A Decade of War

October 6, 2011

This week marks the tenth anniversary of the war in Afghanistan, waged in response to the attacks of September 11, 2001. America has accomplished, by and large, what we set out to do. Through the exceptional efforts of our fighting men and women, as well as their civilian counterparts, we have decimated al Qaeda, including killing the man responsible for the 9/11 attacks, Osama bin Laden. Our military has grown stronger and more adaptable – at costs little-understood by the civilians they serve. Now is the time to reconsider our global objectives and the role the military plays in accomplishing them: rebalancing the tools of our national power, refocusing on the sources of our strength at home and matching our priorities with resources.

By and large, we have accomplished what we set out to do: al Qaeda is decimated. The men and women of America’s armed forces have done everything asked of them in Afghanistan, achieving the main goals set out a decade ago. Stephen Biddle, Council on Foreign Relations senior fellow for defense policy, writes, “Ten years later, Osama bin Laden is dead and his organization is reeling. The prospects of mass casualty attacks on the 9/11 scale are receding as al-Qaeda central weakens, and it may be increasingly possible to contain bin Laden’s successors with low-key espionage and standoff attacks by drones or commandos.” [Stephen Biddle, 8/26/11]

Ten years of war have made our military tough and flexible; it’s time for civilians to recognize, reconnect with the sacrifice that entails. Slate’s Fred Kaplan writes of the exceptional adaptability of our military, “Much has changed since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, but few American institutions have changed as much as the military. At the most basic level, it has shifted from a peacetime military to a continuously wartime military, and it has done so for the first time since the United States got rid of the draft. Just as dramatic is the type of wars that this professional, all-volunteer military-especially the Army-has been fighting. They’re not the tank-on-tank battles that soldiers had been training for on the high plains of Europe. They’re counterinsurgency campaigns, waged in towns and villages, in which junior officers must assume as much initiative as commanders, and in which all soldiers, even enlisted personnel, must be as attentive to community relations as to combat.”

Kaplan concludes, “[W]e do seem to have a military that, over the past decade, has become more adept at staying flexible, learning lessons, and adapting to new situations. This says nothing about the wisdom of the policies they’re ordered to defend, or the likelihood that they’ll succeed in a given conflict. But it does suggest the force is more capable now than it was 10 years ago of doing what a military is supposed to do.” Yet few people seem to understand what that entails, leading to a disconnect between the American people and the troops they support. AP reported on a Pew research poll released yesterday, “The results also reflected what many view as a troublesome cultural gap between the military and the public. Although numerous polls have shown that Americans hold troops in high regard, the respondents in the Pew research admitted to a lack of understanding of what military life entails. Only 27% of adult civilians said the public understood the problems facing those in uniform, while the proportion of veterans who said so was even lower at 21%.” [Fred Kaplan, 9/2/11. Associated Press, 10/5/11]

Regional strategy and the roots of our power now demand that we rebalance our foreign policy away from resource-intensive military operations. As John Podesta and Caroline Wadhams of the Center for American Progress write, we cannot fight our way to a solution in Afghanistan: “Given the unsustainable status quo, the United States is not going to fight its way to peace [in Afghanistan], either by destroying the Haqqani network or by escalating war in Pakistan. Without a broader agreement among Afghans and a supporting regional framework that includes Pakistan, it is unlikely the Afghan National Security Forces will hold together, let alone beat back an insurgency that maintains a haven in Pakistan. Success is far from guaranteed, but the pursuit of a political settlement represents the best possible remaining outcome for the U.S. mission in Afghanistan, even if it falls short of a full-scale agreement.” Beyond Afghanistan, there’s a broad consensus that extended counterinsurgency operations are not in the U.S. interest. As NSN wrote in a policy paper earlier this week, “Few would challenge-and the National Security Strategy of the United States supports-the assertion of former Defense Secretary Robert Gates that, ‘The United States is unlikely to repeat a mission on the scale of those in Afghanistan or Iraq anytime soon-that is, forced regime change followed by nation building under fire.’ Maintaining the size of ground forces demanded by those operations appears unnecessary.  Moreover, America’s success in combating terrorism through smaller, more targeted operations-including the one that culminated in the death of Osama bin Laden-shows that there are other more effective tools at our disposal.” [John Podesta and Caroline Wadhams, 10/3/11. NSN, 10/11]

What We’re Reading

Afghan security forces arrested six suspects in connection with an attempted assassination plot on President Hamid Karzai, believed to be planned by al Qaeda and the Haqqani network.

Russia and China both vetoed a United Nations Security Council resolution condemning the Syrian government’s treatment of antigovernment protestors, a rare double-veto seen as a rebuke to NATO actions in the region.

Relations between Yemen and the United States remain strained in the wake of the death of Anwar al Awlaki over the future of Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh.

Six candidates for the Egyptian presidency called for presidential elections to be moved to April 2012 to ensure a transition of power from the interim military government to a reconstituted civil government.

NATO defense ministers meeting in Brussels remain divided over when to withdraw coalition forces in Libya.

The Palestinian Authority gained initial approval for membership in UNESCO as part of the larger effort to gain expanded recognition at the United Nations.

A Somali suicide bomber killed more than 100 people in an attack on the education ministry in Mogadishu.

The top Democrat in the Senate said that a sweeping defense bill is on hold in response to Obama administration concerns that provisions in it restrict the ability of the FBI and Department of Justice to prosecute terrorists.

White House officials cautioned that the China currency bill making its way through Congress may violate international trade obligations.

South Korea announced it would not return two North Koreans who reportedly sought asylum in the South. 

European Commission president Jose Manuel Barroso announced that the European Commission is planning a recapitalization plan for at-risk banks in the Euro zone.

At least 13,000 Greeks protested planned government austerity measures as part of a negotiated Euro zone bailout plan.

The Haitian Senate approved the nomination of Garry Connille, a former UN aide to Bill Clinton in Haiti, to be Prime Minister, ending months of delay.

Mexican police arrested the leaders of two of the largest Mexican drug gangs: Noel Salgueiro Nevarez of the Sinaloa cartel; and Martin Rosales Magana of La Familia.

Commentary of the Day

David Ignatius explains how drone strikes have been tailored to meet U.S. objectives but avoid inflaming insurgencies.

Scott MacLeod reflects on Anwar Sadat’s legacy thirty years after his assassination and the risk Egypt’s future leaders run if they do not learn from Sadat’s work.

The Irish Times editorial board outlines the multi-layered implications of the Russia-China double-veto on condemnations of the Syrian government.

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