the world’s only superpower have such a poor track record in military interventions overseas over the past 50 years? The short answer is all too clear: The United States is lousy at waging irregular warfare (IW).
While the U.S. military has a record of extraordinary success in combat operations against other nations’ armies, neither the military nor its partners in foreign deployments, the State Department and the intelligence services, have fared very well in IW campaigns and nation-building projects. Tactical victories abound, but converting those victories into strategic success has been an enduring problem, to say the least. Again and again, Washington and its local allies have failed to develop well-integrated politico-military strategies to counter those of their adversaries.
Just what is “irregular war?” It’s organized, violent conflict in which military operations between conventional armies neither take center stage nor determine the outcome of the contest. It is conflict in which politics, often the struggle to gain the allegiance or acquiescence of a given population by the adversaries, figures more prominently than battles and campaigns between combatants. What distinguishes irregular conflicts from conventional ones, observes U.S. Naval War College professor Carnes Lord, “is not the scale of violence as such but the fact that the violence is embedded in a political context that directly shapes and constrains it… Irregular warfare is distinguished from other warfare by the extent to which politics dictates not merely strategy but military operations and even tactics.”
In IW, coercive politics—assassination, terrorism, subversion, propaganda, the methodical construction of shadow governments—cannot be countered by military means alone. Human relationships and political mobilization are more important than military technology, and restraint in the use of armed force, rather than sheer firepower, is often critical to success. In these kinds of conflicts, said a prominent U.S. Army Special Forces officer recently, “You can’t kill your way to victory.”
In irregular war, there are few hard-and-fast rules, and certainly no generic blueprint for success, but practitioners and theorists alike agree that successful strategies must be flexible, and grounded in an intimate knowledge of local politics, geography, and history. Far more so than in conventional inter-state conflicts, writes retired Marine General Anthony Zinni, IW requires “cultural intelligence. What I need to understand is how these societies function. What makes them tick? Who makes the decisions? What is it about their society that is so remarkably different in their values, the way they think, compared to my values and the way I think?”
But not many American soldiers think like Tony Zinni. Like the society from which it springs, the U.S. military establishment prefers to see war and politics as separate spheres. It embraces the former and seeks to stay clear of the latter. Therefore, the military tends to view IW, where politics and violence are so tightly intertwined, as a sideshow to the “real thing,” i.e., conventional operations against state armies.
Yet America’s vaunted conventional military capabilities have proven time and time again to be of limited value in obtaining strategic objectives in conflicts involving insurgents, guerrillas, and terrorists. In a great many of these campaigns, and certainly in the major wars of Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq, senior political and military leaders misunderstood the nature of the conflict at the outset, and went on to construct deeply flawed strategies to prosecute them. When things began to go in the wrong direction, senior decision-makers in both the White House and the military proved stubbornly reluctant to admit failure, and glacially slow to change course. In the case of Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Somalia, the strategic objectives of the conflict, it’s now widely agreed, were unrealistic and wrongheaded from the outset. Little wonder things came to grief in each locale.
Until quite recently, to rise to the top of the hierarchy of the U.S. Army, an officer had to establish their bona fides as both a thinker and a practitioner of complex, multi-division operations. Until the nation found itself bogged down in two failing counterinsurgency wars in the first decade of the 21st century, Special Forces officers, who devote their careers to IW missions, were distrusted by the military establishment, and kept pretty much to the margins of power within the Pentagon. They seldom rose to the most prestigious or influential command positions.
Although John F. Kennedy put enormous pressure on the Defense Department and the Army to expand their IW capabilities in the early 1960s, the Army establishment strongly resisted the president’s pressure, despite the fact that it found itself engaged against one of the most skillful and well organized insurgencies in the 20th century (gulp!). As military analyst Andrew Krepinevich observed more than 30 years ago, in Vietnam the Army paid lip service to counterinsurgency and focused its energy and resources on what it did best: conventional operations against the regular forces of the Vietnamese communists.
The American military’s response to the searing experience of Vietnam was not to learn how to do better in the next irregular conflict, but to mount an offensive in Washington policy circles to avoid them entirely. This, in any case, is the clear implication of the Weinberger-Powell doctrine that emerged in the 1980s. Named after for its two primary spokesmen, Defense Secretary Casper Weinberger and Chair of the Joint Chiefs Colin Powell, the doctrine called on political leaders to commit the nation’s armed forces only in conflicts that met extraordinarily strict criteria: Troops should be deployed only in matters of where the vital interests of the country were at stake, and only with the intention of winning; massive force should be used to ensure success, and objectives must be clearly stated and obtainable. The Weinberger-Powell doctrine codified the Vietnam syndrome, that enduring current of thought in both the country as a whole as well as in national security circles that looked askance at involvement in IW campaigns, where the soldier, as French officer David Galula put it, “must be prepared to become a propagandist, a social worker, a civil engineer, a school teacher, a nurse, a boy scout.”
