Winning Battles, Losing Wars
By Lt. Gen. James M. Dubik
Col. Harry G. Summers Jr. begins his book, On Strategy: The Vietnam War in Context, by relaying the following conversation: “‘You know you never defeated us on the battlefield,’ said the American colonel. The North Vietnamese colonel pondered this remark a moment. ‘That may be so,’ he replied, ‘but it is also irrelevant.’” As much as we may not want to admit it, in this sense, our current war against al Qaeda and their ilk resembles that of Vietnam. In fighting our post- 9/11 wars, we have won nearly every battle but are far from winning the war. How can this be? The answer lies largely in the civil military nexus that underpins how America wages war. Waging war involves selecting proper war aims; identifying initial military, nonmilitary, U.S. and coalition forces, strategies, policies and campaigns that, if successfully executed, will achieve those aims; constructing execution mechanisms and coordinative bodies to translate the plans into action and then to adapt as the war unfolds; and maintaining the war’s legitimacy from start to finish. These war-waging responsibilities are civil-military responsibilities shared by the set of senior political leaders of the executive and legislative branches and selected senior military leaders. Even a cursory look at these elements reveals that our war-waging proficiency has simply not been up to the task. Selecting proper war aims. The aims of the George W. Bush administration’s war on terror—against nations, organizations and people who perpetrated the 9/11 attacks and those who harbored them—were expansive and unachieved. Our haste to respond to the 9/11 attacks, while viscerally understandable, did not allow sufficient dialogue on whether these aims could actually be achieved or about the resources that would be necessary to achieve them. There is evidence that some officials did not even want such a dialogue.
In 2009, the Obama administration altered the aims, vowing to “disrupt, dismantle and defeat” al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan and prevent its capacity to threaten America and our allies in the future. These aims were equally expansive and unachievable. The reality is that the U.S. alone cannot achieve success against al Qaeda, the Islamic State and other radical jihadi groups. A real coalition has to be formed, and the U.S. must lead it. In response to the threat in Syria and Iraq, the U.S. has moved a step in the right direction, but the coalition we are forming must become more than a multinational posse following the U.S. sheriff in pursuit of the bad guys. Identifying initial military, nonmilitary, U.S. and coalition forces, strategies, policies and campaigns that, if successfully executed, will achieve those aims. America’s initial strategy of removing regimes and then dealing with the aftermath has morphed into withdrawing and conducting protracted decapitation strikes against selected terrorist leaders. Both approaches are overmilitarized. Both treat coalition partners as a multinational posse. Finally, both reveal a yet-to-be-resolved ambiguity that has plagued our efforts from the start: Are we waging a war, fighting criminals or doing some hybrid of the two?