America’s military: failures of success

The afterglow of Osama bin Laden’s killing fuels the United States’s confidence in its shift towards integration of military and security policy. But it is another grand illusion and missed opportunity.
Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
12 May 2011

Three actions undertaken by western forces in three different countries in the second week of May 2011 are connected by a single feature: the “transnationalisation” of warfare, whereby national boundaries and sovereignty count for less and less:

* In Pakistan early on 2 May, a United States “Seal” team killed Osama bin Laden

* In Libya, a Nato air-raid on 1 May that hit Muammar Gaddafi’s compound came close to the leader, instead killing one of his sons and two grandchildren

* In Yemen on 6 May, an armed-drone attack that targeted the radical preacher Anwar al-Awlaki killed two people.

The pursuit by states of enemies across frontiers is not new. The approach was practised by European powers in the colonial era; by the United States (for example in Latin America) and the Soviet Union (for example in Afghanistan) during the cold war; and since the 1980s most intensively by Israel.

The above cases of military action by western forces suggest that, within this overall context, a redirection of this trend may be developing. Some changes in US security policy and personnel provide further evidence of this.

The great shift

R James Woolsey, appointed CIA director by Bill Clinton when he assumed the presidency in 1993, used a vivid image to characterise the United States’s security role in the post-cold-war world; America, he said, had slain the dragon only to find itself now inhabiting a jungle full of poisonous snakes (see “America and the world’s jungle”, 27 May 2010)

Woolsey foresaw the need to tame that jungle, and was part of the process of redirecting US intelligence and security forces towards the task; in part that meant shedding cold-war arsenals while enhancing rapid-reaction forces and special-operations command. 

Roger W Barnett, a former US submarine captain, had in 1992 anticipated another shift when writing of “the impact of high technology weapons and weapons of mass destruction on the ability - and thus the willingness - of the weak to take up arms against the strong” (see Asymmetrical Warfare: Today's Challenge to U.S. Military Power   [Potomac, 2003]). Here he had it perhaps half right in that these two decades have seen less high-tech assaults than the skilful use of mid-tech weapons deployed to terrible effect - such as turning passenger-jets into massive cruise missiles on 9/11, and the repeated use of suicide-bombs and sophisticated improvised explosive devices.

How is such use of military technologies on both sides developing now, after a decade of the “war on terror”? It is clear that, even in the wake of American euphoria over Osama bin Laden's death, the costs of the global war continue to have a profound and chastening effect in Washington. The Pentagon still enjoys huge military budgets, but cannot disguise the contrast between the expectations of 2001 and the realities of 2011.

A war in Afghanistan that seemed to be won after six weeks is now heading towards its second decade; a war in Iraq that led to regime change within three weeks turned out to be the prelude to a seven-year war in which 4,500 American troops were killed and at least 20,000 seriously wounded. The civilian death-tolls in both countries are in the tens of thousands; the number of refugees and displaced is in the millions; and more than 100,000 people are detained without trial, some of them for close to a decade.

The underlying military realities are even more sobering. In Afghanistan and Iraq alike, a few thousand insurgents have held down well over 100,000 well-armed and well-trained western forces for year after year. They were not a static force (many insurgents have moved in and out of combat roles) and they could rely on considerable background support; but in the context of the US and its allies’ complete control of air and space, and their overwhelming advantages in equipment and firepower on the ground, it is salutary to see how R James Woolsey’s “jungle” can fight back (see "A world beyond control", 23 May 2008).

The US military and security agencies have responded to their difficulties by intensifying their efforts, not least by the use of drones and special forces. But what is particularly significant is the manner in which intelligence, counterinsurgency and counter-terrorism are all beginning to merge into a seamless web of a single security posture.

This is reflected in personnel terms by the impending transfer of Leon Panetta from CIA director to defence secretary in succession to Robert Gates, with General David H Petraeus moving from military commander in Afghanistan to CIA director. This switch of positions is much more than symbolic - a point emphasised by the fact that bin Laden’s assassination was run by the CIA but deployed the Pentagon's special forces in the raid.

The closing space

In a broad perspective, what has changed is this. The early stages of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were fought according to the common assumptions at the time - articulated most vocally by Donald Rumsfeld, defence secretary in George W Bush’s administration, that in the age of pervasive airpower with its multitude of precision-guided missiles and bombs few “boots on the ground” were necessary. The course of events in both countries demolished this view.

Some analysts concluded that the United States and its partners might learn from the evident failure of the “war on terror” by paying more attention to the underlying causes of the conflicts, especially the factors motivating young paramilitaries to take extreme action (see Global Security after the War on Terror, Oxford Research Group, 2009).

The logic of such a shift could even lead to efforts to avert “revolts from the margins” amid a divided and ecologically constrained world at the root: via emancipatory social efforts, and making a transition to low-carbon economies and other forms of sustainable security.

This optimistic analysis is now starting to look rather frayed. The United States and its coalition allies have indeed started to learn from a decade’s failures; but the lessons they are drawing show them still to be rooted in a “control paradigm”: keeping the lid on conflicts (“liddism”) rather than preventing their emergence (see “Beyond ‘liddism’: towards real global security”, 1 April 2010).

This old policy, true, is intended to be employed in a different way. There will be no more “boots on the ground”, at least in the form of tens of thousands of troops deployed overseas; nor will there be an inordinate reliance on air-power and precision-guided munitions. What there will be is a blurring of the roles between the military and agencies such as the CIA; an assumption of paramilitary roles by intelligence agencies; and a deployment of the military's special forces in “taking out” threats whenever and wherever they arise (see Mark Mazzetti & Eric Schmitt, “Obama's Pentagon and C.I.A. Picks Show Shift in How U.S. Fights”, New York Times, 29 April 2011).

In the context of an increasingly fragile and uncertain world, and of a situation where radical groups and individuals from marginalised communities are capable of probing the innate weaknesses of advanced industrial states, these measures are seriously misconceived in terms of finding solutions to the problems western states are facing.

Barack Obama’s administration has shown occasional signs of a more forward-looking leadership. Now, the direction of its military thinking is closing the space for a fundamental rethink. The modification of the US’s security posture, exemplified in the reaction to Osama bin Laden's death, may initially prove popular. But so, once, were the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. It is difficult to imagine that the newer type of “transnational” warfare will have a more successful outcome.

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