“The Wages of War without Strategy, Part III: Beyond the Present – A Call to Clausewitz and to Conscience.”

“The Wages of War without Strategy, Part III: Beyond the Present – A Call to Clausewitz and to Conscience.”  Coauthor, Jacqueline Tame.  Strategy Bridge.  August 2017.  https://thestrategybridge.org/the-bridge/2017/8/23/the-wages-of-war-without-strategy

“Its grammar, indeed, may be its own, but not its logic. If that is so, then war cannot be divorced from political life; and whenever this occurs in our thinking about war, the many links that connect the two elements are destroyed and we are left with something pointless and devoid of sense.” – Carl von Clausewitz

In Part I of this series, we revisited the fundamentals of Clausewitz and urged the senior leadership in the new administration to consider lessons long observed, if rarely learned since Vietnam, about the intended distinctions between policy, strategy, and military operations. In Part II, we urged policy and military leaders to break from the mistakes of the past, underscoring the need for that introspection and more profound thinking on the nature of war, through an examination of our continued inability to align means and ways with achievable political ends in Afghanistan and Iraq.

In this––our final installment––we appeal to each element of the Clausewitzian Trinity to do its part. To remain silent as practitioners of policy and war, we believe, would perpetuate the betrayal of those troops and civilians––American and foreign––who have made the ultimate sacrifice for reasons this country still struggles to articulate.


Last year’s election paralleled that of 2008 in an interesting way––the political expediency of campaigning on war, or in this case, anti-war. Much like we saw in the 2016 Presidential elections, in 2008, with nearly a trillion spent, thousands dead, no common understanding of the implication of our actions, and no end in sight, America’s public and its allies were war-weary. Just as Mr. Trump publicly advocated for withdrawal, candidate Barack Obama campaigned on withdrawing from Iraq. Obama spoke of his resolve to, once and for all, end the “seemingly endless War on Terrorism,” a ‘war’ whose unwinnable nature was manifest in our actions in Iraq, which, “in turn, compromisedthe U.S. campaign against al Qaeda.”

In that 2008 election season, the other candidates continued to mince Clausewitz’s words for political expediency. But this time the speechmaking was different. The words that candidate Obama used indicated a willingness to stop and evaluate where we were. He seemed to be pledging to think, to reflect, to pull back – certainly militarily, perhaps even intellectually – and reorient the country. He appeared to be advocating reclamation of the political objectives that should be driving U.S. actions, certainly those of a military nature. Candidate Obama, essentially, vowed to reinstate the key Clausewitz axiom––War is not merely an act of policy but a true political instrument, a continuation of political intercourse, carried on with other means––and other deeper and more meaningful insights from Clausewitz’s work.

President Obama arrives at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., May 28


In January 2009, President Obama took office and became responsible for two wars. In 2011, following Iraq’s refusal to sign a Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA), the White House announced the complete withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq, ending the 8-year U.S. military occupation. With ephemeral and not irreversible momentum, the world and the extremists watched as U.S. forces withdrew from Iraq in view of the difficulties associated with the Maliki Government’s recalcitrance over the status of forces. The United States’ senior security establishment seemed compelled to satisfice with impermanent operational momentum instead of tenable strategic ends. In that instance, however, the policy objective was to end the occupation.

Reversible tactical and operational gains without irreversible internal political stability in Iraq had potentially grave implications and consequences for the strategic situation in Iraq and Syria. America turned its attention away from the fragile sectarian tinderbox it left in its wake in Iraq, back toward a neglected theater then still facing a stalemate with the insurgency in Afghanistan, and to a renewed strategic emphasis on Asia Pacific. But the client government the Bush (George W.) Administration installed under then Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki became, not surprisingly, increasingly factional and untenable.

