Evaluation of War on Terror Strategy

Our War on Terror strategy (see this) implies readiness for large and small scale action in multiple theaters throughout Africa, the Middle East and Central Asia, Southeast Asia, and Northern and Western South America.  How likely is its success, how long will it take, can we afford the cost, and is there a better approach?

The goal of the strategy is to eliminate Islamic “holy war” terrorists who might attack us from anywhere in the world.  It is unachievable.  That kind of threat can not be ended, only mitigated and endured.  Military action is in fact counter-productive because the collateral destruction creates more terrorists and strengthens their support.  Even if we could utterly destroy al Qaeda, we could not declare victory because we declared war on all Muslim terrorists.  Since there are over a billion Muslims, there will always be a few Muslim extremists just as there will always be some who are Christian.

Response to aggression should always be proportional to the threat, and it must be able to succeed.  Our response is massively disproportional and it can never succeed.

A strategy of unending military engagement everywhere would exhaust any nation.  That strategy for the USA predates the War on Terror.  We spend more on military activities than the next 20 nations combined, which is half our total expected Federal tax revenue.  The cost of our already high Federal debt must become unaffordable when our spending is persistently so much higher than revenue.  No nation can afford war that is permanent.  We cannot afford this strategy’s cost.

And the strategy will make us permanently less free.  When we go to war to preserve our liberty, we willingly forgo some of the freedoms we enjoy in everyday life, expecting them to be restored when victory is achieved.  If victory never can be won, those freedoms never will be regained.

Finally, the strategy creates unwarranted suffering for our own people.  Enormously more of our troops are killed than the number of US citizens threatened by terrorists and enormously more of them suffer physical and/or psychological damage from which they will never recover.  Caring for them has a high dollar cost.  Far more important, we are wrong to demand their sacrifice.

So, we are forcing future generations to pay for a war that cannot succeed and which limits the very freedoms we claim it will preserve.  How did this happen?

For the first half century after we emerged as a great power early in the 20th century, we acted overseas only after deliberation and then with decisive power.  The great good fortune of our geography gave us time to prepare and sufficient resources to do so.  We entered WW1 and WW2 when we were ready and we brought about rapid victory.

We radically changed strategy following WW2.  We began managing the world whether or not our immediate interests were threatened in any particular situation.  We took the lead in Korea, which the Allies had split into two nations at the end of WW2.  Then we initiated a long, bloody and fruitless war in Vietnam that spilled over into Laos and Cambodia.  And we established a nuclear strategy of “mutually assured destruction” which we did not change after Soviet Russia, our only military rival, collapsed and we no longer faced any existential threat.

In response to the 9/11 attack on two mainland USA targets by al Queda terrorists, we initiated not just detective work but war, as if we had been attacked by a nation.  We invaded Iraq even though we knew there was no Iraqi involvement in the attacks.  We heavily bombed Afghanistan where al Queda’s leaders were based and inserted ground forces there.  After Al Queda’s command cell relocated to Pakistan, we greatly increased our activities in Afghanistan.  By about 2004 we had lost focus on what our War on Terror was intended to achieve.

No satisfactory reason for our invasion of Iraq emerged, civil war broke out, and opposition to us was so strong by 2004 that we could only maintain our presence by allying with our enemies.  Furthermore, by destroying Iraq’s power we had eliminated the only regional balance against Iran, which we now view as our enemy.  After entering Afghanistan to disrupt al Qaeda’s leadership, we drifted into fighting the Taliban, a different and far more costly objective that required massive force.  We then, as in Iraq, set a far longer term objective, building a democratic society.  When we installed the Karzai government, the Taliban retreated to the mountains to wait us out.  We are now downsizing our presence but the end of our war in Afghanistan is indefinitely far distant.

Meanwhile, we began to capture and monitor all electronic communications to identify terrorists.   Believing we were threatened by potentially massive new attacks, we could only hope to avert them by monitoring all communications between everyone, and storing everything so we could monitor earlier communications of new suspects.  We partially suspended habeas corpus so suspects could be jailed indefinitely without trial.  We began torturing them, illegal in the USA even in wartime, in camps overseas.  We began killing suspects without due process.  The President can now direct even US citizens to be killed.

