By escalating the war in Afghanistan – sending an additional 34,000 US reinforcements in order to ‘finish the job’ that President Bush began but left undone – Barack Obama has implicitly endorsed Bush’s conviction that war provides an antidote to violent anti-Western jihadism. By extension, Obama is perpetuating the effort begun in 1980 to establish American dominion over the Middle East, hoping through the vigorous exercise of hard power to prolong the postwar Pax Americana. In ways that Obama himself may only dimly appreciate, his decision on Afghanistan affirms the pre-existing character of US foreign policy. But by advocating ‘counter-insurgency’, the McChrystal report also represents a tacit acknowledgment that a decades-long military reform project has definitively failed.

Understanding the contradiction at the heart of McChrystal’s report requires a quick survey of the way the United States managed to mire itself in its current predicament. It’s a tale of recurring miscalculation and disappointment followed by intensified military exertions yielding disappointment on a larger scale. It began in 1979, when Jimmy Carter formulated his response to the twin shocks of the Iranian Revolution and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. The Carter Doctrine, promulgated just weeks after the Red Army entered Afghanistan, declared the Persian Gulf a vital US national security interest and committed the United States to using ‘any means necessary, including military force’ to secure that interest. To make the commitment credible, the Pentagon created the Rapid Deployment Joint Task Force (RDJTF), an embryonic instrument of military intervention. At the urging of his national security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski, Carter also initiated a programme of covert assistance to the Afghan mujahedin resisting the Soviet occupation. Oblivious (or indifferent) to the potential consequences of destabilising Afghanistan, Brzezinski hoped to turn it into Russia’s Vietnam.

Under Ronald Reagan, the RDJTF matured into United States Central Command. Reagan increased the flow of weapons and support to the mujahedin, whom he hailed as ‘freedom fighters’ and compared to the Founding Fathers. He also experimented with recruiting other proxies, such as Israel and Iraq, though with little success. Giving Israel the green light to destroy the PLO led to the Lebanon debacle in 1982. Cynically supporting Saddam Hussein in his war of aggression against the mullahs in Tehran led to pointless slaughter. Each of these episodes opened a door through which US forces entered the region. In the hope of checking Lebanon’s slide towards disintegration, Reagan dispatched a contingent of Marines to Beirut; the mission ended in failure when a Shia suicide bomber killed 241 Americans on 23 October 1983. When in 1987 the Iran-Iraq War reached stalemate, threatening to disrupt the flow of Persian Gulf oil, US naval forces assumed responsibility for escorting tankers across the Gulf, managing among other things to shoot down an Iranian commercial airliner, killing all 290 people on board.

Beirut horrified Americans. Here was a blunder that must never be repeated. Yet in the years that followed, further efforts to bring ‘peace’ to the wider Middle East produced much bloodshed and little peace. The Reagan administration pointed to US intervention in the Tanker War as the model of how to get things done: a short, sharp military campaign that neatly solved a vexing problem. Yet the Tanker War solved nothing, though the incidental killing of Iranian civilians proved a precursor of moral snares to come. Under Reagan, a pattern began to emerge: advocates of military action concocted schemes that promised to fix things at an acceptable cost. When events did not go the expected way, they devised new plans and insisted that more force would do the trick.

By 1989, when George H.W. Bush became president, the United States had developed robust capabilities for projecting power into the wider Middle East. Yet Central Command’s mission had become fuzzy. External threats to the Persian Gulf – symbolised by the Soviet military presence in Afghanistan – had vanished. Since the Soviets had acknowledged the failure of their Afghan adventure, Bush showed no interest in filling the vacuum left behind. As far as Washington was concerned, the struggle for Afghanistan was over. ‘We won,’ the CIA station chief in Islamabad cabled headquarters. In this interval of confusion, Saddam Hussein rode to Washington’s rescue, giving new focus to Central Command’s mandate. Violating the terms of his tacit alliance with the United States, he seized Kuwait in August 1990. Bush opted for force on a massive scale. Assisted by a motley assemblage of allies, US forces handily ejected the Iraqi army from Kuwait. The Bush administration congratulated itself on a historic victory. Wide-ranging political benefits seemed certain to ensue, the president speaking of the emergence of a ‘new world order’. Operation Desert Storm had removed any remaining constraints on the use of American power – ‘We’ve kicked the Vietnam syndrome,’ Bush proclaimed – and the United States had ascended to a position of unquestioned pre-eminence, ready and able to enforce its will against any adversary misguided enough to defy it. The Persian Gulf, it seemed, had become an American lake.

Yet once again this proved illusory. Saddam survived and retained his hold on power, crushing the Shia uprising that Bush had encouraged and then betrayed. To enforce a policy of ‘dual containment’ of both Iran and Iraq, Central Command established permanent garrisons throughout the region. During the Clinton era, US forces rotated in and out of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and other nearby countries. US combat aircraft patrolled Iraqi air space. Periodically, in response to provocations, real or perceived, they attacked, typically targeting installations in Iraq, but also directing bombs and missiles as far afield as Sudan and Afghanistan. The signature of the Clinton years was force employed promiscuously, but without any pretence of expecting decisive results. Yet Clinton’s critics on the right assailed him for being timid. Among those critics was Paul Wolfowitz who, writing in 2000, lamented ‘the Clinton administration’s tendency to temporise rather than go for the jugular’.

