How to Fight a Better War (Next Time)
Three Fixes for the American Way of War
By Tom Engelhardt
Iraq remains a mess from which the U.S. military seems increasingly uninterested in withdrawing fully and Afghanistan a disaster area, but it’s never too soon to think about the next war. The subject is already on the minds of Pentagon planners. The question is: Are they focusing on how to manage future wars so that they won’t last longer than the American Revolution, the Civil War, and World War II combined?
There’s reason to worry, especially since the lessons of both Iraq and Afghanistan are clear: it takes years after a war has been launched for the U.S. military to develop tactics that lead to stasis. (“Victory” is a word that has gone out of fashion.)
Here, then, are three modest suggestions for recalibrating the American way of war. All are based on a simple principle -- “preventive war planning” -- and are focused on getting the next war right before it begins, not decades after it’s launched.
1. Make the Apologies in Advance
Who can doubt that the American way of war has undergone changes since, in December 2001, a B-52 and two B-1B bombers using precision-guided weapons essentially wiped out a village celebrating a wedding in Eastern Afghanistan? Of 112 Afghans in that wedding party, only two women survived. Similarly, in August 2008, in the village of Azizabad in Herat Province, at least 90 Afghans, including 60 children, were killed in a series of U.S. air strikes, while in May 2009, up to 140 Afghan civilians died in a U.S. bombing attack in Farah Province.
Understandably, such “incidents” have done little to endear the U.S. and its allies to Afghans. Until recently, the U.S. military would initially deny that civilians had even died; if the incident refused to go away, military spokespeople would then admit to small numbers of civilian deaths (often blamed on the Taliban), while launching an “investigation” and waiting for the hubbub to die away. Apologies or “regrets” came late and grudgingly, if at all (along with modest payments to the relatives of the dead). Back then, being American and at war in distant lands meant never having to say you were sorry.
More recently, Afghan war commander General Stanley McChrystal has changed the rules, curbing air strikes (though not drone strikes), warning his troops to prevent civilian deaths, and instituting an instant expression of “regrets” for such deaths. One thing, however, has changed only marginally: the civilian deaths themselves.
In mid-February, for instance, 12 civilians died when two U.S. rockets slammed into a compound near the city of Marja in Helmand Province. The following day, five Afghan civilians digging at the side of a road in Kandahar Province were killed in an air strike after being mistaken for insurgents planting a roadside bomb. Then, in Uruzgan Province, U.S. Special Forces troops in helicopters struck a convoy of mini-buses, killing up to 27 civilians, including women and children.
After each of these incidents, regrets were quickly expressed, investigations launched. In the case of the mini-buses, McChrystal apologized to Afghan President Hamid Karzai personally and then went on Afghan television to make his apology public. (“I pledge to strengthen our efforts to regain your trust to build a brighter future for all Afghans. Most importantly, I express my deepest, heartfelt condolences to the victims and their families. We all share in their grief and will keep them in our thoughts and prayers.”)
Unfortunately, a policy of repeated apology is unlikely to prove much more successful than the previous stonewalling tactic as long as civilians die, which they will, given the American style of war. It may be too late to correct this in Afghanistan, but the next war is another story. My suggestion is simple: in the future, the U.S. military should issue a blanket apology before going to war, and the first waves of U.S. planes should not drop bombs but abjectly worded leaflets. These would take responsibility in advance for future civilian deaths and pre-apologize for them.
There is a partial precedent for this. In both the Korean and Vietnam wars, American planes regularly dropped leaflets warning peasant farmers that they were living in “free fire zones” and should beware or move out. In this case, the pamphlets would make clear that the United States is going after “the evil-doers” and admit that, despite our ever more precise weaponry, we will unfortunately kill a certain percentage of you in the process. (“The U.S. military expresses our deepest, heartfelt condolences to the future victims and their families. We will all share in their grief and, when they die, will keep them in our thoughts and prayers.”) We should also announce in advance at least a $1,500 solatium payment for any relative, spouse, or child who perishes, as well as carefully calibrated sums for the loss of limbs, eyes, and the like.
After this, whenever civilians die, the military would simply refer interested parties to the prewar statement. This should guarantee a cleaner, more effective way of war.
