The Changing Face of American Empire
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Yet after more than a decade of war, it has failed to eliminate a rag-tag Afghan insurgency with limited popular support. It trained an indigenous Afghan force that was long known for its poor performance -- before it became better known for killing its American trainers. It has spent years and untold tens of millions of tax dollars chasing down assorted firebrand clerics, various terrorist “lieutenants,” and a host of no-name militants belonging to al-Qaeda, mostly in the backlands of the planet. Instead of wiping out that organization and its wannabes, however, it seems mainly to have facilitated its franchising around the world.
At the same time, it has managed to paint weak regional forces like Somalia’s al-Shabaab as transnational threats, then focus its resources on eradicating them, only to fail at the task. It has thrown millions of dollars in personnel, equipment, aid, and recently even troops into the task of eradicating low-level drug runners (as well as the major drug cartels), without putting a dent in the northward flow of narcotics to America’s cities and suburbs.
It spends billions on intelligence only to routinely find itself in the dark. It destroyed the regime of an Iraqi dictator and occupied his country, only to be fought to a standstill by ill-armed, ill-organized insurgencies there, then out-maneuvered by the allies it had helped put in power, and unceremoniously bounced from the country (even if it is now beginning to claw its way back in). It spends untold millions of dollars to train and equip elite Navy SEALs to take on poor, untrained, lightly-armed adversaries, like gun-toting Somali pirates.
How Not to Change in a Changing World
And that isn’t the half of it.
The U.S. military devours money and yet delivers little in the way of victories. Its personnel may be among the most talented and well-trained on the planet, its weapons and technology the most sophisticated and advanced around. And when it comes to defense budgets, it far outspends the next nine largest nations combined (most of which are allies in any case), let alone its enemies like the Taliban, al-Shabaab, or al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, but in the real world of warfare this turns out to add up to remarkably little.
In a government filled with agencies routinely derided for profligacy, inefficiency, and producing poor outcomes, its record may be unmatched in terms of waste and abject failure, though that seems to faze almost no one in Washington. For more than a decade, the U.S. military has bounced from one failed doctrine to the next. There was Donald Rumsfeld’s “military lite,” followed by what could have been called military heavy (though it never got a name), which was superseded by General David Petraeus’s “counterinsurgency operations” (also known by its acronym COIN). This, in turn, has been succeeded by the Obama administration’s bid for future military triumph: a “light footprint” combination of special ops, drones, spies, civilian soldiers, cyberwarfare, and proxy fighters. Yet whatever the method employed, one thing has been constant: successes have been fleeting, setbacks many, frustrations the name of the game, and victory MIA.
Convinced nonetheless that finding just the right formula for applying force globally is the key to success, the U.S. military is presently banking on that new six-point plan. Tomorrow, it may turn to a different war-lite mix. Somewhere down the road, it will undoubtedly again experiment with something heavier. And if history is any guide, counterinsurgency, a concept that failed the U.S. in Vietnam and was resuscitated only to fail again in Afghanistan, will one day be back in vogue.