After 9/11, the Bush administration went for the jugular. Rather than prompting George W. Bush to re-examine the sorry record of US policy over the previous 20 years, the attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon inspired him to expand American ambitions and to redouble his expectations of what military power could achieve. In declaring a global war against terrorism, Bush went after not only the jihadists who had plotted to destroy the towers, but anyone else – Saddam Hussein in the forefront – who obstructed America’s vision for the Islamic world. This was the Pax Americana on steroids. The elder Bush’s demonstration of American military prowess in 1991 had failed to produce a new order in the Middle East or anywhere else. A continuing US presence in the region throughout the Clinton era succeeded chiefly in inciting the resentment that found expression on 9/11. Undiscouraged, the younger Bush persuaded himself that the generous application of American power could eliminate the conditions that gave rise to the pathologies afflicting the Islamic world as a whole.

In remarks made to US military personnel in October 2001, Donald Rumsfeld bluntly explained the administration’s logic. ‘We have two choices,’ the defence secretary said. ‘Either we change the way we live, or we must change the way they live. We choose the latter. And you are the ones who will help achieve that goal.’ He was speaking at Missouri’s Whiteman Air Force Base, home of the 509th Bomb Wing, its B-2 bombers a central component of the nation’s global strike force. The B-2 symbolised a new, high-tech approach to warfare that was key to the Bush administration’s plans. Undetectable by enemy radar, the B-2 also operated undetected by the American people, who were oblivious to when bombers took off, where they went, or what they did. The new American way of war did not require the participation or even the active support of Americans, merely their acquiescence. This was by design: excluding the people increased the latitude exercised by officials like Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz, confident in their ability to wield force effectively if allowed a free hand.

That same month, Central Command went into action, not in Iraq but in Afghanistan. Early results appeared impressive. Within weeks of launching Operation Enduring Freedom, US and coalition forces had toppled the Taliban. Al-Qaida had fled. Bush wasted no time in interpreting the significance of what had occurred. Afghanistan had provided ‘a proving ground’ for a radically new and radically more effective approach to waging war. ‘This revolution in our military is only beginning,’ Bush said, ‘and it promises to change the face of battle … These past two months have shown that an innovative doctrine and high-tech weaponry can shape and then dominate an unconventional conflict. The brave men and women of our military are rewriting the rules of war.’ The work of rewriting rules continued with the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Speaking just days after the fall of Baghdad and already referring to Operation Iraqi Freedom in the past tense, Bush explained how enhancing the efficacy of force removed impediments to its use. The invasion of Iraq, he rhapsodised, ‘was carried out with a combination of precision and speed and boldness the enemy did not expect and the world had not seen before … In the images of falling statues,’ the president continued,

we have witnessed the arrival of a new era. For a hundred years of war, culminating in the nuclear age, military technology was designed and deployed to inflict casualties on an ever-growing scale. In defeating Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan, Allied forces destroyed entire cities, while enemy leaders who started the conflict were safe until the final days. Military power was used to end a regime by breaking a nation. Today, we have the greater power to free a nation by breaking a dangerous and aggressive regime. With new tactics and precision weapons, we can achieve military objectives without directing violence against civilians. No device of man can remove the tragedy from war; yet it is a great moral advance when the guilty have far more to fear from war than the innocent.

Operations conducted with speed and precision, the enemy quickly dispatched, tyrants overthrown, innocents protected from harm: it was an alluring vision. ‘Shock and awe’, enthusiastic journalists called it; but like his father’s ‘new world order’, Bush’s ‘new era’ of warfare turned out to be a mirage. Campaigns expected to be brief became protracted, much to the consternation of the American people, who grew restive as the bills piled up and the death toll mounted. Reports of US forces killing noncombatants or abusing detainees shredded Bush’s claim that US military innovations signified some ‘great moral advance’. By 2006, Baghdad resembled Beirut c.1983, only several orders of magnitude worse. US troops were winning plenty of battles, but couldn’t win a war and were making precious little headway in ‘changing the way they live’.

Military professionals surveyed the wreckage and reached a painful conclusion: the officer corps had grotesquely misunderstood the true nature of contemporary warfare. Rather than a giant computer game, modern war turned out to be more like social work with guns. On the contemporary battlefield, weapons were less important than cultural sensitivity. The real challenge facing US forces was not to kill the enemy but to win over the population. As David Kilcullen, an influential adviser to US commanders in Iraq and Afghanistan, put it, rather than ‘assuming that killing insurgents is the key task’, the military needed to focus on ‘good governance backed by solid population security and economic development’. So the new American way of war that had recently seemed so promising had to go. In its place, the officer corps resuscitated a doctrine briefly fashionable in the 1960s but long since abandoned: counter-insurgency.

