Back in May in a brief Rose Garden address, President Obama announced his plan for ending the war in Afghanistan. The effort involves cutting the present troop level of 32,000 down to a residual force of just under 10,000 American soldiers by the end of this year. That reduced number would be halved at the end of 2015 to around 5,000 troops, and trimmed 12 months later to a tiny, almost diplomatic military mission thereafter. As he told the American people, “We’re finishing the job we started” after the 9/11 attacks in what has turned out to be the longest war in American history.
Critics contended that new plan was inflexible and therefore unable to adapt to unforeseeable circumstances, and that it would also embolden the Taliban to hold out for what would be an irreversible American departure. In comments during a trip to Afghanistan, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel defended the President’s position, “The American people want our job finished here, but they want it finished the right way. And I think we’re on a path to do that over the next two years.”
It is of course too soon to know whether the war will end the way President Obama wants it to, with the Afghan forces assuming the nation’s security as American troops head permanently for the exit. What we do know better, however, is that however it turns out—victory, success, or something in between—Afghanistan will go down as yet one more dirty war in America’s 200-year history of fighting such conflicts.
First some definitions. We define irregular warfare as the opposite of conventional or regular warfare, in which combatants adhere to the general norms of the particular era (for example, wearing uniforms, treating prisoners of war humanely, not deliberately targeting civilians). Total war encompasses the mobilization of the entire nation in an all-out struggle for victory and survival. While the terms irregular war and dirty war, are interchangeable, the latter is more appropriate in that it reminds us that these sorts of conflicts by their very nature tend to be especially bloody, polarizing, and poorly understood. The term small wars is also used to describe irregular warfare, but many of these conflicts are in fact neither small nor short-lived.
All wars are of course dirty, and many episodes of conventional warfare (for example, both World Wars) in fact saw their fair share of irregularity and dirtiness. During World War II, German soldiers at times pretended to surrender before firing on the apprehending Allied soldiers. American and British bombing missions deliberately targeted urban civilian populations to terrorize the collective German psyche.
America’s self-identity is that we are a reluctant nation when it comes to starting wars, but when forced we fight total wars regularly and successfully—and sometimes even leave behind the defeated societies better than they had been before. In his remarks at the 70th anniversary of the D-Day landings, President Obama explained to his audience that following victory in this total war American deeds were noble: “We claimed no spoils of victory…we claimed no land other than the earth where we buried those who gave their lives under our flag and where we station those who still serve under it.” As Obama’s remarks reinforced, we etched D-Day into our national memory as a battle that represented the pinnacle of our selfless fight for the “survival of liberty.” Yet despite our desire to fight the good fight against a foe who will play by our rules, America’s history is overwhelmingly one of fighting opaque and incomplete dirty wars—from the American Revolution through Afghanistan.
America’s dirty wars have come in all shapes and sizes. Sometimes it is maximalist involvement such as the Philippines after 1898, Vietnam, and Iraq. In others, like Greece in the late 1940s or El Salvador in the 1980s, it is by proxy—essentially military aid and training with a miniscule American military combat presence. It is worth nothing that Afghanistan started out as a minimalist dirty war but wound end up being a maximalist one, which by definition tend to be costlier and controversial. Rarely has the United States fought dirty wars on the insurgent/guerrilla side, with one key exception being the fight against British and Loyalist forces during the American Revolution. Another departure occurred in the 1980s, when the Reagan Administration backed the insurgent anti-communist contras against the Sandinista regime in Nicaragua.
One challenge with developing a useful synthesis of our past and present involvement in dirty wars is that we tend to overlook the successes and overemphasize the significance of the failures. Take Vietnam, for example, where this unique case has been applied to just about every dirty war the United States has fought in the ensuing half century. There are undoubtedly lessons from Vietnam of what to do or not to do in current or future cases. Yet there has never been, and never will be, another Vietnam. What’s more, successes in dirty wars are inherently nebulous and often not apparent at the time. For example, the Pentagon today holds up El Salvador in the 1980s as a model of nation-building and counterinsurgency. But in fact even right up until the war ended much of the conventional thinking held that Washington’s strategy had failed to defeat the Marxist guerrillas.
