How long will the American people permit perpetual failure?

By Daniel L. Davis

One has to wonder just how much longer the American people will continue to silently permit the wholesale, categorical failure of American foreign policy, both in theory and practice. The evidence confirming the totality of our failure is breathtaking in scope and severity. Changes must be made to preserve U.S. national security and economic prosperity.

Recent headlines have captured the character of this failure. 15 years after the invasion of Afghanistan, the Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction (SIGAR) released findings that “corruption substantially undermined the U.S. mission in Afghanistan from the very beginning of Operation Enduring Freedom… We conclude that failure to effectively address the problem means U.S. reconstruction programs, at best, will continue to be subverted by systemic corruption and, at worst, will fail.” 

Earlier this month, a British Parliament study found that the result of Western military intervention in Libya “was political and economic collapse, inter-militia and inter-tribal warfare, humanitarian and migrant crises, widespread human rights violations, the spread of Gaddafi regime weapons across the region and the growth of ISIL in North Africa.” 

Airstrikes and drone attacks are accidentally killing thousands of civilians, aid workers, wedding parties, and now even the troops of a nation against whom we are not at war.  Each of these mistakes, repeated hundreds of times over the past 15 years, creates more antagonism and hatred of the United States than any other single event. 

Whatever tactical benefit some of the strikes do accomplish, they are consumed in the still-worsening strategic failure the misfires cause.

Bottom line: The use of military power since 2001 has:

  • Turned a previously whole and regionally impotent Iraq that balanced Iran into a factory of terrorism and a client of Teheran;
  • Turned a two-sided civil war in Afghanistan that was contained within its borders and had no heroin production into a dysfunctional state that serves as a magnet for terrorists in that part of the world and is far and away the global leader in opioid growth;
  • Turned internal unrest in a Libya, that didn’t threaten any neighbors nor harbor terrorists, into an “unmitigated failure” featuring a raging civil war, an African beachhead for ISIS, and a terrorist breeding ground;
  • Contributed to the expansion of al-Qaeda into a “franchise” group, spawned a new strain when ISIS was born out of the vacuum created by our Iraq invasion, and seen major terrorist threats explode worldwide;
  • Joined other nations in battles in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, and other areas within Africa whose only result has been the expansion of the threat and the deepening of the suffering of the civil populations.

These continued and deepening failures kill unknown number of innocent civilians each year, intensify and spreads the hatred many have of America, and incrementally weakens our national security. But these military failures have another, less obvious but more troubling cost.

Perpetual fighting dissipates the fighting strength of the Armed Forces. The non-stop employment of the U.S. Air Force in flying sorties, bombing runs, and strategic airlift has been orders of magnitude higher than what it was in the 15 years prior to 9/11, dramatically cutting short the lifespan of each aircraft, increasing the maintenance requirements, and depleted stocks of bombs and missiles.

The U.S. Army and Marine Corps have put thousands of miles of grueling use on their tanks, other armored vehicles, and worn out countless weapons. The refurbishing and replacement costs for these vehicles has been enormous and like the Air Force has severely shortened the lifespan of the armored fleet. But not only have these permanent military operations damaged and degraded the fleets of aircraft and vehicles, it has come at the expense of conventional military training. 

This might be the most alarming cost. The Army has recognized this problem and has belatedly began to reorient some of the training time to high end conventional battle.  But it will take many years of focused training to rebuild the strength the military had prior to Desert Storm or even the opening operations of Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003.

Entire generations of leaders and troops at every level have grown up training almost exclusively on small scale counterinsurgency (COIN) warfare.

As one who has fought in both high end armored warfare and small scale COIN, I can tell you that creating effective combined arms battle units for conventional war is far, far more difficult and time consuming.

Likewise, the task for the Air Force has not fought against a modern adversary who has fleets of effective fighter jets, bombers, and potent air defensive capability. Such operations are orders of magnitude more difficult than attacking insurgents on the ground that pose no threat to aircraft.

It is critical to understand that no insurgency or terror group represents an existential threat to viability of the United States.  Failure in a conventional battle to a major power, however, can cripple the nation. 

It is discouraging to see the Administration, Congress, and the Department of Defense fully tethered to the perpetual application of military power against small scale threats.  Terrorism definitely represents a threat to US interests, and we must defend against them.  But the obsession with using major military assets on these relatively small scale threats has not only failed to stem the threat, it has in part been responsible for expanding it.  Meanwhile the unhealthy focus on the small scale has weakened – and continues to weaken – our ability to respond to the truly existential threats.

If the incoming Administration does not recognize this deterioration of our military power, and take steps to reverse it, our weakness may one day be exposed in the form of losing a major military engagement that we should have won easily.  The stakes couldn’t be higher.  A change in foreign policy is critically needed.  We will either change by choice or we will change in the smoldering aftermath of catastrophic military failure.  I pray it is the former.

Daniel L. Davis is a foreign policy fellow and military expert at Defense Priorities. He retired from the US Army as a Lt. Col. after 21 years of active service. He was deployed into combat zones four times in his career, beginning with Operation Desert Storm in 1991, and then to Iraq in 2009 and Afghanistan twice (2005, 2011). 

 This piece was originally published by The American Conservative on September 29, 2016. Read more HERE