Once again the Sunnis, armed, trained, funded, and employed to good effect by the U.S. during the surge just a few years earlier, were utterly disenfranchised and aggrieved as Maliki de-professionalized the army, replacing once-U.S. allies with Shia loyalists. Not unforeseeably, these untrained loyalists, who essentially became Iraq’s frontline security forces, almost immediately dropped their weaponsand ran at the first sign of ISIS’s rapid ascent and advance when the group declared itself a caliphate in 2014. ISIS, whose predecessors date back to 2004 and before, is the most recent evolution of al Qaeda in Iraq, a group that derived influence and support from the massive missteps that characterized the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq. ISIS became significantly emboldened by the yet again-disenfranchised Sunnis remaining in the wake of the American withdrawal, when Iraq was still unstable in 2011.


At the end of stage three in the evolution of the threats America faces today, precarious and reversible ways, means, and ends did not prevent the metamorphosis of al Qaeda in Iraq (War, Inc.’s Monster Version 3.0) into the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, or ISIS (War, Inc.’s Monster Version 4.0). The invasion of Iraq in 2003, the most costly blunder in America’s remembered history, was an abysmally imprudent idea that continues to compound.


As memories of America’s 2016 presidential election fade, having observed the results of the last several cycles contribute markedly to our situation today, many are still worried. We worry that history will continue to compound, lessons will go unheeded, and the intended relationship among ends, ways, and means will be misapplied or willfully distorted by the future crop of senior security leaders. These concerns stem from a sense that the United States may once again be engaging in military actions and operations, now against ISIS, without a discernibly compelling strategy for the long term.


President Trump addresses a joint session of Congress, 8 Apr 2017 | Agence France-Press


As odious a monster as ISIS has proven to be, and as equally terrible as its predecessor versions were, none ever posed an existential threat to the United States. The world should be far more afraid of what this group might become next, as a consequence of our actions or inaction and mistaking and substituting military operations for strategy. American citizens should fear the new enemies, state and non-state, that may emerge because of a willful or unwitting reliance on lethal strikes with fleeting results. They should question policymakers who seem intellectually incapable or, more disconcertingly, unwilling to think critically and speak honestly about America’s role on the world’s stage and to craft meaningful policies to achieve national objectives.


So why write this series? We are not the first to note and lament the questionable policy and strategy coherence over the past half-century. The ideas in this piece are not essentially new or earth shattering. We are writing because to remain aloof and silent would make us, as professionals and representatives of two components of the Trinity, complicit in the continued blurring and conflation of policy, strategy, and military action. For those of us who are students and practitioners of war, silence and acceptance without counterargument is tantamount to blindly endorsing bad ideas for bad wars, absent any strategic rationality. In the first part of the first decade of this century, this country has unfortunately witnessed episodes of mistaking loyal and informed candor for unpatriotic apostasy.

There seems to be tacit acceptance of the idea that raising objections to war or its potential is not being supportive of our troops. In fact, the opposite is true. To remain muted as potential future policy practitioners and current pundits distort Clausewitz’s words and misunderstand or misrepresent the fundamental logic of war, would betray the noble service and sacrifices of thousands of troops and civilians who have already lost limbs or lives for reasons the country has struggled to articulate.


Whatever approach we ultimately select in the Middle East and South Asia should involve an inclusive, coherent, trans-regional approach to internal politics. A viable long-term strategic solution must also rely on diplomacy, trans-regional cooperation, and local political solutions that reduce or remove the underlying reasons for the real and perceived grievances that catalyze support for violence. This includes efforts to achieve better governance that addresses the grievances and expectations of all segments of the populations. To create some prospect for ending this long war, or even to avoid its ending in ways that undermine our long-term security and global stability, within some reasonably foreseeable future, the U.S. national security leadership should seriously revisit the meaning of and need for a strategy with an end that envisions peace.