Because they don’t usually involve formal declarations of war and mass mobilization of society, the American public tends to pay episodic attention to dirty wars at best. When we are winning or at least not losing—in say, Colombia or the Philippines in the 2000s—there is little attention paid or controversy. When the campaigns stumble, controversy and polarization invariably crops up and sets people to wondering, as Will Rogers did in the late 1920s, “Why are we in Nicaragua and what the hell are we doing there?” Similar responses have been uttered about Vietnam and, more recently, Libya, Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan.
Sometimes the United States learns the right lessons from its dirty wars. In El Salvador the light footprint, “let the locals do it and we’ll pay for it” model was successfully transposed to Colombia over the past decade. Yet, this win streak was interrupted when U.S. policymakers took the Salvador/Colombia strategy to Mexico, whose raging narco war is an entirely different beast. Sending Blackhawk helicopters to Colombia was a brilliant stroke, but using that strategy as a cookie cutter for Mexico suggested an alarming ignorance of the country’s needs.
One way to put the American experience with dirty wars is to understand that each historical period often has its own zeitgeist. The 9/11 era’s is the War on Terror, and President Obama’s decision to leave Afghanistan sooner rather than later suggests that the 9/11 era is over, perhaps replaced by some sort of era of scarcity and sobriety. Earlier, the zeitgeist of the Cold War era was fighting communism. And even before that, in the 19th century, it was Indian removal and Manifest Destiny. It is only by understanding these unique historical eras that we can understand the decisions to get involved or stay out.
Successfully fighting these wars often entails striking a critical balance between military victory and politics. America’s status as a democracy only serves to make fighting—and, to a greater degree, winning—these irregular wars even harder. We also must understand our two centuries-long sustained history in these sorts of conflicts, warts and all. A history of the American military experiences that jumps from conventional World War I to World War II to irregular Vietnam and then Iraq and Afghanistan is highly incomplete, misleading, and perhaps even dangerously counterproductive. In other words, understanding, say, the invasion of Panama in 1989 or U.S. counterinsurgency in the Philippines after 9/11 is as salient to our current and future conflicts as any of the larger or more controversial wars.
As the war in Afghanistan winds down and drones likely become an appealing new weapon of choice, the United States may be entering a new era of dirty wars. In the past, sending in special operations teams, or more muscular options like an invasion, was almost the military’s preferred option for tackling small-scale international conflicts. Nowadays, we of course still put boots on the ground, but the enthusiasm for this has waned for understandable reasons. We also now have other “postmodern” options like drones that appear to fight the dirty wars for us. It’s still remarkable to consider that we can conduct a small dirty war across the globe via a computer screen and joystick from a trailer on an Arizona Air Force base.
In the same late May Rose Garden address, Obama said that the end of the war in Afghanistan would allow resources to be focused on “the changing threat of terrorism, while addressing a broader set of priorities around the globe.” What we do know is that, despite the looming end in Afghanistan, our ambivalent involvement in these dirty wars big and small remains and will so well into the future. Perhaps rather than futilely insisting that Americans should not or cannot fight these kind of conflicts, we would be better served by considering how we can do so as cleanly and effectively as possible. In a subsequent speech at West Point, Obama told the graduating cadets that they were the first class to graduate since 9/11 who many not be sent to combat in Afghanistan or Iraq.
It is perhaps ironic that in a speech that the nation has “been through a long season of war,” the President’s lofty rhetoric supported a call for a more maximalist American presence around the world (military or otherwise)—which almost be definition makes dirty wars more likely. He said the U.S. military “has no peer” and that America “remains the one indispensible nation [something that] has been true for the century passed and it will be true for the century to come.”
So looking forward what are the policy implications of all of this dirtiness in America’s dirty wars? Perhaps one way to avoid these inescapable dilemmas is to simply do the opposite of whatever pols like Senator John McCain would do. The 200-year American experience in dirty wars tells us that considering action should be done deliberately and with the utmost sobriety and humility, not bluster and impetuosity. Perhaps a slight modification of the Roach Motel slogan is apt, “You can check into dirty wars but you can’t always check out.”