By J.R. Dunn
Are we losing the War on Terror? Five years after 9/11, the question is being asked with some urgency, and not by appeasers, defeatists, or the general run of whiner, but by individuals of respect, people of considerable expertise and experience, people deserving of close attention under any circumstance.
They have come to believe that at worst, the war is being lost, and at best, the war effort is losing steam, that we’ve begun to cede the initiative to the Jihadis, an error that may cost us a terribly high price not far down the line.
The pessimistic scenario
This school of thought holds that the U.S. is courting political and military disaster through an inflexible approach to the war in general and Iraq in particular. Jihadi ability to adapt to American tactics has left the U.S. and its allies in a precarious position. A single sizable disaster – something on the order of the Tet Offensive – could destroy support for the current war strategy and leave the U.S. facing an impasse even worse than that of Vietnam, a trap in which the U.S. would be unable disengage and at the same time incapable of mustering the public support or the political will to prevail.
On the face of it, little evidence exists for this stance. The Jihadis certainly can’t claim any serious recent successes. This past summer has seen bombing plots in Britain, Toronto, the U.S., and Germany broken up, with most of the conspirators in custody. Only sporadic individual attacks have occurred, carried out by misfits with no evident connections to Al-Qaeda or related networks. Iraq, after a very rough few months, is starting to look up. The most serious problem there is not the Jihadis per se, but the festering sore of Moqtada al-Sadr and his nearly out-of-control militia forces, which will have to be dealt with sooner rather than later.Similarly, Afghanistan has seen a series of Allied successes in recent weeks, with a resurgent Taliban suffering heavy casualties in nearly every encounter.
The only visible exceptions involve Pervez Musharaff’s effective surrender concerning Jihadi activities in Waziristan (which merely formalizes the situation on the ground), and the ambiguous Lebanon conflict, which left Israel reeling from its “victory” over Hezbollah, a victory which cost most of its martial reputation and all of its peace of mind.
This can’t honestly be called “losing”. But there is one sense in which the feeling of disquiet is justified: all these are defensive victories, in which offensive plans by the Jihadis were broken up. On the other side, the all-important Western effort against the Jihadi networks and sanctuaries, there’s little to show. True, Zarqawi has been killed and his deputy al-Saeedi captured, but these too were essentially defensive actions. Osama, Zawahiri, and Omar still roam Waziristan, their networks still exist – and may in fact have grown in efficiency – and their supporters among the Muslim states and in the West remain unidentified and untouched. Ahmadenijad and the mullahs continue to bluster. The bombers keep coming.
And so we get a sense of running in place, a feeling that events have somehow escaped our grasp, that the vast tide of will and determination has begun to ebb, leaving our enemies standing untouched.
The estimable Victor Davis Hanson identifies this as a “bellum interruptem” – “a sort of war, a sort of peace” caused by either
He identifies two previous such episodes, from 421-415 BCE during the Peloponnesian War, and between October 1939 and May 1940 during World War II. Both ended in catastrophe for the democratic states, with Athens and Western Europe suffering defeat, occupation, and tyranny. Dr. Hanson views the recent calm with foreboding, fearing that we are simply waiting, all unknowing, for the next blow to fall.
But such interludes have occurred in other wars as well, and did not necessarily end badly. Several others of shorter duration occurred during the twenty-eight year conflict between Athens and Sparta. Most of the Hundred Years War between England and France was made up of such calm periods, as the contenders jockeyed for support, built up their forces, or fought among themselves. In our own time, the Cold War was marked by lengthy intervals of quiet and even cooperation between crises and proxy wars. (It has been argued – convincingly, I think – that the Soviet Union lasted so long only because the West repeatedly bailed it out every time it hit an economic wall.)
So it appears that the bellum interruptem, far from being an unusual or alarming element of the current conflict, is in fact a typical feature of long wars, one that doesn’t necessarily forecast the drift of events one way or the other. It could scarcely be any other way.
The culminating point
In an earlier piece, I mentioned a military concept called the culminating point,
The concept of the culminating point, like so much else, is derived from the work of Carl von Clausewitz. As an invading army advances into enemy territory, it begins to lose its strength through a process of operational attrition. These unavoidable losses include occupation troops, troops needed to screen or engage enemy concentrations and fortresses, and troops needed to guard supply lines going through hostile territory. At the same time, resources become more difficult to acquire, due to long supply lines and hostile activity. Add on the moral effect, with enemy resistance stiffening as the invading army moves deeper into home territory, and the inevitable follows: at a certain distinct point, the advantage shifts from attacker to defender, and it’s no longer militarily feasible to continue an advance.
The current status of the War on Terror fits this analysis to near-perfection. American and Coalition forces are deeply involved in Iraq, Afghanistan, and numerous other points across the globe. (It’s often forgotten that this war is a global effort, with operations occurring in Africa, Central Asia, India, Thailand, the Philippines, and even Latin America.)