Defeat, would require a strategy to undermine both the will and capacity of al Qaeda, ISIS, the Taliban, and the states that provide material, ideological, and sanctuary support. What is necessary for the long term is a well-thought out and sustainable counter-ideology strategy that is clear-eyed and ruthless about shutting resources such as funding, madrassas, and non-state organizations that propagate the Salafi-Wahhabi-Jihadist creed. This requires prudence, patience, and perseverance, informed by knowledge and analysis.

ISIS is indeed a vile monster, and one that U.S. policy had a hand in helping bring about with its decision to invade Iraq. Iraq’s refusal to sign a SOFA and its demand that U.S. troops depart the country 8 years later, without having stabilized or secured the country, exacerbated an already bad decision and likely expedited the likelihood of the birth of a group such as ISIS. The fact that U.S. policy partially, if unintentionally, underwrote the ISIS’ creation renders it even more critical that we now aid in the solution to the havoc the group wreaks. ISIS threatens every government in the region. A strategy whose objectives would translate into annihilating the group and quashing the ideology that drives it will be incredibly difficult but not impossible to determine and carry out. A future policy of more troops and more actions absent strategy will continue to contribute to endless war; likewise, carpet-bombing, or lighting ‘em up would not be measured or prudent in any sense of these words.

As Robert Wright shrewdly observed, “The part of ISIS’ rhetorical power worth contemplating is the part that we can do something about.” Successful recruitment to such groups seems associated with certain U.S. policies, to a vicious cycle of terror which the country inadvertently helped catalyze decades ago. This cycle is one that would be helpful to break imminently. “When recruiters for [groups like] ISIS and al Qaeda say that the West is fighting a war against Islam, they cite U.S. policies: drone strikes in Muslim countries, the imprisonment of Muslims in Guantánamo, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, perceived U.S. support for Israel’s treatment of Palestinians, and so on.”

The most pressing challenge for our newest senior leaders and policymakers is to break this vicious cycle, to “speak with all the humility that is appropriate to our limited vision.” Thinking through the potential difference between theory and practice should help considerably. A return to Clausewitz offers a first step.

As Martin Luther King, Jr., observed fifty years ago, “…The calling to speak is often a vocation of agony, but we must speak. We must speak with all the humility that is appropriate to our limited vision, but we must speak.”

Robert Cassidy, Ph.D., is a retired U.S. Army colonel who has served in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere in the Central Command region. He is the author of three books and a number of articles about strategy,irregular warfare, and Afghanistan

Jacqueline Tame is an intelligence and national security professional who has worked throughout the Intelligence Community as a strategic planner and policy advisor.

The ideas in this series do not represent the views of the U.S. Department of Defense, the U.S. Government, or any of the institutions with which the authors affiliate.

“Team America versus Jihad.”

“Team America versus Jihad.”  The National Interest.  July 2017. http://nationalinterest.org/blog/the-buzz/team-america-versus-jihad-21589

“The war on terror has had no coherent plot, only jarring disjunctions of cause and effect, time and place.” – George Packer

“The object in war is to attain a better peace—even if only from your own point of view. Hence it is essential to conduct war with constant regard to the peace you desire.”  – B.H. Liddell Hart

War serves itself if there is no strategy to guide and constrain it.  The purpose of strategy is to fulfill a political purpose and that purpose should relate to an end that sees a better peace than before the war began.  The means and methods, or the instruments of power and the ways they are employed, should align to achieve the political object sought at the costs and duration the state is willing to bear.  If war brings more enemies and perpetual war, strategy is flawed.

The U.S and its allies have been fighting terrorists and insurgents for almost 16 years.  America has the best-equipped, most-seasoned, and best-led forces in its history.  The forces of Team America have won a number of battles, conducted a host of strikes, and killed or captured many terrorists, including Osama bin Laden.  Yet there are more murderous Islamist groups around the globe today than there were on 11 September 2001, and there is a strategic stalemate in Afghanistan.  Team America is adept and upbeat about doing lethal actions to kill and capture militants.  But, Team America does not have a viable strategy.

