By Ben Van Zytveld
Questions Every American Should Ask About Our Military Interventions
As most Americans are aware, US military forces have taken action against the Assad regime and been deployed on the ground in Syria. Many in military and veteran’s circles are excited about these operations which is understandable since it’s not hard to support the idea of fighting a government that uses chemical weapons on civilians or a group like Daesh who espouses a desire for global domination, enslaves people, conducts mass executions for spectacle and lights people on fire in cages. As a former service-member with multiple deployments, I certainly do not oppose the justifiable use of military force. I am, however, troubled by the fact that the United States has spent the last fifteen years at war but has struggled to attain tangible, long term achievements for the effort. I am also bothered by the lack of serious public discourse regarding the effectiveness of our endeavors in Iraq and Afghanistan as we possibly head toward another major ground war in yet another troubled country. Even the greatest military force will struggle if its efforts are not directed towards realistic and achievable objectives. Since most Americans don’t have military experience, they often don’t know where to begin thinking about these problems. To help with this issue, here are a few questions that all Americans should consider and discuss in order to help ensure that our national resources and, more importantly, the precious lives of military personnel are being directed towards the right ends.
What strategic goal are we pursuing by intervening in a conflict?
In the broadest terms, we must determine which actions will best advance the security of the United States and our allies. Groups like al Qaeda and Daesh represent an ideology that wishes for the destruction of western democracies and has a long-term plan to make that desire happen. We must establish why this is the case and then decide on the most effective means of countering the threat posed by this ideology. We must also decide which circumstances warrant the deployment of military force. These are difficult answers to find but are essential for success as our far-reaching aims will set the framework of purpose for any actions we may pursue. There are many principles that could drive our decisions to commit military forces such as removing a dangerous threat, supporting democracy or attempting to prevent violations of human rights throughout the world. It is also important to remember that military action is only one of the options our government possesses to achieve our strategic goals. If these broad objectives are poorly defined, we are at risk of deploying forces in the wrong situations with very little benefit.
Is our goal realistic? How do we define success at the end of our endeavor?
If our intention in deploying forces to Syria is to contain the radical beliefs of Daesh, we must consider whether committing military forces will advance or damage our ability to achieve this goal. If our goal is to alleviate human suffering or stop the abuse of human rights, we must determine if our proposed course of action can realistically fix such intricate and deep rooted problems. It would be great if we could solve all the world’s problems but that is obviously not realistic, especially not through military action alone. We must define an achievable goal for our forces and set limits on what we will consider a successful mission. For example, the complete eradication of Daesh is probably not realistic since when faced with overwhelming force its members will likely go underground and continue to fight on as insurgents while keeping their ideology alive. Additionally, killing individual members of terrorist organizations will not destroy the ideology that is motivating the actions of those groups and, in some cases, may only motivate many others to join their causes. Our goals must be focused on more tangible objectives. It is possible to destroy Daesh units and equipment and physically seize the areas they control. Therefore, preventing them from openly controlling territory and destroying their ability to conduct conventional military operations is a more achievable strategic goal. Perhaps the appropriate limit for our actions against them is the destruction of Daesh’s control of its currently held areas. In any case, a well-defined end state is critical in allowing forces to work towards achieving it in any situation we may face.
What operational and tactical actions should we take to achieve those strategic goals?
Any military actions taken must be directly linked to advancing our strategic goals. The question of which military action to take must be answered by our senior military and civilian leaders but it is one to which the American people should still pay attention. Some actions may not offer a realistic chance of success or may require a cost much higher than necessary. The problems in these situations are tremendously intricate and interwoven with the societies in which they occur. Any actions we take must directly work towards our strategic objectives and commanders must periodically ensure that they are tying all their efforts back to the key reasons for being there in the first place.
Without well-defined criteria for success, mission creep can easily set in as motivated, talented and hardworking servicemembers attempt to solve every problem that they encounter and try to do the best they can with the tough situations they face. If we are not careful, we can become embroiled in efforts that have little to do with our original purpose for using military action, don’t advance our aims and waste critical effort. One of the biggest problems I witnessed in Afghanistan is that no one, not even the Afghans I worked with, could define what a successful Afghanistan looked like. Since the end goal was indefinable, our efforts lacked an overall coherent plan to work towards a common objective. We originally entered the country in 2001 to remove the Taliban and prevent al Qaeda from using the country as a sanctuary, a task with many complex subordinate implied tasks within it. Afghanistan lacked almost all the institutions and functions of a country capable of controlling its own territory and combating terrorist groups so we were effectively attempting to build a new, functioning, moderate society from an ancient tribal one. It wasn’t so much a war as a massive civil and military construction project. We started by fighting Taliban and al Qaeda elements but, by 2010, we were doing things like trying to convince poor Afghan farmers to grow alternative crops like mung bean instead of opium in the hopes that this would reduce the power of the drug trade which insurgents were using to finance their operations. These efforts were all well intentioned and did address real problems but they were not effectively tied into a realistic, overall vision of success. While the Coalition achieved a tremendous amount within Afghanistan, these efforts ultimately failed in removing the Taliban from many areas of the country and did not prevent their return to others. If we don’t establish achievable criteria for success from the beginning, our efforts will bog down as they encounter the countless problems within a dysfunctional environment and will likely prove fruitless.
