U.S. war effort: At a point of collapse

Tue, 05/01/2007 - 3:56pm
By: The Citizen


American policy and the global war against al Qaeda, associated groups and nations that support them — Iran and Syria — are collapsing. Blame goes beyond liberal politicians intent on destroying the Bush administration, a pernicious press and the radical left who rule academe, mainline churches and the media.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s ill-advised trip to Syria and the amazing lack of resolve shown by the British — from the captain who failed to keep his marines from being captured to the Chamberlainesque responses by the British government — all are indicative of what fills the void when leadership fails.

Carl von Clausewitz, the 19th century Prussian soldier-philosopher, posited a “primordial triangle” consisting of three legs: policy, the people and the army. Victory in war depends on each leg being firmly in place. In World War IV, the West’s war with Islamist Jihadists directly supported by Iran and Syria, two of those legs are gone and the third is crumbling.

The first and most important leg is policy. The state sets policy. The president and his administration have that responsibility. The policy leg was still-born when President George W. Bush declared war on “terror.” A nation can no more make war on terror than it can make war on ambushes or frontal assaults. Terror is a tactic that can become a strategic corollary.

First, while this is a global war with a diverse group of enemies, essentially the West is at war with Islamist Jihadists — namely al Qaeda and groups like Hezbollah and Islamic Jihad, and nations that support them, specifically Iran and Syria.

While each of these enemies has a different agenda, U.S. policy must respond to their highest strategic aspiration, which is to establish a global Islamist caliphate by the end of the 21st century. That makes this a total war. Their strategy is to erode the will of the West and it is succeeding.

Without a clearly defined enemy, the U.S. military has been unable to develop an appropriate strategy. Currently, Gen. David Petraeus is struggling to reverse the trend in Iraq that is crumbling toward disaster with a “surge” that may prove numerically insufficient; “too little, too late.”

Second, Bush lost the second leg of the primordial triangle, the people, last November. Americans are impatient and that impatience wears even thinner when they do not know who they are fighting or why. The president sold the invasion of Iraq based on Saddam’s supposed weapons of mass destruction program. Absent those weapons, Bush has not offered the people a sufficiently coherent reason for Operation Iraqi Freedom.

The American people want clear war aims and a policy focused on victory. Otherwise they are subject to the contentions of all comers from John Kerry to Rosie O’Donnell. Is this war for “global hegemony?” Is it for oil? Is it for Halliburton?

This is a global war against an implacable foe whose religious imperative envisions a worldwide Islamist caliphate. For the Bush administration, acknowledging that constitutes the proverbial “bridge too far.” Without that visionary bridge, no amount of military force will take us from where we are to victory.

The armed forces constitute the third leg of the primordial triangle and ours remain the world’s best. The U.S. Army and Marine brigades that stormed to Baghdad in the spring of 2003 performed superbly. They continue to be well-led, well-trained and highly-motivated. Nevertheless, the Army, and perhaps to a lesser extent the Marine Corps, are in danger of collapsing.

In the aftermath of the Vietnam War, Army Chief of Staff Gen. Creighton Abrams redesigned the Army so that the all-volunteer force could never be wasted in a long war unsanctioned by the American people. Accordingly, he placed much of the Army’s sustained fighting power in the National Guard and Army Reserve. Abrams envisioned a future war in which the regular Army of about one million would be supported by the reserves. That Army was structured for a war with the enemies of the 1970s: the Soviet Union, China, North Korea and Cuba.

After the Cold War, the Clinton administration slashed that million-soldier force to 485,000, placing even more emphasis on the National Guard and Army Reserve. Conventional wisdom in the 1990s was that the active-duty force, given the tremendous “leverage” offered by high-tech weaponry (especially air power), could defeat most enemies with the National Guard and Army Reserve available to deliver the “coup d’grace” if needed. The armed forces of nations like North Korea, Iraq or Iran would be decimated through high-tech wizardry coupled with maneuver and focused fires. Home by Christmas, Easter at the latest.

This Easter, the sixth of this war, many units of the National Guard were headed back for additional tours.

Recently, Iran humbled the Royal Navy, Royal Marines and Britain — a “seafaring nation” — and by extension the United States. Iran’s military force in doing so consisted of a handful of speed boats.

If the United States continues along this strategically inept course, it will be defeated by enemies who have nothing to match our stealthy B-2 bombers, supersonic cruise F-22 fighter planes or supercarriers.

Al Qaeda, Iran, Hezbollah, Syria and their supporters are on the same road to victory trod by North Vietnam 40 years ago — a road paved with superior strategy.

Their strategy of erosion simply is more appropriate than our strategy, which is unclear and ill-defined. Superior strategy wins wars. Poor strategy cannot be overcome by high-tech weapons, by superior firepower, the effusion of blood or heroic acts of warriors.

[Dr. Earl Tilford is professor of history at Grove City (Penn.) College. After retiring from the U.S. Air Force, he served as an associate professor of history at Troy State University in Montgomery and professor of military history at the U.S. Air Force Air Command and Staff College. In 1993 he became director of research at the U.S. Army’s Strategic Studies Institute in Carlisle, Pa., where he worked on a project that looked at possible future terrorist threats. He has authored three books on the Vietnam War and co-edited a book on Operation Desert Storm. He has lectured throughout the U.S. and abroad on the Vietnam War and, more recently, the future of armed conflict.]

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