Think of it as a reverse miracle. Seventeen years of American war in this century waged by a military considered beyond compare on a planet that, back in 2001, was almost without enemies. How, then, was it possible, month after month, year after year, to turn the promise of eternal victory so repetitiously into the reality of defeat (and spreading terror movements)? As I read retired Air Force lieutenant colonel and historian William Astore's latest piece on the subject, I must admit that I felt a certain sense of awe. In fact, I wondered whether, historically speaking, this might not be a one-of-a-kind situation.
Had there ever been an imperial power at the ostensible height of its glory that proved quite so incapable of effectively applying its military and political force globally to achieve its aims? At their height, the Roman Empire, China's various imperial dynasties, and Europe's colonial powers, however brutally, generally proved quite capable of impressing their wills and desires on those beyond their borders, even on relatively distant parts of the planet (at least for a time). In fact, in the Cold War years -- think of Iran in 1953, Guatemala in 1954, or Chile on the first 9/11 (September 11, 1973) -- the U.S. proved no less capable, often in similarly brutal ways. And yet, from Afghanistan to Libya, Iraq to Somalia, Syria to Yemen, despite the endless application of U.S. power, the killing of tens of thousands of people (including key figures in various terror movements), the displacement of millions, the rubblization of whole cities, and the creation of a series of partially or fully failed states, nowhere, as TomDispatch regular Astore points out today, has U.S. power succeeded in successfully imposing its will, even as its wars only multiplied.
And here's another thing I've come to wonder about: How did the hearts-and-minds moxie of the leftist national liberation movements of the previous century that decolonized much of the planet get transferred to the extreme Islamist groups of this one? Like the National Liberation Front of South Vietnam (the "Vietcong") and similar groups in the twentieth century, al-Qaeda, ISIS, the Taliban, and other terror outfits regularly suffer extreme casualties and yet somehow maintain their grip on the hearts and minds of significant numbers of people in riven, increasingly ruined lands. They can, it seems, even attract random Americans and Europeans into the fold. It's a strange and unexpected phenomenon, a grim success story that hasn't been faced in a serious way here.
I suspect that these two puzzles -- how the self-acknowledged greatest power of all time failed to deliver and the extremist resistance to it, against all odds, did -- may have to be left to future historians to fully unravel. In the meantime, check out Astore's striking account of how the U.S. military has repeatedly turned promised victory into dismal defeat in these years. No question about it, it's a tale for the history books. Tom
The U.S. Military's Lost Wars
Overfunded, Overhyped, and Always Over There
By William J. Astore
One of the finest military memoirs of any generation is Defeat Into Victory, British Field Marshal Sir William Slim's perceptive account of World War II's torturous Burma campaign, which ended in a resounding victory over Japan. When America's generals write their memoirs about their never-ending war on terror, they'd do well to choose a different title: Victory Into Defeat. That would certainly be more appropriate than those on already published accounts like Lieutenant General Ricardo Sanchez's Wiser in Battle: A Soldier's Story (2008), or General Stanley McChrystal's My Share of the Task (2013).- Advertisement -
Think about it. America's Afghan War began in 2001 with what was essentially a punitive raid against the Taliban, part of which was mythologized last year in 12 Strong, a Hollywood film with a cavalry charge that echoed the best of John Wayne. That victory, however, quickly turned first into quagmire and then, despite various "surges" and a seemingly endless series of U.S. commanders (17 so far), into a growing sense of inevitable defeat. Today, a resurgent Taliban exercises increasing influence over the hearts, minds, and territory of the Afghan people. The Trump administration's response so far has been a mini-surge of several thousand troops, an increase in air and drone strikes, and an attempt to suppress accurate reports from the Pentagon's special inspector general for Afghan reconstruction about America's losing effort there.