How much are we willing to sacrifice to achieve our goal?
The cost of any military action is extremely high in terms of money, resources and, often, lives. If we are not willing to pay the price it takes to succeed at a task, then we should not begin it in the first place. It’s simply wasted effort. While certainly not universally successful, our efforts in both Iraq and Afghanistan made huge progress in improving their respective security situations in the short term. In both cases, that progress was abandoned before it could be fully developed. I am not suggesting that we should have remained in either conflict endlessly but, by withdrawing when we did, we effectively negated most of the benefits that could possibly have come from our efforts. Now we’re attempting to redo our previous accomplishments in both countries with far fewer forces. As we look toward Syria and future conflict areas, we must determine if we are willing to make the sacrifices that are realistically needed to achieve our strategic goals. If we are not, then we either need to pursue different objectives or find different methods that do not involve military action. To do something halfway is to waste the lives and effort expended.
Will Congress update the Authorization for Use of Military Force?
The 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force allowed the President to pursue the perpetrators of the September 11th attacks and to protect the country from future acts of international terrorism. This situation has effectively allowed our Executive Branch to continue military actions throughout the world without subsequent approvals from Congress. While the legality of the situation is still being debated, our government has carried out military action in many new theaters that were unknown in 2001 without any new input from citizens. The war has droned on in the background without real scrutiny of the benefits achieved versus the ever-rising costs and casualty figures. Now almost sixteen years later, it is time for the American people, through their elected representatives, to decide if continuing these operations as they are being conducted is worth the effort.
Who are we willing to work with to achieve our goals?
To call the situation in Syria complicated would be a massive understatement. Current combatants conducting operations in the air and on the ground include the Syrian government with their Russian allies, Daesh, several Kurdish groups, Turkey, countless other rebel groups, the United States and several other entities. Each of these groups has its own agenda and vision for how this conflict should be resolved and what the country should look like afterwards. With so many competing interests involved, the likelihood of building consensus between many of these groups is very small. To be able to achieve any of our strategic goals, we will have to make some very hard decisions about who we are willing to work with and which side we will support. Many of these groups have very different views of conduct and ethics than most Americans. When deciding who we will work with, it can be very easy for us to find ourselves making a deal with the devil which can come back to bite us ten years down the road. This question must be carefully studied and answered before we get involved. If there are no good options for allies to help find a clear resolution of the problem, then we need to be very cautious about inserting military forces into the situation.
How will we exit the conflict and ensure our gains are not immediately lost?
Since we will not continue any military intervention forever, we must have viable and realistic criteria for evaluating when we have reached the completion of our mission. We must also develop a plan to extract ourselves from the situation without forfeiting everything that we have achieved. This requires finding or establishing competent local elements who will carry on our efforts after we have left. It is also important to determine how much participation we are willing to have in an area after we have left militarily in terms of ongoing assistance and aid granted to that country.
Some of the most powerful lessons of our years in Iraq and Afghanistan stem from the fact that our strategic goals were not well defined or articulated. Perhaps many of them were not realistic in the first place. In the last fifteen years, the US military has readily defeated all enemies it faced on a battlefield but still failed to create lasting stability in Iraq and Afghanistan. As we are confronted with another complex situation in Syria, we must answer these questions in order to have any chance of success. Military operations are very complicated endeavors and the American people cannot realistically be expected to know everything about them. But at the same time, our foreign policy reflects the will of the American people and our government officials are our representatives in enacting it. We all bear responsibility for the conduct of our country’s military actions and the results they achieve. The answers to these dilemmas are not easy to find but it is vital that the public increase its understanding of the situation and help push our government to make more reasoned decisions with a long term view for success. The American people must demand that our government officials develop clear objectives and achievable plans for the use of military force and hold them to account when they fail to do so. The consequences of misdirected and unrealistic campaigns are too high to be tolerated and those costly efforts will likely prove fruitless.
About the Author:
Ben Van Zytveld is a former Marine Officer with multiple deployments around the world.