In the past 10 years we have killed around 3,000 terrorists and civilians with drones in Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen and elsewhere, i.e., inside nations on which we have not declared war, and the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), which killed bin Laden, has established commando teams in Africa for operations throughout NE Africa and the Middle East.  Attorney General Holder asserts: “Our legal authority is not limited to the battlefield in Afghanistan… We are at war with a stateless enemy, prone to shifting operations from country to country.”  That authority extends, he says, to killing US citizens without regard to geography or due process.

War changes society by limiting citizens’ rights.  Inspecting the private communications of citizens is routine during war, habeas corpus and due process are routinely suspended, and what would be assassination in time of peace becomes legal.  But if our war on terror never ends, our civil liberties and peacetime rules of law will never be restored.  They will be further eroded.

We are now, 12 years into this war, committing massive resources to missions that are not even clearly connected with preventing Islamist terrorism and we are making permanent what were introduced as emergency overrides on the Bill of Rights, e.g., the need to obtain a warrant for certain actions.

No nation can afford the dollar cost of permanent war or the spiritual cost of war that can never be won.  When we do take military action it should be with clear goals and sufficient force applied in a way that will achieve the goals.  Our present strategy has none of these attributes.

Military Operations Strategy

Military Operations, Inc (MOI) — see this post — is both imaginary and real.  It behaves like an entity with a purpose even though there is no entity (defined by Merriam-Webster as, “an organization that has an identity separate from those of its members”).

MOI’s components benefit from acting together.  That’s all.  There is not even an essence hidden by a conspiracy.  MOI has no essence, is not bound together by common ownership or force, and yet it displays consistently reinforcing behavior that nourishes the life of its components just as if it did have an overall identity.

It seems that consistency of behavior could only result from an overall strategy, a comprehensive guide for action.  It’s not that way.  MOI strategy is not set by the top-down formal method of large corporate enterprises.  There is no over-arching strategy, only complementary ones for MOI’s components.  Most of those strategies are private to the individual components, especially ones that compete with each other.  Some strategic material is, however, in the public domain.  Here’s a link to one:

Source:  http://www.ifpafletcherconference.com/2010/powerpoint/Air_and_Space_MajGenMcDew_for%20release.ppt

The author of this January 2010 presentation is Vice Director, Strategic Plans & Policy for the Joint Chiefs of Staff.  He introduced it as not necessarily the position of any part of the US government including its military leaders but we can assume it reflects their views as well as the President, Secretary of Defense, Secretary of State, Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, and executives of our major military weapons and services suppliers.

This slide illustrates where military action may be initiated.  You can click it and magnify, but even the small version conveys the idea.  Because the Cold War is over, there is no longer a threat from Russia, and traditional wars are unlikely to be started by Europe’s initiators of past world wars, or China, India, Australia, Canada or Brazil.   That leaves only the less developed areas of the world.

Air_and_Space_MajGenMcDew [Compatibility Mode]Major General McDew termed the potentially formidable adversaries that are not in fact threats the “Functioning Core”.   All other nations are depicted as inside a “Boundary of the Non-Integrating Gap”.  That vast area includes the whole of Africa, the Middle East and Central Asia, Southeast Asia including the entire Indonesian archipelago, and Northern and Western South America.   “Future hot spots” are highlighted in each region.

What are the implications of this view?  We may be called to action anywhere within a huge area, perhaps in several theaters simultaneously.  Action may be urgent, so we need bases throughout the area.  Substantial land forces may be required, especially in the Middle East.  We need large air reconnaissance, attack and transport capabilities.  We need a navy large enough to keep the huge oceans within the boundary safe, as a mobile base for attack wherever needed, and for large scale transport throughout the area.

Even when we are not fighting anywhere, this view implies a very large military capability of every kind deployed over a very wide area.  Terrorist threats and humanitarian crises could emerge anywhere.

This is a strategic view with benefits for every component of MOI and any US President because their power is greater in time of war.  Public support is more likely for an ongoing program of preparedness than for traditional wars like Vietnam a generation ago or Iraq and Afghanistan in the past decade.   This is a strategy for war without end.

