Do the American people get the wars they deserve? Did we fall for not one, but two wars since 9/11? Army Captain Danny Sjursen identifies the original sin that set off our continuing Century of War.
From time to time, WhoWhatWhy discovers compelling voices you haven’t heard anywhere before. Here, we present U.S. Army Captain Danny Sjursen’s cutting analysis of U.S. wars since 9/11. It’s a timely reflection on the costs of freedom, and a major part of our national story now, 238 years after we declared independence.
What makes Sjursen’s perspective so intriguing is that he is, by all definitions, a model Army officer: West Point graduate in the top 10 percent of his class, decorated veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan and soon, a history lecturer at the U.S. Military Academy. A native of Staten Island, he lost eight friends and family members—all firefighters—in the collapse of the Twin Towers. He’s the author of the forthcoming book “Surge of Candor: Reflections on Soldiers, Service and the War in Iraq”.
Here, Sjursen is writing as himself and the views are his own, not those of the government or the Army that still employs him. What this cavalry officer says about our wars will surprise you, whether you agree or not.
Maybe the American people get the wars they deserve. Or is that too harsh?
Perhaps much of the blame for our continuing Century of War lies with the bill of goods we were sold by well-funded, fundamentalist ideologues in that perfect storm of incompetence known as the Bush administration. It’s been 13 years since the Twin Towers crumbled in my hometown, nearly seven since I returned from my first war, and still I’m torn on the issue.
Here’s a fact: the United States military possesses finite resources. Despite the rhetoric many of us were raised on—that of perpetual growth, unipolar power, and undiminished potential—our armed forces have serious limitations. Our constraints include capability, funding, and willpower.
It’s true that American soldiers and marines have fought, and died, with great poise, professionalism, and courage. I’ve witnessed it first-hand. But that doesn’t change one salient truth: we haven’t won in either Iraq or Afghanistan. It’s worth asking why, before we embark on any more overseas military ventures.
1) CAPABILITY: Superior firepower is not always decisive. Dedicated, if technologically inferior, insurgents creatively equipped with equalizing weaponry, foreign support, porous borders and resolve have successfully bogged down our ground forces not once, but twice, in the last decade.
2) FUNDING: Despite a defense budget higher than most of the rest of the world combined, the recent U.S. Army budget hearings on Capitol Hill made clear that the army will be forced to shrink to its smallest size since before the Second World War. Within a few years, we will possess an army of less than 480,000 men and women. It took an army of several million soldiers to lose the Vietnam War. We can only do so much with what we have.
3) WILLPOWER: I am referring here to societal will. Our current army is an all-volunteer force. The vast majority of Americans haven’t the slightest interest in serving in the military, and are perfectly happy to delegate that honor to someone else.
Most people rarely raise their heads from iPhones long enough to notice we’ve been engaged in our nation’s longest war—12 years and counting in Afghanistan. When this fact is brought home to them, they may, if so moved, stick a yellow ribbon on the car, sing “America the Beautiful” during the 7th inning stretch, and personally thank a vet for his or her service.
Someone Else’s Job
Americans like soldiers, they really do, but marching into a recruiter’s office to stand side by side with their “heroes”—that’s someone else’s job. This in itself is a serious constraint on national policy. Want proof?
When the decision was made to turn the tide in Iraq in 2007, we had to grow our ground forces quickly. This was the critical campaign—or so we were told—of the Iraq War. America needed a few thousand extra troops to ensure victory.
No matter, there weren’t enough volunteers to man this all-important “surge.” To meet its goal, the army had to waive its requirement for high school diplomas and let several hundred convicted felons in—most of whom performed admirably, mind you—just to meet basic quotas.
Why do I make so much of these fundamental constraints on American military power? Because I want to start a conversation about sound strategy that has been sadly lacking in Washington, Wall Street, and Main Street alike.
What is strategy, after all, but the sober matching of means to realistic and desirable national ends?
Seen from outer space, or with the benefit of extended hindsight (say, 50 years on), I promise you that American strategy since 2001 will receive a failing grade. The problems didn’t end with George W. Bush, for sure, but the current wars’ original sin does rest with the Bush team. The sin was strategic, and conceptual.
Calling the post-9/11 campaign a “war” against “terror” was a slick way of garnering support for an open-ended military operation. Whatever the motivation, the tragic and seemingly irreversible misstep was Bush’s decision to seek a military solution to what was, at root, a law-enforcement and intelligence problem.
The Al Qaeda camps, leadership, and infrastructure within Afghanistan had to go. No sitting president could have avoided a military commitment in the wake of 9/11.
But expanding the limited, achievable mission of dismantling Al Qaeda in Afghanistan into a broad attempt at “democratic nation-building” was a recipe for failure. Afghanistan’s sheer size, remoteness, ethnic diversity, tortured history and shattered infrastructure should have been grounds for pause.
Here is the irony: in 2000, candidate Bush specifically abhorred “nation-building.” His key guys—Cheney, Rumsfeld, and their underlings—were deeply hostile to long-term economic and diplomatic commitments overseas.
The Great Escape
They were strong proponents of the so-called “light-footprint” approach to military operations. This technologically-obsessed formula eschewed conventional infantry in favor of small Special Forces teams and smart bombs. In practice, this also meant CIA agents doling out suitcases of dollars to local warlords. Some of these tactics worked in the short run, and were not in and of themselves the problem.