Within Central Command, even those who just a few years earlier had been singing the hosannas of ‘shock and awe’ were converted to counter-insurgency. A new army field manual, FM 3-24, drafted under the direction of General David Petraeus, became the new bible. Charged with turning around the failing US effort in Iraq, Petraeus took his bible to Baghdad and used it to implement ‘the surge’. Among those ascending to the status of cardinal archbishop in this new church was Stanley McChrystal. McChrystal’s programme for Afghanistan bears the Petraeus imprimatur. Gone are references to speed and precision. Absent is any suggestion that technology can determine a war’s outcome. The army no longer seeks battle in order to destroy the enemy; it pursues uplift, hoping to win hearts and minds. The people are the instrument of decision. The role of soldiers is not to determine but to facilitate an outcome.

Here is how Lieutenant General Robert Wagner spoke of warfare in 2004:

We are now able to create decision superiority that is enabled by networked systems, new sensors and command and control capabilities that are producing unprecedented near real-time situational awareness, increased information availability; and an ability to deliver precision munitions throughout the breadth and depth of the battlespace … these capabilities of the future networked force will leverage information dominance, speed and precision, and result in decision superiority.

Here is McChrystal just five years later:

Our strategy cannot be focused on seizing terrain or destroying insurgent forces; our objective must be the population. In the struggle to gain the support of the people, every action we take must enable this effort … Protecting the population is more than preventing insurgent violence and intimidation. It also means that [US and allied forces] can no longer ignore or tacitly accept abuse of power, corruption or marginalisation … Gaining their support will require a better understanding of the people’s choices and needs … A foreign army alone cannot beat an insurgency; the insurgency in Afghanistan requires an Afghan solution.

In outlining this strategy, McChrystal offers no promise of victory. (His report’s only use of that term is in quoting the Afghan defence minister’s unpersuasive assurance that ‘victory is within our grasp.’) To his credit, he does not make the facile suggestion that Afghan democracy (the word does not appear in his report) will trigger a wave of liberalising reform across the Islamic world. Success in Afghanistan, however defined, will produce few benefits beyond the borders of Afghanistan itself. The report includes no timeline, however tentative. Nor does it offer any estimate of costs. Yet to contemplate the imposing list of requirements that McChrystal enumerates, among them the need to redress a ‘crisis of popular confidence that springs from the weakness of [government] institutions, the unpunished abuse of power by corrupt officials and power-brokers, a widespread sense of political disenfranchisement, and a longstanding lack of economic opportunity’, is to realise just how monumental – if not futile – a task American soldiers face in Kabul.

However hubristic, the strategy crafted in the wake of 9/11 had at least one redeeming feature: a discernible aim. As conceived by President Bush, the global war on terror was to consist of brief military forays, each ending in victory and together yielding a handsome political pay-off. By transforming the wider Middle East, the United States would drive a stake through the heart of violent jihadism. Life in the Islamic world would necessarily change. American life would continue undisturbed. The Pax Americana would renew itself. But the collapse of Bush’s strategy – a collapse as much economic and political as military – left the United States adrift. As an organising principle, the ‘global war on terror’ lost all credibility.

McChrystal speaks a different language, but his plan preserves the essence of the Bush strategy. It rejects Bush’s view that ‘precision and speed and boldness’ give US forces a decisive edge, yet it otherwise seeks to continue the war that Bush launched after 9/11. And, in the absence of a timetable, or a definition of what victory would look like, it opens the door to counter-insurgencies without end. Where ‘shock and awe’ failed, counter-insurgency will ostensibly succeed: it will enable the United States to ‘change the way they live’, starting with the Afghans, although not ending there. Methods may have changed, but old expectations persist. Consider the views of John Nagl, a former soldier, counter-insurgency enthusiast and sometime adviser to Petraeus and McChrystal. According to Nagl, ‘population security’ – the central element of McChrystal’s proposal – ‘is the first requirement of success in counter-insurgency, but it is not sufficient. Economic development, good governance and the provision of essential services, all occurring within a matrix of effective information operations, must all improve simultaneously and steadily over a long period of time if America’s determined insurgent enemies are to be defeated.’ The imperative, Nagl argues, is for the United States to wage a ‘“global counter-insurgency” campaign’ – in Pentagon parlance, GCOIN. Indeed, Nagl and other counter-insurgency enthusiasts believe that with Petraeus’s ‘surge’ having demonstrated the efficacy of FM 3-24 in Iraq, the US military has already embarked on such a global campaign. Afghanistan is merely the next step.

In giving McChrystal what he wants, Obama, whether wittingly or not, has signed on to this larger campaign. Bush’s policy of relying on American military prowess to ‘change the way they live’ is now Obama’s. Cui bono? For defence contractors, ‘counter-insurgency experts’ and the various institutions that make up the national security state, GCOIN – justified as necessary to prevent another 9/11, enforce the Carter Doctrine and uphold the Pax Americana – promises to be the gift that never stops giving. Perpetual war now looms as a real prospect, carrying with it abundant opportunities for exercising power, reaping profit and satisfying personal ambition. Lost along the way is the promise of ‘change’ that vaulted Barack Obama to the White House in the first place.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences