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June 11, 2007

Are We Capable of Waging the War on Terror?


We have to ask ourselves, in the post-modern era of war that is characterized by the information age, if we – the United States – are capable of waging the type of asymmetrical warfare necessary to achieve success in the War on Terror. Specifically:

1. As a great power nation state can we successfully wage asymmetrical warfare?

2. As a liberal western democracy can we maintain the national will necessary to define and achieve success in the War on Terror?

The First Question

An unsettling answer to the first question is provided by a study conducted by Jason Lyall of Princeton University and Lieutenant Colonel Isaiah Wilson III of the United States Military Academy at West Point. In their study titled The American Way of War and Peace in Comparative Perspective Lyall and Wilson studied 268 conflicts between 1809 and 2003, including 49 conventional wars (between great power nation states), 134 small wars (between stronger nation states and weaker nation states), and 159 insurgencies (between nation states and insurgencies).(1) Their conclusion is counterintuitive: during the time period studied great power nation states, including the United States, increased both their military and economic power but witnessed a dramatic decrease in their ability to win small wars and against insurgencies. Although great power nation states are vastly more powerful today than in the 19th century, the analysis showed they have become far less likely to win asymmetrical wars. Among their findings:

• In small wars great power nation states’ success rates halved over time, from 100% success from 1800-1850, to 50% success in 1950-2003.

• Against insurgencies, great power nation states’ success rates drastically declined from 89% success from 1800-1850, to 21% success from 1950-2003.

A conclusion from the results produced by Lyall and Wilson is that the more industrialized a powerful country becomes, the more its military becomes technologically powerful, the less effective it seems to be in asymmetrical warfare. They find that, beginning around 1900, the more advanced a nation state is, measured by its conventional military capacity and its energy consumption/steel production, the less probable it is to achieve strategic victory in both small wars and insurgencies. Their data also provides tentative evidence that as the economies of great power nation states move away from capitalist models, they have a higher probability of winning in small wars and against insurgencies. These results call into the question the capability of great power nation states to successfully wage asymmetrical warfare.

The Second Question

The second question requires an examination of the national will. An examination of the branches of American government – the executive, the legislative, and the judicial – reveals a lack of unity concerning the political will of the government. In the opening words of the 2006 National Strategy for Combating Terrorism, released by the White House, the executive branch states unambiguously that, “America is at war with a transnational terrorist movement fueled by a radical ideology of hatred, oppression, and murder.”(2) Although this would presume to resolve the issue the actions of the legislative and judicial branches of the government are not in accordance with the position of the executive branch.

In 2004 the United States Supreme Court ruled that War on Terror detainees at Guantanamo Bay can take their cases that they are unlawfully imprisoned to the American court system.(3) The Court further reinforced its position in 2006 when it later ruled against Bush Administration efforts to conduct war crimes trials for some detainees at Guantanamo Bay.(4) The impact of the Court’s rulings are that they call into question whether the United States is legally at war in the War on Terror, or whether it is actually pursuing a law enforcement action. By offering protections of the United States legal system to the detainees, it appears that the judicial branch does not recognize the War on Terror as a war according to legal and historical definitions.

Nearly six years after the attacks of 9/11 the executive and judicial branches of government remain at odds over the War on Terror as the Bush administration’s attempt to create an alternative justice system for terrorism suspects has yet to complete a single trial.(5) The conflict between the two branches was highlighted again in 2007 when military judges threw out war-crimes cases against the only detainees who have been indicted - Salim Ahmed Hamdan, a former driver and bodyguard for Osama bin Laden, and Omar Khadr, a Canadian who was 15 when arrested five years ago in a firefight with U.S. forces in Afghanistan. At issue is the legal status of the prisoners being held at Guantanamo, and whether they are “enemy combatants” or “unlawful alien enemy combatants.” The military tribunals have jurisdiction only over the latter; however, in their 2004 Combatant Status Review Tribunals the prisoners at Guantanamo were given the former designation. These rulings by military judges suggest the judicial branch’s position that the hastily reassembled military tribunals have no jurisdiction over any of Guantanamo's 380 prisoners.(6)

The conflict between the legislative and the executive branches of government has its roots in Article I, Section 8 of the United States Constitution, which gives to Congress – the elected representatives of the American people – the power to declare war. A declaration of war – to establish the national will – therefore becomes a shared responsibility between the political will of the government and the popular will of its constituents. This is more than just a formality. Failure by Congress to declare war in Vietnam led to a failure to mobilize the second element of the national will, the popular will of the United States public, and ultimately contributed to the nation’s defeat. A declaration of war gives the President clear-cut military authority, as well as non-military options, including internment of armed combatants and seizure of foreign funds and assets.

It is significant that, while Congress passed Public Laws 107-40 (2001) and 107-243 (2002) giving the President broad powers to prosecute the War on Terror, these laws, from a legal perspective, have never constituted a formal declaration of war. Under the provisions of Public Law 107-40, the President is authorized to use force against those nations, organizations, or persons who planned and carried out the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, and those that harbored them, in order to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States.(7) Public Law 107-243 authorizes the President to use the armed forces of the United States to defend the United States against the threat posed by Iraq, and to enforce United Nations Security Council resolutions regarding Iraq.(8)

In the November, 2005, midterm elections the American public used the ballot box to demonstrate the turning of the public will against that part of the War on Terror represented by the War in Iraq. This election was more about the failure of American leadership and the absence of grand strategy in the War in Iraq than anything else. By taking control of the Congress and the Senate from the Republican Party and giving it to the Democratic Party, the public demonstrated as clearly as it did during the Vietnam War that it has turned against the prosecution by the executive branch of the War in Iraq. In 2007 the American public continued to demonstrate its opposition to the War in Iraq. At a time when the Army and the Marine Corps are in need of recruits to fight in Iraq, as well as Afghanistan, those who influence young people to join the military have demonstrated an increased reluctance to do so. In a survey reported by the Washington Examiner the percentage of non-parent adults who were likely or very likely to recommend joining the military went from 60 percent to 40 percent. Parents dropped from 40 percent to 28 percent, with mothers at 25 percent, down from 36 percent.(9)

The actions of the 110th Congress since the November, 2006, midterm elections indicate that the legislative branch, following the will of the American public, is at great odds with the executive branch over the War on Terror, particularly the portion represented by the War in Iraq. Since assuming its duties, the 110th Congress has clearly demonstrated that it is locked in a battle of wills with the executive branch over which branch will exercise final authority over the War in Iraq. Accordingly, it has moved repeatedly – albeit unsuccessfully thus far – to withdraw many of the powers it formerly gave to the executive branch in Public Laws 107-40 and 107-243.

The Way Ahead

The issues above are critical to the future security of the nation and its success in the War on Terror. In the post-modern era of war, against the growing number of entities capable of waging asymmetrical warfare, the United States will find increasing challenges to its national authority, national interests, and national will. If it is to successfully confront these challenges, and overcome the trends documented by Lyall and Wilson, it must do three things. First, it must take a long strategic view and ensure its security by embracing asymmetric warfare.(10) As the era evolves, its opponents will learn and adapt; for every approach there will be counter-developments and counter-tactics. The United States must always consider its options. Containment or rollback of terrorism networks and other non-state entities may at times be a better alternative than unconditional defeat. It is therefore necessary for the United States to employ ruthless strategic objectivity mixed with only one balancing consideration: Is the probable long-term outcome really worth American sacrifice?

Second, focusing solely on the military dimension is an almost certain path to grand strategic failure in the post-modern era of war. It will be necessary to use all the elements of national power and influence in unconventional fashion. The concept of force must be expanded beyond mere military force to encompass social force, political force, economic force, technical force, and beyond. Shaping conflict termination, and the grand strategic aftermath, is the primary definition of success; it will require operations over periods of many years, and more likely, decades. It will also require brutal honesty in preparing the American public for the true nature of warfare in the information age. Without public support the nation’s security cannot be achieved.

Finally, it will be necessary to maintain the national will by focusing relentlessly on desired outcomes and grand strategy, and not individual events. The nation cannot afford to underestimate its enemies or its own vulnerabilities as it has in the War on Terror; capable opponents will always fight the United States either above or below its threshold of conventional war fighting capability. The weak can defeat the strong through merciless unconventional methods, and the first rule of asymmetric warfare is that there are no rules, with nothing forbidden. To achieve success requires winning in the information, cognitive, and social domains, but not necessarily in the physical or military domain. The United States must develop its own version of asymmetric warfare to achieve strategic success and avoid Pyrrhic outcomes such as those produced thus far against al Qaeda in the War on Terror. More than ever, the words of Lord Palmerston and Niall Ferguson will ring true for the United States in the post-modern era of war – in a time characterized by disintegration as much as integration the United States has no eternal allies and no perpetual enemies, but as a nation it does have perpetual and eternal strategic interests to follow.

(1) Jason Lyall and Lieutenant Colonel Isaiah Wilson III, “The American Way of War and Peace in Comparative Perspective (Draft).” http://www.princeton.edu/~jlyall/USWayofWar_FinalVersion.pdf (accessed 03/06/07)

(2) National Strategy for Combating Terrorism, 2006, 1.
http://www.whitehouse.gov/nsc/nsct/2006/nsct2006.pdf (accessed 09/07/06)

(3) Rasul et al v. Bush, President of the United States, et al., 542 U.S. 03-334 and 03-343 (2004). The majority ruling of the Supreme Court was that United States courts have jurisdiction to consider challenges to the legality of the detention of foreign nationals captured abroad in connection with hostilities and incarcerated at Guantanamo Bay. As the Supreme Court pointed out, the Guantanamo Bay detainees: are not nationals of countries at war with the United States; deny they have engaged in or plotted acts of aggression against the United States; have never been afforded access to any tribunal and therefore have never been tried and convicted of wrongdoing; for more than two years have been imprisoned in territory over which the United States exercises exclusive jurisdiction and control.

(4) Hamdan v. Rumsfeld, Secretary of Defense, et al., 548 U.S. 05-184 (2006). The majority ruling of the Supreme Court was that it has jurisdiction to hear the case of an accused combatant before his military commission takes place; that the federal government did not have authority to set up these particular special military commissions; and that the special military commissions were illegal under both the Uniform Code of Military Justice and the Geneva Convention of 1949.

(5) Adam Liptak, “Tribunal System, Newly Righted, Stumbles Again,” New York Times (June 5, 2007).

(6) Carol J. Williams and Julian E. Barnes, “Tribunals Are Dealt Another Legal Setback,” Los Angeles Times (June 5, 2007), 1.

(7) Congressional Record 147 (2001), September 14. Public Law 107-40, 115 STAT. 224, Authorization For Use of Military Force.

(8) Congressional Record 148 (2002), October 10. Public Law 107-243, 116 STAT. 1498, Authorization For Use of Military Force Against Iraq Resolution of 2002.

(9) Rowan Scarborough, “Interest In Military Service Plummets Among The Young,” Washington Examiner (June 4, 2007).

(10) Anthony Cordesman, “Rethinking the Challenge of Counterinsurgency Warfare: Working Notes,” Center for Strategic and International Studies, November 7, 2005. http://www.csis.org/media/csis/pubs/051107_counterinsurg.pdf (accessed 06/07/07).