Resources are not precisely strained, but they are committed, which in a global sense means they are not available. Morally, the picture is even less favorable. It has been a long time since 9/11, and people are beginning to get a little vague about the purpose and import of the war, a natural development that the loyal opposition, both in politics and out, has been quick to take advantage of. Actions and rhetoric creeping to the very threshold of treason – and arguably beyond – have seriously eroded support for current operations and curtailed any possibility of further efforts, however necessary they may be.
Clearly, the war has reached a culminating point. The first phase is effectively over – for the sake of the record, we can draw the line under the ambiguous Lebanon operation. (Let me add that I’m not claiming that the result of that campaign can be explained in these terms – the Israeli failure was due to another abstruse military factor, stupidity.) The Western coalition has lost momentum, to the momentary advantage of the Jihadis. Leaders and personnel not yet under direct military threat are safe for the time being. Western forces won’t be carrying out any major operations for the foreseeable future.
Nor should they. Clausewitz is adamant in his insistence that pushing on past the culminating point is military folly at its most egregious.
The downfall of Athens didn’t occur due to enemy operations, but because of a grandiose campaign against Syracuse, the wealthiest and most powerful of Greek colonies, dreamed up by the city’s resident wild man, Alcibiades. The Syracuse campaign was carried on well past the limits of sanity, much less common sense, resulting in the complete annihilation of the Athenian army, and setting in motion the tailspin that ended only in the city’s defeat and occupation.
The current state of affairs can’t, in any reasonable sense, be called “losing.” We need to keep in mind that the culminating point is a product of success.
It’s a circumstance that occurs only at the end of a victorious campaign against an enemy that, for whatever reason, can’t be completely negated or destroyed. The Jihadis may be secure, but only in wastelands and backwaters like Somalia and Waziristan. Their assets have been crushed and scattered. The pre-war status quo, in which they operated freely on the international stage with the open collaboration of outlaw states, will not return. Those with remaining doubts should ask themselves: given the chance, would they care to switch positions with the Jihadis right about now?
The current bellum interruptem is not a sign of failure or collapse, it does not mean that all is lost, or that defeat is looming. It is a natural element of war, part of its morphology, a logical development of engaging in conflict in the universe as it exists. It is particularly prominent in long wars. We shall see several future interludes like this one. The question is how to utilize them best to promote our cause and afflict our enemies.
The war will not simply shut down. It will continue on a lower key as we consolidate our gains in the territory we have rescued from the Jihadis. It’ll be some time before the governmental forces in both Iraq and Afghanistan will be able to take up the full burden, so we will be engaged there and still doing considerable damage to the Jihadis.
It’s also necessary to keep in mind that this is as much a political and social battle as a military one, if not more so. This would be a convenient moment to devote more resources to programs designed to undermine the Jihadi’s appeal to the Muslim masses. These might consist of public relations, educational, and propaganda campaigns in various mixtures aimed at children, professionals, the educated middle classes, and in particular women. Support for the Jihadis has already begun to wane in many areas of the Muslim world due in large part to a belated recognition that they are essentially takfiri – Muslims who turn on other Muslims. It shouldn’t be difficult to accelerate this process.
Another possibility can be derived from the experience of the Cold War. That conflict saw numerous pauses such as the Thaw period following the Korean War and Detente following Vietnam. While much energy was wasted during these interludes attempting to tantalize the USSR away from its ideology-driven quest for global mastery, at the same time the U.S. acted almost unwittingly to assure victory over the long term.
The quiet periods were used to build up military forces, both strategic (which is to say, nuclear) and conventional to a point that the Soviets dared not challenge the U.S. directly. But often overlooked is the concurrent process in which the U.S. effectively left the Soviet Union in the dust on the social, political, and economic levels. Certain structural defects in American society – in particular, racial segregation and the Victorian “protected” status for females that sat so ill on a frontier-based society – were corrected. Economically, the U.S. evolved into a powerhouse of a nature unmatched in the historical record.
When high noon at last arrived in the early 1980s, it was no contest. A united and confident U.S. faced a USSR that was an economic basket case and a social train wreck. Time was on the side on the West in that confrontation.
Is time on our side in this war? There are many indications that is indeed the case.
The Muslim world continues to come to terms with modernity. Every adaptation of an element of the modern world puts another barrier between the everyday Muslim and the Jihadis. This process involves not only democracy and freedom of thought, but also the technical and social constituents that, whatever resistance may exist, carry the higher and more abstract concepts along with them. Every time a Muslim uses a computer, puts on a suit, or drives a Western car, another nail is driven into Osama bin Laden’s dream reality. It’s a slow process, but it’s a definitive one – and there is no turning back. Yes, Jihadis may also use these tools in the short run, but in the long run the freedom they bring erodes the codes they seek to impose.
So yes – in the long run, time is on our side. We can make that run shorter through a full understanding of the nature of the conflict we’re involved in, and careful efforts to assure that it develops to our advantage. The culminating point is not a stalemate. Eventually, very likely involving Iran, we will once again come out swinging. Then the second phase will begin.
J.R. Dunn is a frequent contributor. Among many other things, he was editor of the International Military Encyclopedia for twelve years.