Long wars and ugly nationalism test Americans' patience

Just before the NATO summit in Warsaw, President Obama announced a new Afghan policy to maintain 8,400 troops in Afghanistan through next year; a shift from a previous goal of reducing America’s effort in the war torn country to an embassy size protection force of 5,500 combat troops. The shift in strategy counters Obama’s promise of ending the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

As he prepares to leave office America has re-entered the Iraq conflict with several thousand troops on the ground; maintained a force posture of over 8000 troops in Afghanistan with expanded rules of engagement that allow U.S. forces to target the Taliban; witnessed the entrance U.S. forces in Syria; and an ever increasing counter-terrorism operation in Africa. America’s wars are expanding with no end on the horizon and with that have come a hyper partisan atmosphere and a toxic election cycle.


Obama entered 2008 with the promise to end the wars; the state we currently find ourselves in is emblematic of a broader trend that the global order is experiencing a shift towards a multi-polar world coupled with a chaotic mix of nihilistic and extremist non-state groups currently destabilizing large swaths of the Middle East and North Africa.

Faced with this new reality, the Obama administration has steadied America on a long term strategy to counter rising non-state actors while at the same time pivoting towards America’s greater strategic interest, the Pacific and the rise of China. That long term strategy focuses primarily on a reliance on the use of Special Forces and the training of foreign military units to counter growing threats in regions of weak central governance.

This strategy comes with many risks and few rewards; most pressing is the concern that U.S. trained forces will act counter to western norms and customs regarding the rules of armed conflict- as has been witnessed already in Iraq and Syria. There is also the possibility that America’s reliance on paramilitaries throughout Africa and the Middle East will only embolden sectarian divisions within those societies and exacerbate tensions — continuing the downward spiral of instability and the entrenchment of autocratic regimes.

The strategy has been a hard sell to an American population fraught with anxiety over its place in world. It has been met with much skepticism and criticism from a multitude of national security experts and Republican Senators such as Senator John McCainJohn Sidney McCainJuan Williams: Time for boldness from Biden Democrats lead in three battleground Senate races: poll Republican Scott Taylor wins Virginia primary, to face Elaine Luria in rematch MORE (AZ) and Senator Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamHillicon Valley: Senate panel advances bill targeting online child sexual abuse | Trump administration awards tech group contract to build 'virtual' wall | Advocacy groups urge Congress to ban facial recognition technologies Senate panel advances bill targeting online child sexual abuse The Hill's Campaign Report: The political heavyweights in Tuesday's primary fights MORE (SC), who wish to see a greater presence of U.S. forces in Iraq and Syria to combat the rise of ISIS.

Much of the criticism emanating from Republicans towards the Obama administration centers on the notion that the Commander in Chief lacks a strategy to defeat the resurgent threat of non-state groups. However, it is not necessarily that America lacks a strategy to counter the rise of violent extremism, as claimed by former DIA director Michael Flynn, it is that America has done a poor job of selling that strategy to the public.

The reality is that the conflicts we are engaged in around the globe are generational issues that require long drawn out and difficult political solutions. The notion of victory is not lost in the lexicon of America’s military, it is more that it has adapted to accept a reality that the conflicts we fight are timeless and victories are shaped on micro-terrain in which space and time have afforded political realties to catch up to warring parties.

However, the never ending wars have created a growing restlessness in America. Embroiled in conflicts throughout the globe, America appears incapable of escaping the quagmires she has dug herself into. This anxiety has intensified partisanship in America, and vaulted us to today’s toxic election cycle.

Americans largely view the world through a tiny lens — one fed by a raucous news cycle, only seeing a world enveloped in chaos and bloodshed, one that largely misses positive growing trends in the international community.

Americans appear eager to find a savior, even nominating a candidate who has advocated policies unequivocally counter to American values and ethics. Today’s electorate, by nominating Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpSecret Service members who helped organize Pence Arizona trip test positive for COVID-19: report Trump administration planning pandemic office at the State Department: report Iran releases photo of damaged nuclear fuel production site: report MORE, has accepted notions and policies once considered laughable and indefensible to include torture, the expulsion of millions from the country, watch lists for particular religions, and the dissolution of the world’s most powerful alliance system, NATO.

The promise of quick solutions to seemingly impossible problems has become an attractive soundbite to an electorate disillusioned by the past 15 years of war.

Snow is a veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps and graduate of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy specializing in Central and Southwest Asia. He served 10 years as a Signals Intelligence Analyst and completed multiple tours of duty to Iraq and Afghanistan. 

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