The contradiction at the root of our failed strategy became fatally obvious in the winter of 2001: our Special Forces and CIA teams advising the Afghan Northern Alliance had bin Laden and most of his Al Qaeda fighters cornered in the mountains of Tora Bora in eastern Afghanistan. Bin Laden himself seemed to despair, sending out a last radio message to his followers on Dec. 13, 2001. In a strained voice, he said: “I’m sorry for getting you involved in this battle. If you can no longer resist, you may surrender with my blessing.”
Al Qaeda was all but finished. There was just one problem. The Northern Alliance was a disorganized, divided force that couldn’t encircle the area effectively. Worse still, there were way too few U.S. troops on the ground. What we needed was a brigade of soldiers to seal the border with Pakistan, a request the CIA officer in charge of the agency’s ground forces made.
Rumsfeld, 7,000 miles away in Washington and irrevocably committed to his light-footprint approach, wouldn’t have it. Bin Laden escaped across the mountains to Pakistan. The rest, as they say, is history.
That’s the point. We wasted our opportunity to use a brief, pointed military response to get rid of Bin Laden. And that opened the door for the Bush administration, with most American people willingly in tow, to define the threat of terrorism as a war, which could only be defeated by the military. It was a fatal mistake that threw thousands of American lives, a few trillion dollars, and the stability of an entire region down the drain.
Nonetheless, the decision to define the campaign against Al Qaeda as a global war had its roots in the specific ideological obsessions of the Bush team. Many in the administration sensed in 9/11 an opportunity to implement long-discussed plans for a muscular military posture toward Iraq and the Middle East. Others, maybe Bush included, believed that the moment had come for striking a decisive blow in the cosmic struggle between good and evil.
Bush and company insisted that the attack on September 11, 2001, fundamentally altered foreign affairs. Did it though? Was 9/11 really the game-changer we were repeatedly led to believe? Sure, the attack was horrific, unforgiveable, and shocking. But strategists must keep 9/11 in context. This brutal attack was perpetrated by a small group of non-state actors generally centralized in an isolated section of Afghanistan. It took American rhetoric to make the war truly global. What happened next should have been predictable.
Osama bin Laden and his Al Qaeda fighters were criminals. Numerous, well-armed, and requiring a brief military response, sure, but nonetheless criminals—not a global army or a nation-state. Prolonged intelligence operations, Special Forces raids, an international police manhunt, and a brief military campaign to clean out the Al Qaeda camps—any and all of those were appropriate responses. The fact that we didn’t choose those options set us on the dangerous, slippery path we’ve yet to leave.
Let’s review the irony here: the Bush team misjudged the whole problem and then committed the professional military (the American people, of course, were encouraged to go shopping and visit Disney World) to pursue an inappropriate solution. Yet, in the brief moment when we needed significant ground forces to isolate and destroy bin Laden’s network, these ideological techno-hawks refused the necessary troops. Thus, bin Laden escaped, the American people were denied closure, and we had ourselves an open-ended war.
The problem has repeated itself time and again during this, America’s longest shooting war. Strident hawks, generally of Republican persuasion, exaggerate the danger, insist on their pro-military credentials, and increase commitments on our over-taxed military. Then, when competence and prudent strategy are needed most, they fail to deliver. Half the time they don’t even mean what they say.
First off, the “global war on terror” wasn’t really a war. If it were, if the Bush administration’s techno-hawks were actually serious about that, we’d have crossed into Pakistan to sweep the remnants of Al Qaeda out, find bin Laden (it took 10 more years) and capture Mullah Omar (still at large). Instead we toiled away in the mountains, valleys and deserts of a landlocked country, fighting Afghan farmers. When I was in Kandahar province in 2011, nearly all trained Taliban fighters spent the winter resting and re-equipping in Quetta, Pakistan. Everyone knew it. We did nothing and American soldiers died. So it goes.
Our Own Set of Martyrs
There are a number of common counter-arguments. People ask: “Aren’t there extremist Muslims all over the globe, and Don’t ‘failed states’ breed terrorists?” The answers are, respectively, yes, of course, and yes, sort of.
A small minority of radical Islamists has long existed. But they never had the numbers or organization to gather into a credible army, and relatively few ever posed a direct threat to the United States.
And yes, ‘failed states,’ like Somalia, Afghanistan, parts of Yemen, and Syria, among others, can provide extremist safe havens. Even so, how many places can we reasonably fight, and is military force always the best tactic?
The truth is, such places don’t create terrorists nearly as fast as the ongoing, seemingly never-ending U.S. military occupation of Muslim countries. Throw in perpetual imprisonment at Guantanamo with a sprinkling of Abu Ghraib and such, and the scales tip ever farther.
But what matters most is the error at the outset of our “war on terror.” We misjudged the problem and prescribed an improper solution from the opening bell. And early on, when we needed ground troops to cut off bin Laden, the administration failed us. The result was open-ended, indecisive conflict that eventually matched the false Bush rhetoric and became, as prophesied, truly global.
In place of sound strategy, we’ve been handed our own set of martyrs: more than 6,500 dead soldiers, airmen, sailors, and marines. Real victory remains unattainable. Then again, we, the professional troops, weren’t appropriately utilized in the first place. That was the original sin. Americans reap what they sow.
We got the war we asked for, or…fell for.
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