When was the last time the U.S. decisively won a major war? Answer: 1945. Yet we have the best military in the world, something even our adversaries acknowledge. We spend more money on our armed forces than the 10 next biggest militaries in the world combined. So what’s the problem? Why do we struggle against low-level foes such as the Taliban?
The problem is we have a low strategic IQ. Our troops have been dutifully winning battles but losing wars since Vietnam. Tactically and operationally we are unmatched, but strategically we are incompetent. Over the decades, a disturbing trend has emerged: Washington has forgotten how to win wars. Our “strategic class” — National Security Councils, generals, admirals, ambassadors — do not know how to marshal all instruments of national power for victory. It’s obvious, but no one talks about it because the implications are too terrifying.
Low strategic IQ is the legacy of the 9/11 era. Our strategic class, regardless of political leanings, trafficked pipe-dreams of easy war founded upon ludicrous assumptions. President George W. Bush and his neocons began the doomed quagmires, promising quick victories. “Five days or five weeks or five months, but it certainly isn’t going to last any longer than that,” assured Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld before the Iraq War. That was nearly 20 years ago, and we still have 2,500 troops there. President George W. Bush has become the poster child of strategic imbecility, declaring “Mission accomplished” on an aircraft carrier on May 1, 2003. The phrase has devolved into a meme denoting clueless failure.
Afghanistan is a different dog with the same fleas. U.S. forces successfully chased out al Qaeda in the weeks following 9/11. Truly, mission accomplished. Then in December 2001, the neocons decided to stay and turn the “graveyard of empires” into the 51st state, snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. That was their strategy for Iraq, too, but you cannot nation-build where there is no nation to begin with.
Then came the COINistas, led by Gen. David Petraeus, promising easy victory through counterinsurgency (COIN) strategy accompanied by a “surge,” flooding thousands of troops into the countryside. Iraq got surged in 2007 and Afghanistan in 2009. Somehow COINistas assumed more troops “living among the people” would be greeted as liberators rather than occupiers, reminding us of another strategic lightweight, Vice President Dick Cheney, who said American troops would be “greeted as liberators” by Iraqis. Unsurprisingly, COIN flopped in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Despite the obvious, Petraeus is still embraced as a strategic genius, like Wellington after Waterloo. But he’s more like Westmoreland after Vietnam, and that’s probably how history will remember him.
After COIN failed, we treaded water in Afghanistan for another decade, probably because of Stockholm Syndrome. Without a clear strategy to win, our strategists played Kabuki theater with the American people and Congress, claiming we were always on the cusp of success. “Our generals did. Our ambassadors did. All of our officials did, [saying], ‘We’re just turning the corner,’” according to John Sopko, the U.S. Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction. “We turned the corner so much, we did 360 degrees. We’re like a top.”
Many in our strategic class are downright delusional. The August disaster of Kabul made the fall of Saigon look tame, catching President BidenJoe BidenCarville advises Democrats to 'quit being a whiny party' Wendy Sherman takes leading role as Biden's 'hard-nosed' Russia negotiator Sullivan: 'It's too soon to tell' if Texas synagogue hostage situation part of broader extremist threat MORE and his team absolutely by surprise, evidencing their very low strategic IQ. However, in criticizing them, former national security adviser and Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster revealed his own strategic IQ challenge. When asked recently on Meet the Press, “Do you believe the Taliban could have been defeated?” He answered, “I do believe it.” Who is he kidding? The Taliban controlled nearly 70 percent of the country on his watch as national security adviser, and they were expanding. Never let facts get in the way of a convenient theory. This is low strategic IQ in action, and it’s how “forever wars” are made.
One of our most serious problems today is that our strategic class does not know what war is anymore, and if they do not understand it, they cannot win it. Unfortunately, the national security community likes to observe lessons rather than learn them, so we should expect little change. We must fix this.
There needs to be accountability for low strategic IQ. A soldier who kills 16 innocent people in war faces life in prison or the death penalty. But nothing happens to strategic imbeciles who start or elongate wars that kill 350,000 civilians. They don’t lose their jobs, and some, like John Bolton, get promoted despite their appalling track records. If they apologize at all (and they rarely do), they employ weasel phrases such as “mistakes were made,” the king of non-apologies.
There is more to war than warfare, and more to warfare than killing. Understanding this is the key to strategic thought. In the past, we have been more lucky than smart when it comes to good strategists such as George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and George C. Marshall. But it need not be this way. Let’s break the mold regarding what we think comprises “a good strategist” because it is not working. Critical and creative thinking are the main traits, and we need methods to identify and cultivate strategic geniuses before they get eaten alive by the Washington groupthink blob. They may not be in uniform, have gray hair, or be riding some politico’s coattails. We should broaden our aperture. Not everyone can be a good strategist, but a good strategist can come from anywhere.
Sean McFate is the author of five books, including “The New Rules of War: How America Can Win — Against Russia, China, and Other Threats” (2019). He is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, professor at Georgetown University, and an adviser to Oxford University’s Centre for Technology and Global Affairs. He served in the U.S. Army’s 82nd Airborne Division.