There is a marked contrast between the approximately $500,000.00 that al Qaeda spent to prepare and carry out the 9/11 planes raids and the about two trillion dollars that America has spent in reaction to the attacks on 11 September almost 16 years ago.  This is a modest accounting.  The country is still spending and still fighting.  We can win battles and kill individual leaders in perpetuity but without a policy and strategy match, these disruptive actions are fleeting.  Efforts to defeat Islamist terrorists around the globe remain incomplete and uncertain.  Many of these non-state enemy groups espouse the virulent religious-political ideology of Salafi-Wahhabi-Jihadism.  Bombs and bullets alone can’t defeat this.

This creed animates the will of an ever-increasing number of zealous murderers who view the world in apocalyptic and binary terms where they, the true believers of their true-faith prophet, must compel the rest of us non-believers, to believe what they believe, or die. It is time to for some sober thinking to replace the sanguine platitudes about the prospects of ‘winning’ against the panoply of Islamist zealots and militant groups that have multiplied and become even more lethal and brutal since September 2001.

American policy and war suffer from a strategic attention deficit that goes back to the ill-thought out support of the Pakistani Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) and its most abominable strains of Islamist proxies among the mujahideen factions in the Soviet-Afghan War of the 1980s.   The current perpetual war against an increasing number of Islamists and the stalemate in Afghanistan derives in no small way from this strategic attention deficit. The U.S. has been involved with wars and Islamists groups not for 16 years, but for at least the last 38 years.

For 11 years, beginning just after the Soviet invasion, the U.S. approach might be characterized as strategic epilepsy. It was American policy to fund and support Pakistan’s ISI to support Islamist insurgents to defeat the Soviets.  Guns and money went to the most odious strains of Islamist surrogates to bleed the Soviets and erode their will, without concern for the long-term consequences.  For the subsequent 11 years, from around 1990 to September 2001, the U.S. policy toward these groups manifested what one analyst characterized as strategic narcolepsy. This meant generally ignoring South Asia’s Islamists while Pakistan continued to support and collude with the Taliban and al-Qaida.  Since 2001, the U.S.-led Coalition has been fighting some of the same Islamist groups that American policy had helped nurture.

The 9/11 attacks returned the U.S. to strategic epilepsy.  With little strategic analysis and no credible long-term plan for peace, the U.S.-led war effort used small numbers of Coalition forces and Afghan warlord militias to chase the Taliban and al-Qaida to Pakistan, only to see the latter regenerate and fight another day.  Then, with the Afghan war far from finished, the U.S made the colossally unwise decision to invade Iraq and turn a problem unrelated to the 9/11 raids to a major and related problem of great magnitude. Iraq was an unnecessary secondary theater weakened the United States effort and emboldened the cause of its enemies.

Since September 2001, a number of times, the maladroit use of violent means by Team America’s special and conventional units have helped contribute to a condition of perpetual war where actions to decapitate, disrupt, and defeat terrorists seem to proliferate more Islamist militant terrorists to decapitate, disrupt, and defeat.  Killing too many of the wrong people in Afghanistan and opting to invade Iraq catalyzed an increase in terrorism rather than countering the strategy and undermining the will of al Qaeda and militants of similar ilk.  Iraq itself generated another steady stream of Islamist fighters.  Invading and occupying Iraq was malfeasant at every level.

Defeat, in its essence, demands taking away the capacity and will of enemies to such an extent that they perceive they are defeated and quit.  If America continues to focus on capacity through violence while failing to undermine the will of its enemies then the creed will continue to animate and proliferate a deep and wide bench of current and future jihadists.

To create some prospect for ending this long war, or even to avoid ending this badly, within some reasonably foreseeable future, the U.S. national security leadership should seriously revisit the meaning and need for a strategy with an end that envisions peace.  Defeat, or to use the current and more hyperbolic notion of annihilation, would require a strategy to undermine both the will and capacity of al Qaeda, DAESH, the Taliban, and the states that provide material, ideological, and sanctuary support, like Pakistan.

