On the march to Baghdad, back when America’s war on terror was young, a rising star in the United States military lobbed this enigmatic bon mot to an accommodating reporter: "Tell me how this ends." Thus did then-Maj. Gen. David Petraeus in 2003 neatly frame the issue that still today haunts the U.S.-led effort to defeat violent anti-Western jihadism.
To know how something ends implies knowing where it’s going. Yet eight years after it began, the war on terror is headed back to where it started. The prequel is the sequel, Afghanistan replacing Iraq as the once and now once again central front.
So are we making progress? Even as President Obama escalates the war in Afghanistan, that question hangs in the air, ignored by all. Rather than explaining how the struggle will end, the President merely affirms that it must continue, his eye fixed on pacifying a country of which his own secretary of state recently remarked "We have no long-term stake there."
How pacifying Afghanistan will bring us closer to the figurative Berlin or Tokyo that defines our ultimate objective is unclear. True, the 9/11 plot was hatched in Afghanistan, and we want to prevent any recurrence of that event. It’s also true that Dallas was the site of our last presidential assassination. Yet no one thinks that posting Secret Service agents in the Texas School Book Depository holds the key to keeping our current President safe.
Then there is the Af-Pak argument – that U.S. military action in Afghanistan is necessary to ensuring the stability of nuclear-armed Pakistan. Selling Pakistanis on the logic of this argument poses a challenge, however, given that the eight-year Western military presence in Afghanistan corresponds to an eight-year period during which Pakistan has edged steadily closer to internal collapse.
In reality, the chief rationale for pouring more troops into Afghanistan derives from a determination to restore the credibility of American arms, badly tarnished in Iraq. Thanks to Petraeus’ rediscovery of counterinsurgency doctrine, road-tested in Surge I, U.S. forces ostensibly won a belated but significant triumph. Surge II could show that Iraq was no fluke.
Military analysts who a decade ago were touting the wonders of precision-guided munitions now cite counterinsurgency as the new American way of war. Killing the enemy has become passé. Advanced thinking now assigns top priority to "securing the people," insulating them from violence and winning them over with good governance. Twenty-first century American military officers speak the language of 20th century social reformers, sounding less like George Patton and more like Jane Addams.
Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the U.S. commander in Afghanistan, has declared his intention to remedy "the weakness of [Afghan political] institutions, the unpunished abuse of power by corrupt officials and powerbrokers, a widespread sense of political disenfranchisement and a longstanding lack of economic opportunity."
Undertaken in Louisiana or Illinois, this would qualify as an ambitious agenda. In Afghanistan, it qualifies as a tall order indeed.
But assume the best: If McChrystal replicates in Afghanistan the success that Petraeus achieved in Iraq – ignore, please, the government ministries imploding in Baghdad – where does that leave us?
To sustain public support, a protracted war needs a persuasive narrative. Americans after Dec. 7, 1941, didn’t know when their war would end. But they took comfort in knowing where and how it was going to end: with enemy armies destroyed and enemy capitals occupied.
Americans today haven’t a clue when, where or how their war will end. The Long War, as the Pentagon aptly calls it, has no coherent narrative. When it comes to defining victory, U.S. political and military leaders are flying blind.
Historically, the default strategy for wars that lack a plausible victory narrative is attrition. When you don’t know how to win, you try to outlast your opponent, hoping he’ll run out of troops, money and will before you do. Think World War I, but also Vietnam.
The revival of counterinsurgency doctrine, celebrated as evidence of enlightened military practice, commits America to a postmodern version of attrition. Rather than wearing the enemy down, we’ll build contested countries up, while expending hundreds of billions of dollars (borrowed from abroad) and hundreds of soldiers’ lives (sent from home).
How does this end? The verdict is already written: The Long War ends not in victory but in exhaustion and insolvency, when the United States runs out of troops and out of money.
Andrew J. Bacevich is professor of history and international relations at Boston University. He the author of The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism.