Andrew J. Bacevich is professor of history and international relations at Boston University. His most recent book is The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism.
More than seven years after 9/11, the global war on terrorism—in Pentagon parlance, the Long War—is entering a new phase. Attention is now shifting back to Afghanistan, with President Obama seemingly intent on redeeming an ill-advised campaign pledge to increase the U.S. troop commitment to that theater of operations. Yet as the conflict continues, the correlation between American actions and America's interests is becoming increasingly difficult to discern. The fundamental incoherence of U.S. strategy becomes ever more apparent. Worst of all, there is no end in sight.
Almost forgotten now, the theme of the Long War's first phase was shock and awe. Starting with its invasion of Afghanistan in October 2001, the Bush administration set out to demonstrate America's military supremacy. With a series of crushing defeats of its enemies, the United States would eliminate conditions that fostered and sustained jihadist activity, thereby "draining the swamp." From military victories would come political reformation.
U.S. successes in overthrowing the Taliban and then toppling Saddam Hussein lent to these expectations a superficial plausibility. No sooner had President Bush declared "Mission Accomplished" in Iraq, however, than things began to unravel. Military campaigns expected to be brief and economical became protracted and costly.
As hopes of transforming the greater Middle East dimmed, the war on terrorism entered its second phase. On July 1, 2003, Bush himself expressed its central theme: "Bring 'em on." In a conflict commonly described as global, Iraq and Afghanistan now absorbed the lion's share of attention. In Iraq, the Bush administration remained intent on achieving decisive victory. By winning there, the entire project of transformation might still be salvaged.
Yet efforts to achieve a military solution yielded not decision but escalating levels of violence. Confident chatter of ending tyranny and liberalizing the Islamic world ceased. The strategic focus narrowed further: In common parlance, "the war" no longer meant the larger struggle against terrorism; it meant Iraq. There, U.S. commanders had willy-nilly adopted a strategy of attrition, which produced frustration on the battlefield and backlash on the home front. When the November 2006 elections installed a Democratic majority in both houses of Congress, Bush pulled the plug on Phase 2, sacking his defense secretary and announcing plans to change course.
Phase 3 of the Long War commenced when Bush appointed Robert Gates as defense secretary and Gen. David Petraeus as his fourth commander in Baghdad. On one key point, Gates and Petraeus concurred: Iraq was unwinnable in strictly military terms. Events had shredded any expectations of the United States coercing Muslims into embracing liberal values. From the Green Zone, Petraeus launched what was in effect a salvage operation. The emphasis shifted from chasing insurgents to protecting the Iraqi people. Under what was styled as the Sunni Awakening, the United States offered money and arms to militants who promised to cease attacking coalition forces. Thanks to this "surge," the level of violence in Iraq diminished appreciably. Although Petraeus by no means solved the Iraqi conundrum, he pulled that country back from the precipice of disintegration.
This limited success did not suffice to redeem the presidential hopes of Sen. John McCain, who made his support for the surge the centerpiece of his campaign. Barack Obama, a consistent critic of the war, beat McCain handily. Yet if Obama's supporters read his win as a repudiation of Bush's Iraq policies, the election's outcome had a second effect, paradoxically serving to ensure the Long War's continuation. Even as Petraeus was tamping down the level of carnage in Iraq, conditions in perennially neglected Afghanistan had eroded. In 2008, the Taliban returned to the offensive. Allied casualties increased. Fighting spilled across the border into Pakistan, which became the Long War's de facto third front. Obama, the candidate who vowed to get out of Iraq but needed to protect himself from the charge of being weak on national security, promised if elected to up the ante in Afghanistan.
So Obama's inauguration finds the Long War in transition to a new fourth phase. In Iraq, the surge has reached its ambiguous conclusion: Petraeus has moved on, leaving to his successor the problem of extricating the 140,000 U.S. troops still there without destabilizing the country. More important, Afghanistan, now coupled with Pakistan, has returned to the front burner. In effect, the Long War that began in Central Asia in 2001 and then shifted to the Persian Gulf in 2003 is now seesawing back to Central Asia.
What has been lost along the way, in addition to over 4,000 U.S. troops and enormous sums of money, is any clear sense of purpose. No serious person believes any longer that the United States possesses the capacity to transform the Islamic world. Our efforts to drain the swamp have succeeded mostly in exacerbating the anti-Americanism on which the jihadists feed. Testifying before a Senate committee recently, Gates mocked the idea of converting Afghanistan into "some sort of a Central Asian Valhalla." Using a now familiar Pentagon mantra, he declared, "There is no purely military solution in Afghanistan."
At a time of trillion-dollar deficits and grave economic crisis at home, the questions must be asked: What will the Long War accomplish? How long will it last? What will it cost? Who will pay? The time to address these questions is now. Obama's freedom of action will never be greater than it is today. Should he dodge these issues and plunge more deeply into Afghanistan, the Long War will very soon become Obama's War. And he will richly deserve the obloquy to be heaped on his head as a consequence.