2. Pre-Build the Bases, Prisons, and Embassy Complexes
Thanks to nine years in Afghanistan and seven in Iraq, it’s easier to grasp how the American way of war actually works. A striking (if little discussed) aspect of it is the base-building that accompanies it. In the years of fighting, the Pentagon built several hundred bases in each country, ranging from tiny outposts to massive American “towns.” It also constructed multiple prisons and holding centers (some secret), and for each war, a nearly billion-dollar regional command center, which we still inaccurately call an “embassy.” The one in Islamabad, Pakistan, is only now under construction.
Much of this was done on the fly and in response to events. For the next war, it would be more logical to prepare in advance. Again, there is a partial precedent. In recent years, the U.S. has pre-positioned equipment at small bases and other locations around the world, so that, should a sudden desire to intervene arise, the means are relatively close at hand. This strategy should be significantly expanded. The Pentagon and the U.S. Intelligence Community could agree on the four most likely places for future interventions. Say, Yemen, Colombia, Nigeria, and Kyrgyzstan, and start laying the groundwork now.
The usual private contractors -- Fluor, DynCorp, and KBR -- should be rounded up to build the necessary 1,400 bases and accompanying prisons under a global multi-billion dollar LOGCAP contract to be divided among them. At the same time, the State Department would put those future mega-embassies out for bid to U.S. architectural firms so that the now-typical fortress-like designs (with their near-billion-dollar price tags) would be ready to go.
With full-scale base-prison-embassy complexes ready in four strategically located regions, future invasions would have a reasonable shot at not dragging out for decades.
3. Pick the Right Natives
It’s noticeable that the U.S. military always seems to get stuck with the wrong natives. Take the current campaign in Marja:
Afghan National Army (ANA) troops are regularly described as unable to read maps, incapable of “planning a complicated patrol” or resupplying themselves, poor at small unit maneuvering, poorly trained, refusing to stand night guard duty and sometimes even to fight, high on drugs, riddled with corruption, unable to aim their weapons, “years away from functioning effectively on their own,” and as C.J. Chivers of the New York Times recently summed matters up, totally inadequate when it comes to “transporting troops, directing them in battle and coordinating fire support [or] arranging modern communications, logistics, aviation and medical support.” And keep in mind that the soldiers sent into Marja are reportedly the best the ANA has available. All this, despite multi-billions of dollars and years of effort invested in Afghan army training. (And the Afghan police, for multi-billions more, make the Afghan army look good.)
On the other hand, perhaps a few hundred Taliban fighters stayed in Marja and fought. Descriptions of them invariably reflect grudging admiration. They are considered capable of planning and executing complex small-unit maneuvers as well as “sustained and complex attacks,” of resupplying themselves, of “surprisingly accurate” sniper fire, and of not being corrupt. In Marja, it was repeatedly said that “outnumbered and outgunned” Taliban fighters were “mounting a tougher fight than expected” or engaging in “determined resistance,” that they represented, in the words of Centcom commander General David Petraeus, a “formidable” force.
For those old enough to remember the Vietnam War, you could replace such descriptions of “our” Afghans with “our” Vietnamese and “their” Afghans with “their” Vietnamese without breaking stride. One explanation for this is that indigenous people react differently when fighting a foreign occupying force rather than aiding it. However, as U.S. forces are incapable of occupying a country thanks to our exceptionally good intentions (of which we are well aware), another explanation makes better sense: In the kinds of countries we’re likely to invade, there are evidently two races (or the equivalent) of natives -- think of them as like the Eloi and the Morlocks in H.G. Wells’s novel The Time Machine -- and we always pick the wrong one.
So before the next invasion, we should make use of small teams of anthropologists and social scientists from the U.S. Army’s Human Terrain System, already trained to help the military with local cultural problems. They should be inserted in the country or region in question to identify which natives are best suited for learning small-unit maneuvering and the other skills over which the enemy always seems to have such a monopoly.
Of course, a fourth planning possibility would involve not launching such wars in the first place. But that path would conflict with a basic American can-do spirit that this country prizes, so suggestions 1 through 3 are undoubtedly a more practical way to proceed.
Tom Engelhardt, co-founder of the American Empire Project, runs the Nation Institute's TomDispatch.com. He is the author of The End of Victory Culture, a history of the Cold War and beyond, as well as of a novel, The Last Days of Publishing. His latest book, The American Way of War (Haymarket Books), will be published in May. Catch the latest TomCast, TomDispatch.com’s audio interview with Tom Engelhardt on the American state of perpetual war, by clicking here, or download the podcast by clicking here.
Copyright 2010 Tom Engelhardt