President Biden’s announced withdrawal of our troops from Afghanistan, in turn, followed by NATO allies, is certainly welcome and long overdue. It is an acknowledgment of what has long been obvious: we were unprepared to pay the astronomical costs of defeating the Taliban. Victory was always a phantom in Afghanistan, just as it has been in Iraq for the United States and the western democracies.
Ending the direct involvement in wars like Afghanistan a hemisphere away from what we now call the "homeland" is a good idea, but the unsettled state of the international system means that perhaps, even more, grave conflicts loom in the cold dawn to come.
The people of this country should reflect deliberately on these possible threats and give more thought (and afterthought) to what is glibly called the “forever war,” but which requires a sober, non-ideological, and critical analysis not found in tweets, Instagram pictures, and cable news tantrums put together for our entertainment.
The German Prussian theoretician of war Carl von Clausewitz reminds us from the 19th century that organized political violence exists across a spectrum of conflict. As such, the struggle of political will as organized violence, as well as the native anger and hatred somehow shoved into a political goal, can scarcely be said ever to have abated at all.
In the time in which Clausewitz made his career in the early 19th century and in our own confused epoch, large and small antagonists stand locked in conflict on the verge of outright war or have begun to shoot at one another in combat that can swiftly escalate. Other combatants struggle against each other in the so-called grey zone of conflict, where the distinctions between war and peace appear murkier.
Were he here to offer us his ideas in a blog or on cable television, surely Clausewitz would be unsurprised at the world today that features hatred filled and entrenched organized political violence around the globe. As one reflects on the starkly limited successes, very high costs, and very dubious political and strategic results of the post 11 September 2001 campaigns for the United States, the goal of statecraft amid national pandemic reconstruction surely must be to refrain from the kind of promiscuous intervention and wild setting of impossible goals as happened in the Afghan and Iraq campaigns after the 9/11 attacks. The ultimate ratio of power via passage of arms should only be an option of policy when the nation's most vital interests are at risk.
Unfortunately, however, there are three troubling theaters of pre-war conflict right on our doorstep as we thankfully exit Afghanistan. The first two scenarios involve allies since the late 1940s: Israel and Taiwan/Nationalist China; the third scenario involves Putin’s Russia.
First, in the Gulf, Israel appears intent on provoking Iran at every opportunity. In recent months it has assassinated an Iranian nuclear scientist, set a bomb off at Iran’s nuclear research site at Natanz, and has allegedly attacked an Iranian spy ship in the Red Sea. Israel also has made no secret of its deployment of submarines allegedly equipped with nuclear weapons close to Iran’s shores. The only mystery of this situation is why Iran has acted with such restraint in response to these repeated provocations?
For the United States, the looming Iran-Israel confrontation comes amidst its own 40-year undeclared war with Iran. Importantly, however, the United States consciously has tried to prevent this undeclared war from becoming a declared one. A mid or high-intensity war between the United States and Iran is just a bad idea under any circumstances. The Biden Administration must avoid becoming sucked into Israel’s attempts to provoke direct Iranian hostilities. If Washington policymakers had trouble visualizing or defining victory in Afghanistan, how would they define “victory” in a war with Iran, exactly without destruction on a scale vastly surpassing the carnage in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and other combatants?
If anything, the Taiwan-China standoff is even more dangerous because of the long record of so-called world altering threats from Asia reaching back to the open door and the end of the 19th century and the scarcely examined love-hate relationship between the U.S. and China. The danger is all the greater because the Washington foreign policy community seems blithe to accept the idea that the United States should continue honoring its Cold War-era commitment to defend the island of Formosa as if the events of 1949-1958 there lay only a few months in the past. Take the "accepted wisdom" (punctuated by frequent U.S. Navy patrols in the Taiwan Strait) in combination with China’s repeated military probing of Taiwan’s air- and sea boundaries https://www.scmp.com/news/china/diplomacy/article/3129036/us-china-relations-military-tensions-continue-rise-over-taiwan and you have a situation that is ripe for wider escalation and war – a war for which we remain woefully unprepared and cannot win in any circumstance.
Like the situation with Afghanistan and Iran, it is hard to envision any situation in which the United States could achieve a “victory” in any war involving China. Japan was the last country to try such a strategy in the years from the late 1890s until the 1940s – another version of a “forever war” that ended in the atomic bombing of Japanese cities after a slaughter of such monumental proportions in the years from 1931 until 1945 and onward that its poorly recalled place in American memory is all that more damning.
Last but not least is the prospect of further Russian aggression in Europe as part of Putin’s grand slam to regain the lost Russian role in Europe and the world that vanished in 1991: that is the irregular and regular military threats to the fate of Ukraine, Georgia, the Baltic states and Belarus. Having waited patiently for the faltering of American and European will circa 2008, to say nothing of the Trump Administration’s sabotage of the American-NATO partnership, Russia under an ever more dictatorial Putin appears intent on shaking up the weakened Western alliance through propaganda, subterfuge, extortion, political murder and the use of military force of significant fighting power across the spectrum of conflict. Surely the United States is already in low-level conflict with Russia in such places as Ukraine, Syria, and the Baltics. The U.S. position on aiding Ukraine in its ongoing war against Russia requires a kind of strategic threading of a very delicate needle in supporting a notional pro-Western state while not antagonizing Russia, whose army sits on Ukraine’s doorstep.
Like the previous two scenarios, however, it is difficult to envision what “victory” in a war against Russia would look like without the classic prospect of an escalation of such conflict to a realm of violence, anger, and hatred that would escape sensible ends of policy.
All three scenarios point to a prospect of open-ended and perhaps unwinnable wars that potentially would be much more dangerous and destructive than Afghanistan or Iraq. The American people should take a page from the past (say in the late 1970s) in such instances as after other major wars when the public mind was more alert and undertake a measuring of ends and means in statecraft to assure a more successful policy in the future.
At this juncture, the lack of reflection about the means and ends of so-called "forever wars" augurs poorly for the capacity of this nation to avoid an even worse trap in the years or even months to come.
Clausewitz might wish us to return to his enunciated basics of strategy to clarify our interests and objectives and carefully think about those which are worth fighting for. Surely more unwinnable “forever wars” would not withstand the rigor of this most basic criterion.
James A. Russell serves as Associate Professor in the Department of National Security Affairs at NPS, where he is teaching courses on U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East, military innovation, and national security strategy. His articles and commentaries have appeared in a wide variety of media and scholarly outlets around the world.
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not represent the U.S. Government or the Naval Postgraduate School.