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Ending Wars

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Written by Christopher Holshek, Guest Contributor

The adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan are only the latest reminders of a pathological American problem – the United States knows well how to get into wars, and fight them, but not how to end them. To be fair, as the strategist Colin S. Gray points out: “History tells us that it can be as hard, if not harder, to make peace than it is to make war successfully.”

Still, the last time the U.S. did a credible job of conflict termination was World War II – still very much the cognitive model for most Americans about their way of war and peace. “The Good War” was, however, the exception and not the rule in history, as we may be finally learning. Since then, the limited wars and complexities of 21st century conflict – witness the controversy on whether the War Powers Act applied to the use of drones in Libya – require even greater attention to conflict termination, else we risk opening up Pandora’s boxes all over the place without being able to close them. And yet American capabilities to bring conflicts to an end have diminished in at least relative terms. Efforts like the U.S. Institute of Peace brokered plan for a post-Assad Syria are non-governmental cottage industries.

Then there’s the debacle in Iraq, whose consequences have yet to play out. When it became all-too-apparent that the U.S. needed to “win the peace” there, the then-fervent response was for the Army to re-invent counterinsurgency. DoD replaced “peace operations” with “stability operations” and (at least nominally) give them equal status to combat operations. The State Department fumbled with a stability and reconstruction coordination capability (now the Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations, or CSO), after being designated the lead agency for such. Even the best-planned of nation-building in such places is probably a fool’s errand, let alone to do it on the fly. So we have what we have in Iraq.

Yet, despite these operational advances, a different administration is mired in its own end game in Afghanistan, struggling to wicker an exit strategy that preserves American interests in the country and region, and looking less not to win as much as not to lose. To his credit, President Obama did outline a strategy for Afghanistan in December 2009, but it was based on assumptions and goals that had to be constantly revised downward – from nation-building, to counterinsurgency, to counterterrorism – which means, albeit less egregiously than his predecessor, it was another faulty strategy to begin with.

Now it seems the U.S. will have to settle on what Anthony Cordesman at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) calls “Afghan Good Enough”: “The question is what, if anything, can now be done that might offer many, if not most, ordinary Afghans some realistic hope of security and stability through the withdrawal of most combat forces and beyond.”

The U.S., unfortunately, suffers from a chronic “strategy deficit,” as former President and CEO of the Project on National Security Reform James Locher puts it, made even worse by “the dominance of political messaging.” The National Security Staff, for example, is “driven by its inbox and cannot find time to think long term or make use of foresight to anticipate developments.” Even if it wasn’t, there is no real system to translate strategy into operations, align organizations to that strategy, and link it all to the budget process. This explains largely why operational concepts like counterinsurgency and stability operations have been – erroneously – elevated to strategies.

True strategy consists of ends, ways, and means – coherently and comprehensively coordinated. Grand strategy, as Locher explains, is “the art and science of employing all instruments of national power and influence – not just military tools – to accomplish national objectives.”

In all three senses (ends, ways, and means), the U.S. government is not predisposed for good conflict termination strategies – because it’s not structured for strategic success as a whole. For one, the U.S. has no strategic paradigms to end wars and lead to a better peace, which strategy gurus from Sun Tzu to Liddell Hart say is the ultimate purpose of war. Counterinsurgency, stability operations, and counterterrorism are not strategies – they are, at most, operational concepts that could support a strategy. For another, these operational concepts, in practice, have persistently evinced a “militarization of foreign policy” and a “securitization of aid” – a gross distortion of whole-of-government, let alone whole-of-society approaches more akin to strategy and more appropriate to 21st century challenges.

That is to a great extent “because government officials, Congress, and the American public do not acknowledge that the civilian expertise and resources needed to do this work is inadequate relative to the demand,” observes a just-released CSIS report, Inevitable Conflict, Avoidable Futures. The means or resources imbalance is endemic, beyond the well-known comparison of the “3 D’s” being “defense on steroids, and diplomacy and development on life support” – a problem which will no doubt worsen as the fiscal crisis looms and Washington retreats to more familiar, yet outdated national security sanctuaries.

Beyond CSO, the only non-defense capability dedicated to the war-to-peace transition management issue is the Office of Transition Initiatives at the U.S. Agency for International Development. Together, these are still smaller than the one of the Army’s more than 40 Civil Affairs (CA) units of less than 200 each. CA, in turn, represents the only capability within DoD dedicated to conflict termination and transition to peace – the other 99.5 percent of the Active and Reserve components are about warfighting or supporting warfighting. And much of CA itself has been skewed to helping warfighters find and beat bad guys.

And we wonder why we’ve had problems ending wars?

It may be too late to address the systemic faults that make it practically mission impossible to bow out gracefully from Afghanistan. But Americans have been learning these “lessons” over and over again since even before 9/11 – and, as the CSIS report notes, the U.S. is likely “to find itself involved in a foreign internal conflict at some point… addressing new forms of violence, not from wars, but from criminal elements and transnational actors.” Since 1993, the U.S. has responded to 20 to 28 foreign internal conflicts, and twice as many humanitarian crises, every year. This is not going away.

It takes a strategic decision-making process to get into wars. There should be a comparable national capability to help figure out how to end – or better yet – prevent them, because the old ways of war and peace no longer work and the U.S. can no longer afford to do anything less. And history has not been kind to great powers that remain in perpetual conflict at the cost of their prosperity.

Christopher Holshek, Colonel, U.S. Army Civil Affairs (retired), is a civil-military strategic analyst for Wikistrat and a senior consultant for the Alliance for Peacebuilding. He also blogs on peace and security related issues for the Huffington Post.

U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Cecilio M. Ricardo Jr.