After blasting away for years in Afghanistan and Iraq, the U.S. military had to relearn — the hard way — lessons that had been forgotten from the debacle in Vietnam. As in Vietnam, the U.S. military in Iraq and Afghanistan initially used heavy amounts of technology and firepower to wail away against enemy guerrilla forces, only to further alienate indigenous populations, already very unhappy with foreign occupation, by also killing many civilians. In guerrilla warfare, unlike conventional warfare between massed armies, winning popular support is key because the guerrillas emanate from, hide among, and get support from indigenous peoples.
And as in Vietnam, the U.S. military in Afghanistan and Iraq eventually learned the value of protecting the population, called counterinsurgency warfare, rather than simply killing large numbers of enemy fighters and civilians. General David Petraeus, then commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, and other U.S. military officers road to the rescue in Iraq by implementing a counterinsurgency strategy that was more political than military. The more restrained strategy involved clearing territory of insurgents, using local Iraqi forces to hold the ground, reestablishing governance, bribing the opposition not to fight, and realizing that insurgency is often caused by legitimate grievances. Now commander in Afghanistan, General Petraeus is now using this same "softer, gentler" approach there.
In Vietnam, the United States learned only too late that such a more restrained approach might work. In Iraq, the strategy — especially the bribes — turned Sunni tribes from U.S. enemies into opponents of al-Qaeda in Iraq. Yet the approach did not deal with the long-term probability of an ethno-sectarian civil war among Sunnis, Shi’a, and Kurds once U.S. forces are reduced or withdrawn. In Afghanistan, the more restrained strategy has a better change of winning "hearts and minds" and stabilizing the situation than firepower-based slaughter, but has only a short 18 months to work magic and has not been quickly effective out of the starting gate. In July 2011, the United States will begin to withdraw forces from Afghanistan and the strategy will change to killing insurgents, according to statements by General James N. Mattis, commander of the U.S. Central Command and Petraeus’s new boss.
But the more important question is whether a more restrained approach, which has shown some promise as a strategy in various theaters of war, might not also work as a better national grand strategy. There are still those from the traditional U.S. military culture of total war, unconditional surrender, and use of heavy metal (going back to Ulysses S. Grant) that are squawking that Petraeus is endangering American soldiers’ lives by restricting the use of massive firepower, but the counterinsurgency proponents have won the day because they got better results in Vietnam and Iraq than did the fire and brimstone crew. But why has this strategic rethinking at the theater level not percolated to the national level? The "wimp" label still attaches to advocating a more restrained U.S. approach to the world rather than continuing to pursue the aggressive global war on terror (even though we don’t call it that anymore).
Anyone who examines any of Osama bin Laden’s speeches or pays attention to other Islamist terrorists’ statements — neither of which most policymakers or journalists ever do — would conclude that foreign occupation by non-Muslims on Muslim soil is what the primary underlying grievance is all about. The U.S. government, when staring at the abyss of failure in a particular theater of operations, can accept non-macho local attempts to "win hearts and minds," so why can’t it be introspective enough to see that foreign meddling and occupations to fight the war on terror worldwide have actually made the problems of Islamist radicalism and terrorism worse? Instead, the United States should attempt to win hearts and minds in the Muslim world by ending meddling in places such as Yemen and Somalia and withdrawing forces rapidly from Iraq and Afghanistan. Terrorism is a crime and should be fought primarily with intelligence and law enforcement resources. As a last resort, if military action is unavoidable, it should be done without massive firepower or intrusive and extended involvement or occupation on the ground. If military restraint can work at the theater level, it can work as a national grand strategy.