The United States Can Win Battles, But Needs A Better Strategy To Win Wars


Here’s a damning contradiction: Since the early days of the Korean War, the US military has won virtually every battle it has fought. But what’s the last war the United States really won? The answer is World War II.

After 20 years in Afghanistan, the Biden administration ordered the withdrawal of US military forces (and by extension NATO) from Afghanistan by September 11. Put simply, the United States and its allies have lost, a prediction made in a 2007 Atlantic Council study on Afghanistan that began “NATO is losing in Afghanistan.” But what’s up?

The Korean War (1950-1953) was a draw at best because Army General Douglas MacArthur insisted China would not intervene, which it did with a million of soldiers. Vietnam was a disaster. After more than a dozen years, with 58,000 American soldiers and countless Vietnamese dead, in 1974, the last American helicopter took off from Saigon, a tragically emblematic image of defeat.

Even when the United States tried to use moderate levels of force, it often failed. In October 1983, 241 American servicemen sent to stabilize that country were killed in the bombing of the Marine Barracks in Beirut, Lebanon. A few days later, the United States invaded Grenada, allegedly to rescue American medical students enrolled at St. Georges Medical School. But the operational commander, Vice Admiral Joseph Metcalfe, told Washington the students were not in danger.

In fact, the Reagan administration launched the assault to stop the construction of an airfield that the Cubans were building towards the USSR in order to expand its Caribbean presence. But it was wrong. A British company had been awarded the contract as part of a British tourism expansion plan and was hiring the cheapest labor, namely Cuban.

The First Iraq War (1990-91) was less a war than a punitive campaign sparked by Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. In 100 hours in 1991, a coalition of fifty states turned Saddam Hussein’s army into junk. But it was not a full-fledged war.

After the September 11 attacks, the second Bush administration intervened in Afghanistan to bring al-Qaida and Osama bin Laden to justice. But US Central Command allowed bin Laden to escape to the Tora Bora Mountains in Afghanistan because the 10th Mountain Division was not trained to fight at high altitudes. Then, as attention turned to Iraq, the mission in Afghanistan metastasized into a nation-building mission in a country America never understood.

President George W. Bush became convinced that by imposing democracy the “geostrategic landscape” of the Middle East could be changed. Iraqi weapons of mass destruction were the casus belli. The invasion plunged the region into chaos, empowering Iran and Syria and allowing Russia to wield greater influence. And of course Iraq did not have ADM.

The reasons why, although the United States military consistently won battles, the nation still lost wars lay in the administrations’ persistent failure to understand the circumstances under which force was to be used and in the pride of assuming that American power was a solvent or a universal remedy. Ideology, desirability, and group thinking also induced poor judgment. And between George HW Bush and Joe Biden, four presidents were elected with no or minimal foreign policy experience.

Today, Trump’s national defense strategy, tentatively approved by the Biden team, directs the Pentagon to “compete, deter and, if war breaks out, defeat” a list of potential Chinese-led adversaries, “the threat of stimulation ”, followed by Russia. Yet how to achieve these goals is unclear and possibly unworkable and unaffordable, meaning that each is more ambitious than practical.

What needs to be done? First, the assessment of national security challenges and issues must go beyond the assessment of threats alone and take a closer look at the weaknesses and vulnerabilities of potential adversaries and dangers. Second, Teddy Roosevelt was right to “speak quietly”. Hard rhetoric alone is not a smart strategy. Third, perhaps even greater danger, the new MAD for Massive Attacks of Disruption, must be integrated into national security planning and strategy.

Critical strategic thinking should start with defining achievable outcomes and then developing a strategy. This is not the American practice. Instead, the United States is inclined to allow a combination of unclear goals, technologies, and tactics to drive strategy. It is precisely backwards.

Unless the American leadership recognizes the United States’ limited record in winning wars, not just battles, and determines why victory was so elusive, don’t expect current defense strategy regarding China and Russia gives better results.

Harlan Ullman is Senior Advisor to the Atlantic Council in Washington, DC and author of “The Fifth Horseman and the New MAD: How Massive Attacks of Disruption Became Looming Existential Dangers to a Divided Nation and the World at Large”.

The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.


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