In a future post I will explore implications of this strategy for the future of the American people.

The Military-Industrial Complex

In The Federal Budget and GDP and The Canary and the Colly Bird I said I’d take a flashlight, calculator and canary to investigate the “Military-industrial mine-shaft that keeps us in a ruinously costly perpetual state of war”.  There’s a lot of camouflage but my flashlight shed some light on the business results of what I’ll call Military Operations Inc (MOI).  The canary was distressed at times but it’s OK now, maybe because I didn’t yet take it very deep.

What I mean by camouflage in this context is none of the numbers I found so far can entirely be trusted.  As the Congressional GAO repeatedly says: “serious financial management problems at the Department of Defense make its financial statements unauditable.”  Nonetheless, the following numbers are sufficiently OK to show relative sizes. To set them in context, DOD spending is 20% or more and DOD plus non-DOD military spending 30% or more of federal spending, i.e., around half of total estimated Federal tax revenues.  Military spending grew 9% annually since 2000, much faster than GDP, and now accounts for 5%-8% of GDP.

Our stated military spending, which exceeds the next 20 nations combined, is actually a lot higher than the $711B for 2011 shown below.  That number is said to include War on Terror spending but I doubt all those costs are included.  Additional spending on defense-related programs, e.g., Veterans Affairs, Homeland Security, and nuclear weapons maintenance brings the total above $1T and even to $1.4T with interest on debt incurred in past wars.   We have military bases in at least 150 countries, almost 1.5M active military personnel, an additional 100K DOD personnel and substantially more than 100K contractor personnel in Iraq and Afghanistan.

US and Other Nation Military Spending 2011

Spending dropped after the collapse of the Soviet Union but greatly increased following the 2001 terrorist attack that killed 3,000 US civilians.  The canary was distressed to learn that the War on Terror response to that attack, recast by the Obama administration as Overseas Contingency Operation, has so far resulted in over 6,500 US military personnel killed and 50,000 wounded.  The bird may not have recovered if I’d been able to find dependable counts of Iraqis, Afghanis and others killed and wounded.

Although the canary sees ratios, it is fundamentally innumerate.  It recovered while I returned to my calculator.  The numbers in the chart below are understated, as noted above, but they do correctly illustrate the spending pattern.  A 2011 Congressional report estimates the total cost of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars will be $1.8 trillion.  An academic report the same year that includes other areas of related spending estimates $5.4 trillion.

Total US Defense Spending since 1947

The canary showed new signs of distress when I examined the spending rationale.  When President Bush declared war on terror he said it “will not end until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped and defeated.”  The canary was troubled because:

  • Such a war can never end
  • The justification for the first big operation was false – satellite images said to be of Iraqi factories for enriching uranium were not
  • That operation was followed by ones the public barely questioned in Afghanistan, the Philippines, Somalia, Trans Saharan Africa, Pakistan and Yemen
  • We are repeatedly told to be prepared for future actions against North Korea and Iran

The canary recovered while I looked at more numbers.  We can’t know for sure where the money goes, but the next chart gives a sense of the breakdown.  Pay and housing for military personnel fluctuates fairly closely around $100B.  Spending on weapons and procurement increased steeply during the Vietnam War, again toward the end of the Cold War and again from the start of the War on Terror.   Spending on war operations, in other words MOI’s revenue from conducting war, which also grew during the Vietnam War and Cold War escalation, increased dramatically in the past decade.

Defense Spending Composition since 1962

Defense R&D spending remains relatively consistent.  I’ll come back to this another day because it yields some civilian benefits, e.g., the Internet.  Most of the $700B to $1T we spend on defense is simply a burden on income tax payers, a tax whose only rationale is to prevent the possible occurrence of negative things.

What, then, have I learned on Day 1 of this exploration?  MOI’s Overseas Contingency Operation (OCO) product line is yielding greatly increased revenues.   The obvious next question is the OCO product line’s longer term potential in the “negative things” market.   How much further can OCO revenues be grown and for how long?  To approach answers, I will next explore OCO product strategy in the context of MOI’s overall business strategy and organizational structure.  I’ll carefully watch the canary for signs of distress.