Acting as if Perfect Security Is Achievable Is Strategically and Morally Unwise ─ The Primary Analytical Flaw underlying Our Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan
© 2010 Peter Free
11 September 2010
As long as we continue to fear weapons of mass destruction simply because they may exist in the hands of our enemies, we give our adversaries the lure with which to drag us around by the nose
The aftermath of invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq have awakened some people to a few of the analytical flaws that led to them. Unfortunately, our revisionist analysis is incomplete.
It overlooks the fundamental mistake that we Americans continually make in attempting to achieve security via excessively violent, ultimately self-destructive means. In essence, we seem to prize the lives of a handful of hypothetical future civilians more highly than we do the present actual lives of our military or those of foreign innocents among whom our enemies move.
This substitution of the hypothetical for the real is a Clausewitzian error of huge strategic and moral proportion. The mistake, if continued, will lead to our nation’s downfall.
The flaw in American preemptive anti-terrorist thinking is simple. Is it wise to:
(a) escalate violence-generating international and inter-cultural hatreds that have killed, and will continue to kill, hundreds of thousands to millions of people,
in order to
(b) unfruitfully avenge, or unachievably prevent, the deaths of orders of magnitude fewer Americans by a handful of non-national maniacs?
An incomplete published analysis illustrates the point
Ted Koppel recently wrote an essay that illustrates how our enemies target our excesses in the same way that under-sized martial artists use their larger opponents’ strengths and overreactions to defeat them.
Koppel’s article is useful for teasing out a major flaw in American thinking that he does not explicitly address.
[T]he insidious thing about terrorism is that there is no such thing as absolute security.
While President Obama has . . . declared America's combat role in Iraq over, he glossed over the likelihood that tens of thousands of U.S. troops will have to remain there . . . because Iraq lacks the military capability to protect itself . . . .
U.S. troops in . . . Afghanistan . . . will be there for years to come . . . . Pakistan has . . . 60 to 100 nuclear warheads. Were any of those to fall into the hands of al-Qaeda's . . . allies in Pakistan, there is no telling what the consequences might be.
Again, this dilemma is partly of our own making. America's war on terrorism is widely perceived throughout Pakistan as a war on Islam. . . . Islamic fundamentalism is gaining ground there and threatening the stability of the government, upon which we depend to guarantee the security of those nuclear weapons. Since a robust U.S. military presence in Pakistan is untenable for the government in Islamabad . . . tens of thousands of U.S. troops are likely to remain parked next door in Afghanistan for some time.
© 2010 Ted Koppel, Ted Koppel: Nine years after 9/11, let's stop fulfilling bin Laden's goals, Washington Post B01 (12 September 2010)
Koppel’s argument is that Osama bin Laden tricked the United States into overreacting to September Eleventh in a way that made the original situation worse. Our overreaction:
(a) killed more than 5,000 American troops and
(b) tens of thousands of Iraqis and Afghans,
(c) escalating the violent intentions that some Islamic fundamentalists bear toward the United States ─
to the extent that
(d) unnecessary and U.S.-weakening violence is made even more likely in the future.
Leaving troops in Afghanistan is strategically unlikely to help in preventing terrorist access to nuclear weapons
Leaving troops in Afghanistan, with the majority of Afghans and Pakistanis hostile to their presence, will not bolster Pakistan against suspected threats to that nation’s nuclear weapons.
Nor will the United States be significantly better able to launch an effective strike against anticipated nuclear-stealing terrorists there or anywhere else.
The “stay in Afghanistan to safeguard Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal” concept assumes that geographic nearness equates to the effective projection of preemptive power against unidentified, un-located terrorists.
This is probably not true. Especially given American reluctance to visibly infringe on Pakistan’s sovereignty. And even more so, given the inflammatory escalation in tensions that America’s presence in a Muslim country already poses.
Even if it geographic proximity to Pakistan were somewhat effective in countering a terrorist threat to nuclear weapons in Pakistan, acting internationally in accordance with the premise of “nearness equates to efficacy” would be monetarily and militarily impossible to do in all of the world’s terrorist trouble spots.
In sum, it is not wise to implement a strategically flawed plan ─ one that escalates ill-feeling world-wide, in hopes that its visibly flawed premise will nevertheless eventually come to fruition in the only spot on the planet where, by ill-advised past maneuver, one has embarrassingly and self-destructively landed.
Future stupidity should not be heaped on past and present stupidity.
Our military, intelligence, and law enforcement services ─ in harmony with those of our allies ─ are fully capable of combating terrorism without killing the lives and freedoms that we treasure.
A last, strategically necessary point ─ it is all about numbers
The American and world populations are now past the point in which nuclear terrorists can pose an existential threat to national survival. It is impossible for terrorists to kill enough people to make a dent in American economic and military viability. Unless we let them by overreacting to the threat or its executed aftermath.
We have been unrealistically reluctant to accept that terrorists will again succeed in creating a significant loss of life. This loss is inevitable, given the range of weapons around the world and the numbers of inhumane people who have potential access to them. Look at Israel. (Look too, at Israel’s failure to control terrorist attacks by means of military occupation.)
It is our fear of losing thousands of domestic lives that weakens us. Not the actual threat to the nation’s security posed by those anticipated losses.
If we saw the distinction between actual and perceived threats more consciously, we might be less likely to militarily overreact in ways that damage us more than the feared attack would.
In essence, this is identical to the military’s calculations, when assessing the price of engaging in defense or offense in a given situation. Either way, lives will be lost. The decider is the greater strategic and tactical wisdom of a given option.
Terrorism is equivalent to disease and traffic deaths. It can be managed by law enforcement and limited military means, but it cannot be eradicated. Once that reality is accepted, self-destructive military over-reaching on our part is less likely.
We are made safer by acting effectively on rationally temperate thinking. Our anti-terrorist efforts need to go into intelligence, law enforcement, and precisely-directed, narrowly-contained military operations.
Occupations of foreign lands are not the way to maximized long-term safety or the successful maintenance of national power.