Converting Military Restraint in Wars into an Effective National Strategy

bombing baghdadMilitary Restraint in Afghanistan and as a National Strategy

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 mass 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 rode 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 using this same “softer, gentler” approach there.

In Vietnam, the United States learned only too late that  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long-term probability of an ethno-sectarian civil war among Sunnis, Shi’a, and Kurds once U.S. forces are reduced or withdrawn.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 chance of winning “hearts and minds” and stabilizing the situation than firepower-based slaughter, but has only a short eighteen 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, 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?

ivan-eland.jpgInstead, 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.

Ivan Eland

This article first appeared in The Independent Institute and is republished with permission.

Published by the LA Progressive on August 17, 2010
Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...
About Ivan Eland

Ivan Eland is Senior Fellow and Director of the Center on Peace & Liberty at The Independent Institute. Dr. Eland is a graduate of Iowa State University and received an M.B.A. in applied economics and a Ph.D. in Public Policy from George Washington University. He has been Director of Defense Policy Studies at the Cato Institute, and he spent 15 years working for Congress on national security issues, including stints as an investigator for the House Foreign Affairs Committee and Principal Defense Analyst at the Congressional Budget Office. He also has served as Evaluator-in-Charge (national security and intelligence) for the U.S. General Accounting Office (now the Government Accountability Office), and has testified on the military and financial aspects of NATO expansion before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, on CIA oversight before the House Government Reform Committee, and on the creation of the Department of Homeland Security before the Senate Judiciary Committee. Dr. Eland is the author of The Empire Has No Clothes: U.S. Foreign Policy Exposed and Putting “Defense” Back into U.S. Defense Policy, as well as The Efficacy of Economic Sanctions as a Foreign Policy Tool. He is a contributor to numerous volumes and the author of 45 in-depth studies on national security issues.

His articles have appeared in American Prospect, Arms Control Today, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Emory Law Journal, The Independent Review, Issues in Science and Technology (National Academy of Sciences), Mediterranean Quarterly, Middle East and International Review, Middle East Policy, Nexus, Chronicle of Higher Education, American Conservative, International Journal of World Peace, and Northwestern Journal of International Affairs. Dr. Eland's popular writings have appeared in such publications as the Los Angeles Times, San Francisco Chronicle, USA Today, Houston Chronicle, Dallas Morning News, New York Times, Chicago Sun-Times, San Diego Union-Tribune, Miami Herald, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Newsday, Sacramento Bee, Orange County Register, Washington Times, Providence Journal, The Hill, and Defense News. He has appeared on ABC's “World News Tonight,” NPR's “Talk of the Nation,” PBS, Fox News Channel, CNBC, Bloomberg TV, CNN, CNN “Crossfire,” CNN-fn, C-SPAN, MSNBC, Canadian Broadcasting Corp. (CBC), Canadian TV (CTV), Radio Free Europe, Voice of America, BBC, and other local, national, and international TV and radio programs.