There has never been a protracted war from which a country has benefited. Sun Tzu
Don’t fight a battle if you don’t gain anything by winning. Erwin Rommel
The United States and its Allies have been at war for over 10 years and that war has worn us down. Even as we battle for minimal gains in Afghanistan while attempting to finish withdrawing from Iraq the costs of this war are now becoming evident to the most casual observer.
Over 5900 U.S. Military personnel have died in the Iraq and Afghanistan campaigns and over 40,000 wounded. Add to this over 2000 contractors, mostly foreign killed or died or wounds or illness and over 16,000 wounded while employed by firms contracted by the U.S. Government. This does not count Allied military personnel. Thousands more suffer from Traumatic Brain Injury or PTSD or moral injuries that impact their lives and those of their families’ years after serving and the necessary billions of dollars to pay for the medical and psychological wounds of war. Despite increases in funding and personnel the Veterans Administration has been overwhelmed by the numbers of discharged veterans requiring medical or psychological care.
The financial cost of the current wars is astronomical. The official cost is a trillion dollars since 2001 in excess of regular defense spending with Afghanistan costing over 190 million dollars a day. Military equipment including high end equipment such as aircraft are reaching the end of their service lives sooner that planned due to the high operations tempo and sustained combat operations in inhospitable climates. An ossified defense bureaucracy which Defense Secretary Robert Gates says had an “overwhelming tendency of our defense bureaucracy to focus on preparing for future high-end conflicts – priorities often based, ironically, on what transpired in the last century – as opposed to the messy fights in Iraq and Afghanistan,” and a military procurement system laden with pet projects pushed by legislators influenced by lobbyists from defense industries pushing the most expensive and often problem laden systems imaginable. Even those which eventually turn out to be great weapons come in way over budget and take far too long to go from the drawing board to the battlefield. Others turn out to be money pits which sometimes never enter production after years and sometimes decades of development.
Because of the national economic and financial crisis and huge national debts the military is being cut back even as the wars continue and more crises arise in critical regions. Because of the commitments in Iraq and Afghanistan the United States is now lacking strategic and operational depth to react to new situations. We are fortunate that the ferry sent to rescue American citizens in Libya was not attacked while trapped in Tripoli harbor. The Marine Expeditionary Unit which would normally be at sea for contingency or humanitarian operations is engaged in Afghanistan and the Amphibious Group that supports it is operating east of the Suez. Two Carrier Battle Groups are now required in the 5th Fleet Area of Operations putting additional strain on our ability to respond to other situations.
Very bluntly the long ground wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are taking away from our ability to respond if need be to situations in areas that are actually more important to us and the world in a strategic and economic way. Secretary Gates knows how much these wars have weakened the military and the nation and in a speech to cadets at the United States Military warned his successors “Any future defense secretary who advises the president to again send a big American land army into Asia or into the Middle East or Africa should ‘have his head examined,’ as General [Douglas] MacArthur so delicately put it.”
The fact is that we are hamstrung by the ongoing wars which limit our ability to respond to rapidly changing situations. We are in a similar situation to the Germans in 1942 and 1943 overcommitted, overstretched and lacking true strategic depth to respond to unanticipated situations as are now occurring across the Middle East. In 1942 and 1943 the Germans were always just just short of the forces that would have turned the tide.
Gates said of our situation:
“We can’t know with absolute certainty what the future of warfare will hold, but we do know it will be exceedingly complex, unpredictable, and – as they say in the staff colleges – ‘unstructured’. Just think about the range of security challenges we face right now beyond Iraq and Afghanistan: terrorism and terrorists in search of weapons of mass destruction, Iran, North Korea, military modernization programs in Russia and China, failed and failing states, revolution in the Middle East, cyber, piracy, proliferation, natural and man-made disasters, and more.”
In September 1944 with the Western Front in ruins Field Marshal Gerd Von Rundstedt was appointed to command German forces in the West. After receiving a briefing from his staff about the situation a senior staff officer asked what they should do. Von Rundstedt reportedly said “Make peace, you fools.” I have placed a link to that incident from the film A Bridge too Far here.
I’m not arguing for a precipitous withdraw that would leave an even more chaotic situation in Afghanistan but we have to decide what the end game is there and how we will adjust our strategy to meet reality.
The long war in Afghanistan and the war which we are leaving in Iraq have hurt us in the long run in many ways. We have to ask hard questions about the war as to whether the continued sacrifices of the Marines, Soldiers, Sailors and Airmen that fight it and the impact on our ability to respond to other crises are something that we think are in our best interests as a nation. At least Secretary Gates is asking the hard questions.
It was Britain’s involvement on the European Continent during the First World War which impoverished her and doomed the Empire. Britain was traditionally a naval power that tried not to become involved on the Continent whenever possible. It is entirely possible that our long war in Afghanistan and Iraq will reduce us as an economic and military power and leave our interests around the world vulnerable just as the World Wars did to Britain.