It is not often that one sees an entire nation marching in lockstep to go over a cliff into an abyss, but that is essentially what the United States is doing at the moment. Not only have there been strong hints from the Obama Administration that the US presence in Iraq and Afghanistan will go on into the dim future, but there is also no sign of any necessary course correction in other areas. Israel, backed by Washington, continues its reckless policies and may be cranking up for a new war against Lebanon and Syria with the ultimate objective of involving its American patron in fighting against Iran. Clearly President Obama is unwilling to take any risks by challenging existing policies. He is edging towards what he perceives as the political center and is preparing to ride the status quo to electoral victory in 2012.
Consider the central dynamic of what the United States is engaged in. Washington is committed to a series of asymmetrical wars that are literally taking place all over the world. This is what the Obamaites now refer to as "overseas contingency operations." One might well ask contingent on what, but the words themselves quite likely are not considered to be really meaningful and are rather designed to constitute a reassuring euphemism. One of these wars, in Afghanistan, is costing the US taxpayer $10 billion a month and is tying up more than 100,000 American soldiers. Casualties are rising, most of Afghanistan has become insecure in spite of the effort, corruption and drug cultivation are rampant, and there is no end in sight. To put the cost of the war in some kind of perspective, Afghanistan’s gross domestic product for 2009 was $22 billion, meaning that it is costing nearly six times more to "defend" each year than its total economic activity. Asymmetrical indeed. Colonial empires of the past would have at least figured out how to turn a buck from their imperial endeavors, highlighting the cluelessness of Washington. If there has ever been an example of a war that makes no sense, Afghanistan is it.
The stated purpose of fighting in Afghanistan is to keep the country from becoming a base for terrorism but the premise is deeply flawed. Terrorists can literally go anywhere and do not necessarily need a geographic base. If they choose, they can even disappear for a time, sitting quietly and waiting for the situation to change in their favor. Also, fighting them in a foreign country is a fool’s errand, and not only because American soldiers and their leaders rarely grasp what is going on in any alien environment and nearly always make things worse rather than better. No, the salient issue is that the militants will always have the upper hand in such an engagement because they benefit from three realities that give them a major advantage. First, they are not bound to strategies coming out of a training manual and can actually learn and develop as they go along. This has been described as "open source warfare." If you need a better and simpler improvised explosive device (IED), instructions for making one will soon appear on the internet as militant groups refine their tactics and share information. When the advanced IED appears, the US government and its military industrial contractors will panic and overreact to the threat by building a newer and heavier vehicle to resist it. The new vehicle will cost three times as much as the old vehicle, will take two years to design, and will get 300 yards per gallon of gas, which has to be trucked over the Hindu Kush mountains, where it is subject to attack by the insurgents. As is frequently the case, that means that the conventional army is always finding itself at a disadvantage fighting the last war with the last war’s weapons waiting for the new weapons that will be obsolete when they arrive.
The foreign army will also invariably adhere to standard doctrine, which is to defend itself as a first priority. That means it will always overreact when it is attacked. Given the nature of guerrilla warfare, it will unleash its power against areas in which militants have inserted themselves among civilians, leading to avoidable deaths that will be used to win the propaganda war. This serves as a recruiting poster for the insurgency. So in the long run, with the invader beggaring himself fighting the wrong war and killing civilians, who is going to win the exchange?
Second, militants do not have to waste manpower and materiel by defending anything that could be attacked by the overwhelming force possessed by the conventional army. They can concentrate on conserving resources by taking the offensive to hit soft targets, secure in the knowledge that even 100,000 highly trained and well equipped foreign soldiers cannot be everywhere. When some contractor hired by USAID builds bridges or schools at great cost, it is a lot easier to blow them up a week or a month later than it was to build them. The ability to do that type of damage produces a disproportionate result, sending a message that the government and its foreign allies are ineffective and cannot provide security. It also tells the local population who is going to win in the long run and it won’t be the boys from Washington. They understand that eventually the Great Power will lose its will to fight, will go broke, and will go home.
Third is the issue of overall strategy. Modern conventional armies are designed to inflict devastating damage on a concentrated opponent with the intention of causing mass casualties and ending the enemy’s ability to continue to resist. When the enemy army is soundly defeated it surrenders, generally followed by the surrender of the national government that it represents. But none of that applies in war against an insurgency or a group of militants, with the result that an aircraft carrier or a strategic bomber or a ballistic missile becomes worthless. Such groups normally have only limited internal organization, operate essentially as "leader-less," and a militant who is killed is quickly replaced at the local level. If an operating base is destroyed or overrun, it is a simple matter to pick up one’s weapons and move to another. If the war spreads to another region or country, it is also relatively easy to replicate the insurgency and its structure in the new area. That is why there is no worldwide al-Qaeda movement, only national and regional groups that share the philosophy and methods of the parent organization. The local franchises are driven by their own national and religious agendas, are self funding, and generally locally recruited. They fade away when the local government or the US comes after them and then resurface when the pressure eases. That is why they cannot be defeated, even if the United States spends the next twenty years trying to do so.
So what is the solution to the tactical and strategic challenges posed by terrorists and other militants? Well, we could leave Iraq and Afghanistan and eschew any interest in intervening in Somalia and Yemen. Instead of telling half the world how to run their governments, we could wish them all luck and announce our intention to disengage from foreign entanglements as quickly as possible. There is absolutely no evidence to suggest that any terrorist group would then follow us back home to wreak havoc. On the contrary, it is most likely that we would be left alone. And we could be saving all that money we are spending accomplishing absolutely nothing overseas and begin to put our own economy back together by cutting defense spending by a half or even more. Minus an international threat, we could also disband the Department of Homeland Security, starting with the odious Transportation Security Administration. Yes, that would do it. An America at peace with itself and putting its own house in order. I rather suspect that the entire world would applaud such a change. Of course, if we don’t do it, we can continue to be the lemmings charging over the cliff.