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US Must Stop Fighting Limited Wars

The debacle currently unfolding in Afghanistan has long been predictable. It’s the inevitable consequence of a dismal bipartisan strategic doctrine that has crippled American military effectiveness for at least 60 years: the doctrine of Limited War. This doctrine has proved particularly deadly in Asia, where its victims stretch from Southeast to Southwest to North Central.

Limited wars combine vague goals, internally conflicting desires, inattention to local incentives, inadequate resources, and restraints on military actions and responses.  

What’s the alternative? A clear statement from the president that from the moment he asks the first American kid to put his life on the line, he has committed the full force and entire arsenal of the US military toward achieving a clear, concrete goal.

Anything less is both strategically foolhardy and deeply immoral. Limited war is monstrous in its cavalier dismissal of human lives and disastrous in its effects on long-term national interests. It sends a clear message to some American family: What we’re trying to achieve is important enough for you to sacrifice a son, but not important enough for the country to commit other resources that taxpayers have put at our disposal.

In the 1960s and early ’70s, limited wars in Southeast Asia did untold damage to American soldiers and society – along with the populations of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. When the primary theaters of American military engagement shifted across the continent in the late 1970s, the disastrous doctrine continued its wreckage. Every US president since then has contributed to the carnage. 

Jimmy Carter’s feckless attempts to deal with Iran’s Khomeinist revolution led to hundreds of American diplomats being held hostage for more than a year, a deadly failed rescue attempt, and a devastation of Iranian society.

Ronald Reagan’s single worst foreign-policy debacle involved dispatching marines to Lebanon with instructions to remain disengaged until they were attacked. Hundreds died; the rest retreated in shame. Hezbollah rode its victory to dominance it still enjoys today.

George H W Bush launched an interminable stalemate in Iraq. A decade after he left office, half a million US troops created tensions with unhappy hosts while monitoring no-fly zones, winking at UN corruption, and granting Saddam Hussein control of the ground. Bush also walked away from a battle-hardened, American trained and armed mujaheddin in Afghanistan – leaving them to form militias and terror-supporting organizations like the Taliban.

Bill Clinton increased resentment among the locals by retaining the Bush stalemate and lobbing a handful of missiles at al-Qaeda bases in Sudan and Afghanistan.

George W Bush replaced his father’s Iraqi stalemate with a limited, deeply underfunded, and tone-deaf and meaningless declaration that Iraq had become a free republic. He replaced his father’s abandonment of Afghanistan with a long-running, limited, open-ended, ill-defined stalemate that defied reasonable resolution.

Barack Obama’s commitment to winding down Bush’s twin stalemates made life worse for Iraqis, Afghans, and American soldiers in both theaters – while running strongly counter to America’s regional interests.

Donald Trump – boasting by far the most successful Middle East policy in decades – deployed the forces necessary to end ISIS as a territorial caliphate. His efforts to terminate American military involvement in Afghanistan, however, met with the same mismatch of limited resources and ambitious goals that had confounded his predecessors.

Now Joe Biden has handed Afghanistan over to the totalitarian rule of the Taliban – a resolution that Bush, Obama and Trump all agreed was entirely unacceptable.

Will America, its politicians, its military leaders, and its voters finally learn the lesson? Limited war is an immoral disaster. Prolonged stalemates abroad cannot end well. In fact, only three types of resolution are possible. The US can commit the forces necessary to win; get bored and go home; or allow outside events force its hand.

George W Bush deployed the first approach in Iraq, Joe Biden applied the second in Afghanistan, and Ronald Reagan absorbed the third in Lebanon. All three were embarrassing failures.  

Only Donald Trump’s decision to crush ISIS, allocate the necessary forces, and free field commanders to set the rules of engagement proved workable – precisely because it was the least-limited deployment of American military force in decades.

Limited war persists thanks to factions within both parties that insist that war can be fought humanely, cheaply, and with limited rules of engagement. They’re wrong. History has shown that their approach is both ineffective and inhumane.  

There’s a simple rule applicable to all serious forms of conflict: If you’re not prepared to win, you’re not prepared to fight.

Limited war is attractive to those eager to fight but unprepared to win. It’s time to shut them out of power. 

The US should never again engage in a limited war. The families of American servicemen, the people of Asia, and the judgment of history will be far better for it.

Read the article as published in Asia Times.

Bruce Abramson

Bruce Abramson

Bruce Abramson has over thirty years of experience working as a technologist, economist, attorney, and policy analyst. Dr. Abramson holds a Ph.D. in Computer Science from Columbia and a J.D. from Georgetown. He has contributed to the scholarly literature on computing, business, economics, law, and foreign policy, and written extensively about American politics and policy.