What is necessary for the long term is a well-thought out and sustainable counter-ideology strategy that is clear eyed and ruthless about shutting resources such as the funding, the madrassas, and non-state organizations that propagate the Salafi-Wahhabi-Jihadist creed.  A viable long-term strategic solution must also rely on diplomacy, trans-regional cooperation, and local political solutions that reduce or remove the underlying reasons for the real and perceived grievances that catalyze support for violence.  Until America musters the will to shutdown sanctuaries, counter the ideology, and address the root causes, there will be no end in sight.  The violence between Team America and jihad will continue to serve and feed on itself.

It is unreal to think that the West can do nothing without consequences.  For the present, America along with its allies and partners are not winning, nor defeating, but disrupting a host of odious head-lopping fanatics.  It is not strategy but it is possibly better than doing nothing, as long as tactical actions and operational campaigns avoid killing the wrong people and do not create a lot more enemies.  Until the West finds the will and the wherewithal to shut down sanctuaries and incubators like Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, and helps address the root sources of grievances, Team America will continue to kill and capture an infinite bench of jihadists bent on destroying secular people and societies.

Robert M. Cassidy, Ph.D., is a retired U.S. Army officer who has served in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere in that area.  He has written books and articles about war and Afghanistan.  The views in this article are his own and do not represent the views of the institutions with which he affiliates.

“The Wages of War without Strategy, Part II: How We Twitterized Clausewitz and Ended Up Bogged Down in Afghanistan and Iraq.”

“The Wages of War without Strategy, Part II:  How We Twitterized Clausewitz and Ended Up Bogged Down in Afghanistan and Iraq.” Coauthor, Jacqueline Tame.  Strategy Bridge.  June 2017. https://thestrategybridge.org/the-bridge/2017/6/20/the-wages-of-war-without-strategy

“Well, in our country,” said Alice, still panting a little, “you’d generally get to somewhere else — if you ran very fast for a long time, as we’ve been doing.”

“A slow sort of country!” said the Queen. “Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that.”

– Lewis Carroll, “Through the Looking Glass

War and violence decoupled from strategy and policy—or worse yet, mistaken for strategy and policy—have contributed to perpetual war, or what has seemed like 15 years of “Groundhog War.” In its wars since 11 September 2001, the United States has arguably cultivated the best-equipped, most capable, and fully seasoned combat forces in remembered history. They attack, kill, capture, and win battles with great nimbleness and strength. But absent strategy, these victories are fleeting. Divorced from political objectives, successful tactics are without meaning.

In theory, we fight wars to fulfill a political purpose and to achieve objectives by aligning the means and methods of war toward that purpose. In theory, the purpose of war is a better peace. In theory, there is no difference between theory and practice, but as history has shown repeatedly, in practice there is.

The purpose of war is to serve policy. Unchecked by reason, unguided by policy, the nature of war is to serve itself. When war and violence serve each other, absent strategy, it is fruitless killing. World War I was a conspicuous example of war for war’s sake, and serves as “an excellent cautionary taleabout the dangers of carelessly blundering into a pointless and catastrophic conflagration.” The war in Iraq and the strategic stalemate in Afghanistan, are simply contemporary examples of the same.

In Part I of this series, we revisited the fundamentals of Clausewitz and urged the senior leadership in the new administration to consider lessons long observed, if rarely learned since Vietnam, about the intended distinctions between policy, strategy, and military operations. We offered that equating the three is tantamount to ‘Twitterizing’ U.S. foreign and security policy—something this country has done under both parties, and for many years. In this installment, we urge policy and military leaders to break from the mistakes of the past, and to do so now, underscoring the need for that introspection and more profound thinking on the nature of war, through an examination of our continued inability to align means and ways with achievable political ends in Afghanistan and Iraq.