The military’s crushing victory over Saddam Hussein in the Gulf War of 1990-1991 reinvigorated the morale and prestige of the American military, particularly the Army, and appeared to vindicate the efficacy of the Pentagon’s preference for high-tech, conventional warfare. Not until the Army found itself entirely out of its depth in Iraq did its leadership begin to question the ramifications of the conventional war mindset, and institute a major shift in training and education for enlisted members as well as officers.
In late 2005, an astute British brigadier general named Nigel Alwyn-Foster caused more than a bit of turbulence within the American military community when he published this scathing critique of the U.S. military’s approach to that conflict in a U.S. Army journal, Military Review:
The characteristic U.S. military intent has remained one of uncompromising destruction of the enemy’s forces, rather than a more finely tuned harnessing of military effect to serve political intent—a distinction in the institutional understanding of military purpose that becomes highly significant when an army attuned to conventional warfare suddenly needs to adopt to the more subtle political framework of a COIN [counterinsurgency] campaign... In short, the U.S. Army has developed over time a singular focus on conventional warfare, of a particularly swift and violent style, which left it ill-suited to the kind of operation it encountered as soon as conventional warfighting ceased to be the primary focus of OIF [Operation Iraqi Freedom].
America’s conventional military mindset has hardly been the only stumbling block on the road to the successful prosecution of IW. American political culture is inherently skeptical of protracted, morally ambiguous military operations, where the potential benefits of carrying on the fighting—and the dying—appear to the average American voter to be abstract and remote. Congress and the American public have a long history of becoming disillusioned with irregular wars long before any measure of success has been achieved on the ground. Despite the forever wars, World War II remains the model of what warfare should look like in the American popular imagination. War should be a clash between large, standing armies for strategically vital, morally unambiguous purposes.
Irregular wars seem to be inherently morally ambiguous, as well as messy and brutal on civilians in a way that offends the sensibilities of the educated middle class as well as the mainstream media. Violence in insurgencies and small wars tends to be very up close and personal, and often seems to have little clear strategic purpose. Military force in such conflicts is typically used to shape the political environment rather than to defeat the enemy by destroying his armed forces. But Congress and the American people have expressed great reluctance to sacrifice the lives of their sons and daughters, in effect, for reasons of realpolitik.
Insurgents, particularly well-organized ones like the Vietcong and the Taliban, have often been able to exploit the openness of American society through propaganda and strategic communications campaigns aimed at wearing down the will of the American people to support their forces in the field. The Vietnamese communists were consummate masters of this art, as they worked assiduously to present the American war in their country as a David vs. Goliath struggle in which the U.S. government was out to destroy the dream of ordinary Vietnamese peasants for independence from foreign domination. Millions of Americans found the communists’ rhetoric persuasive.
Meanwhile, the frequent elections and lively political debate that characterize American political life have a way of working against the formation of the long-term, patient strategies that have made for success in asymmetric conflicts. Insurgents are well aware that democracies, particularly the United States, will support wars only when they see signs of clear and concrete progress. They exploit American impatience through the simple tactic of limited combat engagement. By avoiding combat, they are able to protract conflicts indefinitely, which leads to frustration and sagging morale on the American home front. This phenomenon Henry Kissinger pithily summed up at height of the Vietnam War when he wrote that “the guerrilla wins if he does not lose. The conventional army loses if it does not win.”
Aside from the hostility of American military and political cultures to irregular warfare, it has to be said that policymakers and implementers have had a consistently difficult time integrating military and political action in the field. Because IW often entails securing an entire population from harm and building or rebuilding government and social institutions—as was the case in Afghanistan, an “all of government” approach is typically required. Unfortunately, Washington has repeatedly relied to a far greater extent than it should have done on the military to achieve key policy objectives. State Department, NGOs, and USAID contributions have typically proven inadequate and disjointed.
Moreover, American strategic thinking about such conflicts as they were unfolding has been disturbingly unimaginative and surprisingly inept. The decision-making process within the national security establishment has often been corrupted by an excessive focus on domestic political considerations, by abrupt changes in political leadership, and perhaps most persistently, by delusions about the efficacy of American military power in changing the political complexion of other countries. Senior civilian policymakers and the senior military officers who serve them have displayed a lethal combination of ignorance and arrogance in reading the dynamics of unconventional conflicts.
Their adversaries have not done so. Indeed, it seems fair to say that in irregular wars since Vietnam, the United States has often been outsmarted rather than outfought.
Since the unsuccessful conclusions to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, many academic experts, defense analysts, and pundits have suggested that the American policymakers should refrain from engaging in unconventional wars entirely, on the grounds that the United States is culturally and temperamentally unfit to succeed in such ventures. Americans, this line of thinking goes, lack the patience to engage in protracted conflicts, and the finesse to sort out the byzantine political struggles such conflicts invariably entail.
Unfortunately, even if the United States takes a more restrained and cautious approach to international affairs, refraining from participation in these ventures in the future doesn’t seem like a live option, given the breadth of American vital interests in the world and the general level of chaos and violence in international affairs. Even future conflicts between the United States and other great powers, e.g., Russia or China, are likely to be waged in some measure by irregular forces and irregular means. If the United States is to compete successfully against these rivals, there is no escaping the fact the nation must learn from its past mistakes in waging irregular warfare, and soon.