Turn now to the invasion of Iraq: in May 2003, President George W. Bush cockily announced "Mission Accomplished" from the deck of an aircraft carrier, only to see victory in Baghdad degenerate into insurgency and a quagmire conflict that established conditions for the rise of the Islamic State. Gains in stability during a surge of U.S. forces orchestrated by General David Petraeus in 2007 and hailed in Washington as a fabulous success story proved fragile and reversible. An ignominious U.S. troop withdrawal in 2011 was followed in 2014 by the collapse of that country's American-trained and armed military in the face of modest numbers of Islamic State militants. A recommitment of U.S. troops and air power brought Stalingrad-style devastation to cities like Mosul and Ramadi, largely reduced to rubble, while up to 1.3 million children were displaced from their homes. All in all, not exactly the face of victory.
Nor, as it happened, was the Obama administration's Libyan intervention of 2011. "We came, we saw, he died," boasted a jubilant Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at the time. The "he" was Muammar Gaddafi, Libya's autocratic ruler whose reign of terror looked less horrible after that country collapsed into a failed state, while spreading both terror groups and weaponry throughout the region. That, in turn, led to wider and more costly U.S. interventions in Africa, including the infamous loss of four Green Berets to an ISIS franchise in Niger in 2017.
"We don't win [wars] anymore," said candidate Donald Trump in 2016 and he wasn't wrong about that. In fact, that remarkable record of repeatedly turning initially advertised victory into something approximating defeat would be one reason candidate Trump could boast that he knew more about military matters than America's generals. Yet for all his talk of winning, victories (large or small) have proved no less elusive for him as commander-in-chief. Recall the botched raid in Yemen early in 2017 that resulted in the death of a Navy SEAL and many Yemeni innocents, which Trump blamed on his generals. Recall the president's "beautiful" cruise missile attack against Syria in April of that same year, which resolved nothing. Or recall the way he recently "fired" retired general Jim Mattis (just after he resigned as secretary of defense) supposedly because he couldn't bring the Afghan War to a victorious close.
The question is: What's made America's leaders, civilian and military, quite so proficient when it comes to turning victories into defeats? And what does that tell us about them and their wars?
A Sustained Record of Losing- Advertisement -
During World War II, British civilians called the "Yanks" who would form the backbone of the Normandy invasion in June 1944 (the one that contributed to Nazi Germany's unconditional surrender less than a year later) "overpaid, oversexed, and over here." What can be said of today's Yanks? Perhaps that they're overfunded, overhyped, and always over there -- "there" being unpromising places like Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, and Somalia.
Let's start with always over there. As Nick Turse recently reported for TomDispatch, U.S. forces remain deployed on approximately 800 foreign bases across the globe. (No one knows the exact number, Turse notes, possibly not even the Pentagon.) The cost: somewhere to the north of $100 billion a year simply to sustain that global "footprint." At the same time, U.S. forces are engaged in an open-ended war on terror in 80 countries, a sprawling commitment that has cost nearly $6 trillion since the 9/11 attacks (as documented by the Costs of War Project at Brown University). This prodigious and prodigal global presence has not been lost on America's Tweeter-in-Chief, who opined that the country's military "cannot continue to be the policeman of the world." Showing his usual sensitivity to others, he noted as well that "we are in countries most people haven't even heard about. Frankly, it's ridiculous."
Yet Trump's inconsistent calls to downsize Washington's foreign commitments, including vows to withdraw all U.S. troops from Syria and halve the number in Afghanistan, have encountered serious pushback from Washington's bevy of war hawks like Republican Senator Lindsey Graham and his own national security advisor, John Bolton. Contrary to the president's tweets, U.S. troops in Syria are now destined to remain there for at least months, if not years, according to Bolton. Meanwhile, Trump-promised troop withdrawals from Afghanistan may be delayed considerably in the (lost) cause of keeping the Taliban -- clearly winning and having nothing but time -- off-balance. What matters most, as retired General David Petraeus argued in 2017, is showing resolve, no matter how disappointing the results. For him, as for so many in the Pentagon high command, it's perfectly acceptable for Americans to face a "generational struggle" in Afghanistan (and elsewhere) that could, he hinted, persist for as long as America's ongoing commitment to South Korea -- that is, almost 70 years.