Over the last 50 years, our ill-informed application of Clausewitz’s key tenets in U.S. military engagements has scarred the country’s credibility, moral rectitude, and legitimacy. But at no time have we more superficially or detrimentally applied Clausewitz than in the Global War on Terrorism, or the Long War – a “war,” undeclared by Congress, and about whose purpose the country was so conflicted that its monikers changed constantly.  The Global War on Terrorism revealed not only that the U.S. was in dire need of a viable strategy for undermining ideologically motivated non-state actors, but also that the very meaning of strategy had been fundamentally debased in our political lexicon.  Terror is a tactic, a technique. To wage perpetual war on a tactic, absent a realizable long-term political objective, is not a strategy but a sign of the absence of one.

By misunderstanding, distorting, and ultimately Twitterizing Clausewitz, U.S. policy has unintentionally helped breed, fund, arm, and release on the world the very groups of head-lopping apocalyptic fanatics it fears most.  Moreover, the long-term strategic attention deficit engendered in waging wars without strategy has rendered the American public unaware that its government has, indeed, become a metaphorical Dr. Frankenstein, with ISIS being just the latest monster, albeit one we did not set out to create.


“War is not merely an act of policy but a true political instrument, a continuation of political intercourse, carried on with other means.” The distortion of Clausewitz’s famous axiom results from a careless reading of the relation between its subject and predicate. This is interesting, because critics have long lexically dissected the phrase, but for a different reason. The phrase itself, Der Krieg ist eine bloße Fortsetzung der Politik mit anderen Mitteln, or “war is a mere continuation of politics with other means,” is traditionally debated because, depending on the translation, Clausewitz uses the words “with” and “by” [other means] at different points in On War.  While this outwardly small distinction seems mere fodder for academic publications, a consequential interpretive difference does arise. The word “with” suggests that the use of force is additive and will complement whatever mélange of diplomacy, information, and economic means currently exists.  The word “by,” however, implies that employment of other means has failed and war is the only remaining option.

But prepositions are a secondary matter here. “Continuation” is the key word in Clausewitz’s sentence (and one never contested in translation) because it implies that a nation waging war must have started with a political objective. A policy matched to some notion of a supporting strategy requires this fundamental clarity about war’s benefits and liabilities in the service of political ends: once prior means become insufficient to achieve political objectives, we may choose war as a means of continuing to pursue these objectives. “Continuation” also illuminates the necessity of sustaining a healthy tension between policy and war to ensure one does not overtake or replace the other.


So how did this country come to equate policy, strategy, and military operations, and absolve itself of responsibility for all but the last?  It stems from a long-standing American propensity for binary perspectives, exacerbated by a cultural proclivity toward anti-intellectualism. It stems from a national intolerance for patience, driven by the availability of on-demand everything. It stems from the 24-hour misinformation overload of mass media, whose scrolling banners and simplistic sound bites convince viewers and readers they don’t need or have time to understand the issues fully. And all of that is underwritten by the explosion of all sorts of information technologies that facilitate scrolling but not reading, listening but not hearing, and killing without having to look one’s enemies in the eyes, or to even pull a trigger. One final factor has contributed to the casual and dangerous blurring of politics and war: domestic political incentives to ignore Clausewitz’s cardinal axioms. Wars, with or without strategy, sell, particularly so, it seems, when those who wage them constitute small fractions of the population.


Who cares?  Why should people heed a long-dead German soldier-scholar who never had to deal with today’s wars anyway?  Because in this era of war-on-demand, it is even more imperative to beware of the monsters that policy absent strategy can help create, by both action and inaction.  The U.S. is creating more monsters than it destroys every day, keeping politics and war separate and equal.

