The three ‘eras’ of the Global War on Terror: from Freedom to COIN to Drones

Retired Army Colonel and best-selling author Andrew Bacevich discusses the three ‘periods’ of the war formerly known as the Global War on Terror. Notes from that article below:

(1) Liberation by Rumsfeld

Neoconvervative favourite Donald Rumsfeld, and former of Secretary of Defense, marks the beginning of the Global War on Terror. He declared speed and technology were the ways to victory, and being smarter and more agile were essential to defeating the enemy. Think Shock and Awe.

 The design of Operation Enduring Freedom, launched in October 2001, and of Operation Iraqi Freedom, begun in March 2003, reflected this belief.  In each instance, the campaign got off to a promising start, with U.S. troops landing some swift and impressive blows.  In neither case, however, were they able to finish off their opponent or even, in reality, sort out just who their opponent might be.  Unfortunately for Rumsfeld, the “terrorists” refused to play by his rulebook and U.S. forces proved to be less smart and agile than their technological edge — and their public relations machine — suggested would be the case.  Indeed, when harassed by minor insurgencies and scattered bands of jihadis, they proved surprisingly slow to figure out what hit them.

In Afghanistan, Rumsfeld let victory slip through his grasp.  In Iraq, his mismanagement of the campaign brought the United States face-to-face with outright defeat.  Rumsfeld’s boss had hoped to liberate (and, of course, dominate) the Islamic world through a series of short, quick thrusts.  What Bush got instead were two different versions of a long, hard slog.  By the end of 2006, “shock and awe” was kaput.  Trailing well behind the rest of the country and its armed forces, the president eventually lost confidence in his defense secretary’s approach.  As a result, Rumsfeld lost his job.

(2) Pacification under Patreaus

Gone was the heady talk of liberation and lightening victories, in was counterinsurgency.

General David Petreaus dominated the GWOT’s second phase, and offered a formula for instilling order to countries reduced to chaos by Rumsfeld’s liberation. This was the stated aim of COIN in the Iraqi surge at the end of 2006.

General Stanley McChrystal was responsible for employing COIN in Afghanistan to much fanfare in 2009.

(3) Targeted Assassination under Vickers

Michael Vickers is the Under Secretary of Defense for Intelligence. He is a senior remaining holdover from George W. Bush’s Pentagon, previously serviing in U.S. Army Special Forces and as a CIA operative in the Afghan mujahedeen.

Even during the Bush era, Vickers never subscribed to expectations that the United States could liberate or pacify the Islamic world.  His preferred approach to the [Global War on Terror] has been simplicity itself. “I just want to kill those guys,” he says — “those guys” referring to members of al-Qaeda. Kill the people who want to kill Americans and don’t stop until they are all dead: this defines the Vickers strategy, which over the course of the Obama presidency has supplanted COIN as the latest variant of U.S. strategy.

Round three of the GWOT is about a broad program of targeted assassination replacing COIN as the prevailing expression of the American way of war. This takes either the form of missile-armed drones or special operations forces to eliminate anyone.

This is America’s new MO.  Paraphrasing a warning issued by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, a Washington Post dispatch succinctly summarized what it implied: “The United States reserved the right to attack anyone who it determined posed a direct threat to U.S. national security, anywhere in the world.”

Furthermore, acting on behalf of the United States, the president exercises this supposed right without warning, without regard to claims of national sovereignty, without Congressional authorization, and without consulting anyone other than Michael Vickers and a few other members of the national security apparatus.  The role allotted to the American people is to applaud, if and when notified that a successful assassination has occurred.  And applaud we do, for example, when a daring raid by members in SEAL Team Six secretly enter Pakistan to dispatch Osama bin Laden with two neatly placed kill shots.  Vengeance long deferred making it unnecessary to consider what second-order political complications might ensue.

What judgements can be made about the evolution of the GWOT?

Operationally: a war launched by the conventionally minded has fallen to what Dick Cheney once called ‘the dark side’.

Strategically: a war informed by utopian expectations continues today with no concrete expectations.

Politically: a war that once occupied centre state in national politics has now slipped into the shadows of conversation.

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