American policy makers failed to remain engaged, responsible, and farsighted in 1989 after the Soviets pulled out of Afghanistan, when they washed their hands of a war-torn country where mujahideen forces had, for nearly a decade, served as expendable Cold War proxies. Senior leadership failed again not 15 years later with the invasion of Iraq in 2003, without a viable strategy or honest assessment of why this country would be willing to sacrifice thousands of lives and upwards of a trillion dollars on the altar of an illusion about bringing democracy to Iraq. The products of these decades of desultory action and inaction, uninformed by long-term strategy, have been al Qaeda, the Taliban, and, most recently, ISIS. 


In December 1979, the Soviets invaded Afghanistan. Official reporting indicates that U.S. leadership at the time – unwilling to engage in ways that would escalate the war beyond its geographical bounds – ultimately got involved but in a limited, indirect, and plausibly deniable way. Substituting proxy military actions for viable long-view political objects through various channels, America secretly gave weaponry and money to a host of Afghan resistance groups, known as the mujahideen, or holy warriors.

Revelations, however, from former Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) Director Bob Gates and then National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brezinski about when the U.S. actually began engaging with those who opposed the Soviet regime in Afghanistan, offer an ironic twist as to a major stimulus for war. The twist was that the U.S., in fact, began aiding the mujahideen nearly six months before the Soviets invaded Afghanistan, and that decision to aid opponents of the regime might have actually been the catalyst that “induce[d] a Soviet military intervention.”

Nonetheless – and far from being driven by a political objective in Afghanistan beyond further eroding Soviet influence in a zero-sum global competition – the U.S. simply wanted the Soviets to suffer as payback for supporting America’s enemies in the Vietnam War. These shortsighted decisions and actions thus continued and further complicated the long and risk-laden U.S. relationship with Islamist extremists.

Ultimately, the Soviet regime’s support for the war eroded – first its will, then its existence – as the war’s costs and losses became higher than the perceived value of the political object in Afghanistan, and its components splintered off into different mujahideen factions. The Soviet-Afghan War was over, but another war was beginning. One about which the U.S. would have done well to think deeply regarding the Soviets’ ability to distinguish between political objectives and military operations. That war was the precursor to the United States’ Global War on Terrorism.

From a potent combination of militant Egyptian expertise, Saudi wealth, and a philosophical foundation for jihad, Osama bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri, and Sayyed Imam Al-Sharif (Dr. Fadl) formed al Qaeda in 1988.  Over the next eight years, bin Laden grew angry over Saudi Arabia’s rebuff when he offered to defend the Kingdom against Saddam Hussein, and then enraged at the Kingdom’s decision to host infidel American forces in what would become the first Gulf War. Bin Laden ultimately cited U.S. forces in Saudi Arabia as one of the reasons he began preparations for a series of attacks against the U.S.

At the end of stage one in the evolution of the monsters we know today, the U.S. had inadvertently helped create al Qaeda: War, Inc.’s Monster, Version 1.0.

Soviets leaving Afghanistan, 15 Feb 1989

In February 1989 the last Soviet troops departed Afghanistan.  The Soviet withdrawal left a power vacuum that drew scarce international attention, and saw armed, angry, desperate young men remain in its wake. Throughout the 1990s, this helped create the perfect storm for the emergence of a group of Pashtun Islamist leaders and their students who – armed and trained in Pakistan thanks to the Pakistani ISI – remained committed to prosecuting holy war.

That U.S. security elites substituted emotion-driven proxy military actions for a genuine political objective was sufficient folly in itself.  But, while the U.S. did not create the Taliban, as some rhetoric purports, history has shown that our friends and interlocutors from the Soviet-Afghan War in the Pakistani ISI, in particular, directly helped fund, train, and arm the Taliban – a group that would ultimately ally with and provide sanctuary to al Qaeda. Once again, this was a direct outcome of not linking military action to political objectives after careful assessment of all enemies and the potential character of the war.  By 1996, internecine war ravaged Afghanistan. Upon returning from Sudan to Afghanistan that year, bin Laden built a relationship with Mullah Omar, leader of the new Taliban-led Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. The then U.S. leadership’s decision to generally ignorethe rise of the Taliban from 1994 onward–to do nothing as the Taliban imposed its Islamist emirate and antediluvian governance on the Afghan people, and to stand by as the Taliban provided succor to bin Laden and his al Qaeda lieutenants upon their return to Afghanistan in 1996—was, as the 9/11 Commission Report put it, “a dangerous failure of imagination.”

At the end of stage two, then, the monster had evolved.  In addition to al Qaeda, the U.S. stood by and observed rather indecisively and ineffectively during the Taliban’s emergence and takeover of Afghanistan: War, Inc.’s Monster, Version 2.0.

In February 1998 – not three years after the bombing of the Office of the Program Manager, Saudi Arabian National Guard Modernization Program Headquarters, which preceded bin Laden’s first fatwa–bin Laden issued his second famous fatwa, calling upon Muslims to ‘perform their duty’ by killing American citizens, whom he declared ‘legitimate targets’ of al Qaeda. Heeding bin Laden’s call, six months later in August 1998, al Qaeda carried out twin embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania.  The U.S. retaliated with cruise missile strikes on al Qaeda in Sudan and Afghanistan. Al Qaeda subsequently attacked the USS Cole in 2000 and the East Coast of the United States a year later.

The warping of Clausewitz’s theory of war over the decade that followed this country’s pivot away from its primary theater-of-necessity in Afghanistan to open a secondary theater-of-choice in Iraq was compounded by the complexity of the enemy that U.S. actions there helped catalyze. The devastating September 2001 attacks irrevocably shook the American psyche and spirit, and ensured a continuation of reflexive war as the essence of its Middle East and South Asia ‘policy.’

Iraq After the Fall of Saddam Hussein

In October 2001, U.S. troops invaded Afghanistan, set on expelling the Taliban government to deny al Qaeda continued sanctuary in the country and, ultimately, to dismantle the group responsible for the 9/11 attacks. Then, in March 2003, in a decision, unconstrained by reality and uninformed by strategic analysis, the U.S., opened a secondary theater. It was a war of choice, against an odious but secular dictator, who was in no way linked to the events of 9/11. Scores of books and articles have examined the colossally bad decision to go into Iraq in 2003. We won’t add to that body of analysis and interpretation. For the purposes of this series, that aim to amplify examples of the United States’ propensity to conflate policy and tactics, to substitute action for strategy, suffice it to note that the 2003 invasion and occupation of Iraq served no real political or strategic objective. Instead, it resulted in the creation of more insurgents and terrorists animated by the Salafi-Wahhabi-jihadist creed, a power vacuum, and the very chaos and instability that helped lead to the emergence of ISIS.

The sequence of disconnected events following the 2003 invasion of Iraq resulted in the replacementof Saddam Hussein’s government with a predominantly Shiite administration. The Sunni majority areas of the country suffered from vast unemployment, aggravated by a near-total loss of assets and political influence. “Rather than promoting religious integration and unity, American policy in Iraq exacerbated sectarian divisions and created a fertile breeding ground for Sunni discontent, from which al Qaeda in Iraq took root.”

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Three and a half years into the Iraq war, on 6 December 2006, the Iraq Study Group released its report.  One of several approaches offered in the report advocated a significant surge in U.S. ground troops to help train Iraqi Army units and secure the population. The idea of a surgewas contentious for war-weary Americans, but ultimately the prospect of expanding military operations, in lieu of conducting the hard work of generating viable strategic options and putting into place thoughtful, well-crafted policy, won the day. Accordingly, and in keeping with our culturally ingrained and increasing propensity to distort Clausewitz’s cardinal axiom, the United States introduced the surge itself as the new “strategy” in Iraq. The new objective – neither strategic nor political in the traditional sense – was to find a way out of Iraq without explicitly acknowledging defeat.

Much like peering through the looking glass, “the war on terror has been like the nouveau roman,with no coherent plot, only jarring disjunctions of cause and effect, time and place.”