Home inFocus 9/11: Past and Present No Strategy for Victory. At Least Not for the Good Guys.

No Strategy for Victory. At Least Not for the Good Guys.

J. Michael Waller Fall 2021
An aerial view of the Pentagon, headquarters to the U.S. military.

“Victory,” as the Department of Defense defines it in its Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms, is – well, it’s not there.

It doesn’t exist. 

The Pentagon has no official definition of victory.

The very word itself doesn’t appear once in the more than 350-page, annually updated lexicon. It hasn’t appeared for a decade, perhaps more. 

No concept of victory helps explain why we fight Forever Wars and end up senselessly handing over our hard-fought victories to the enemy.

Victory doesn’t exist. 

The Afghanistan war, as others have noted, was just a series of tours of duty for top commanders to “serve” during their brief rotations in and out, and to pass everything off to their successors with no strategy for victory.

The multi-trillion-dollar Afghan war, which maimed and killed countless thousands of people, wasn’t designed for victory. Everything – the territory of an entire country, millions of liberated Afghans, and billions of dollars in American weaponry – were unilaterally surrendered to the enemy.

Of course, the Pentagon dictionary has no definition for “enemy.”

The hole is right there on page 74, like a missing tooth, between “enduring location” and “engage.”

No enemy. 

A “Prudent Idea” vs “Achieving Objectives”

The dictionary is only a dictionary, but it’s important because it reflects a mindset inculcated through generations of officers and senior civilians across the military services and Defense Department. It reveals a dumbing down of the Pentagon’s view of its role in national defense.

All of this calls into question the underlying civilian strategy that governs the nation’s bloated defense budget and military priorities that impose such a burden on the taxpayers. The DoD dictionary can explain, in a nutshell, how the Pentagon teaches its personnel to think about strategy.

Strategy, if one properly interprets the Pentagon definition, is no longer strategic. The DoD Dictionary calls strategy “A prudent idea or set of ideas for employing the instruments of national power in a synchronized and integrated fashion to achieve theater, national, and/or multinational objectives.”

A prudent idea. 

That’s pretty dumbed-down from, say, the Merriam-Webster definition, which simply but elegantly is “the science and art of employing the political, economic, psychological, and military forces of a nation or group of nations to afford the maximum support to adopted policies in peace and war.” A prudent idea versus science and art.

Strategy and Technology

One might dismiss these omissions and lexicographic pabulum as minor in comparison to the world’s finest technologies and peerless tactical/operational combat capabilities of our fighting forces. Yet it’s the definitions that govern all the hardware and doctrines and tactics and people. 

Making military history with the 2001 amphibious invasion of landlocked Afghanistan was a bold innovation for the ages. Exiting that country after 20 years was a different matter. 

It became apparent early on that the United States never had a strategy to win the war. The real intellectual firepower wasn’t devoted to a solid final outcome as it was to building our way into Afghanistan and building our way out. The war became part of Washington’s normal day, much like the war against poverty or the war on crime. Before long, the intent wasn’t to defeat the target but simply to manage the situation.

For that matter, who would have dreamed that the war would have dragged on for two decades in the first place? Where in the war plan did it say that we would return Afghanistan back to the terrorists who attacked us? Who designed the end state to fight and die in Afghanistan, with its colossal and virtually untapped riches of rare earth minerals vital to our economy, and hand it all over to the Chinese Communist Party?

Yet here we are. 

Taliban Strategic Aims

What was the strategic aim of the Afghanistan war after the U.S. and its allies overthrew the Taliban, killed and captured its leaders, set up some sort of Afghan government that was friendly to us, and our Navy SEALs killed Osama bin Laden (in Pakistan)? 

Our warriors captured top Taliban leaders and held them at Guantanamo for years until Barack Obama, with Joe Biden’s slithering consent, set them free to their home base in Qatar. After the Trump interregnum, Biden himself would create the circumstances for those same freed terrorists to rule the country he surrendered.

Do we even have a real counterterrorism strategy? The FBI has a $10 million reward for information leading to the arrest of the notorious Sirajuddin Haqqani, yet the President of the United States enabled Haqqani to return home to run Afghanistan’s internal security forces. 

And why just pick on Afghanistan? The great, departed Boston University Professor Uri Ra’anan told his students after 9/11, paraphrasing here, “The question isn’t whether the attacks were state-sponsored. The question is which state sponsored them.” 

Terror’s State Sponsors

Yet, just as the CIA and the diplomatic establishment vigorously denied in the early 1980s that the Soviet Union had been a state sponsor of global terrorist networks – until CIA Director Bill Casey told analysts to go back and find what journalists including Claire Sterling had already documented, and what Soviet archives would later confirm – the establishment wished away the idea that, perhaps somehow, the al-Qaeda attacks that led to twenty years of war were, indeed, state-sponsored.

No serious strategist of either party in our government publicly identified the state sponsors of 9/11 and laid out a strategy to take the fight to the source of the terrorism that plagued us. 

We knew it then, of course. The openly jihadist dictatorship of Qatar. Entire swathes of the government and royal family then ruling Saudi Arabia. Pakistan and its notorious Inter-Services Intelligence network. Even Iran.

Two decades later, while the Saudi regime has become more of a mixed bag when it comes to violent jihad, Qatar became more powerful than ever by cleverly letting the U.S. Central Command use al-Udeid as a major military hub on the one hand, and funding and sheltering the Taliban and other terrorists on the other. 

Pakistan played multiple sides during the Afghan war, while Iran was not made to suffer for its IED warfare against American and Coalition troops in both Afghanistan and Iraq – until years later when President Donald Trump finished off Qasem Soleimani, the commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps.

Working Against Our Own Interests

Without strategy, our leaders make decisions to pump the Kremlin with European cash while making our NATO allies on continental Europe dependent on Vladimir Putin for energy and pulling the rug from under Ukraine and unflinching NATO ally Poland. 

Without strategy, we built up Communist China from agrarian backwater to an economic and military superpower with the confidence to threaten Australia, New Zealand, Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, Vietnam, Taiwan, India, and more. We stood by Beijing as it held us hostage through economic warfare, political subversion, and seemingly endless technological, financial, and political espionage. 

A cynic might think that that was the strategy all along. Compelling evidence shows that suspicion to be fairly well grounded.

Now, Beijing has replaced and exceeded the Soviet Union as a hostile outside force subverting and destabilizing the Western Hemisphere, filling the vacuum left from a Monroe Doctrine – a timeless grand strategy, and successful when enforced – that the Obama administration officially renounced, and the Trump administration never really cared about.

The Trump Years

Speaking of President Donald Trump, while the mercurial president pitched and yawed the country through a lurching, often illogical set of foreign and national security policies that could hardly be called strategic, he did articulate a worldview that helped others shape a new and coherent grand strategy for the country.

His America First approach to the world, so annoyingly simplistic to his globalist critics in both parties, did in fact move the Overton Window to force the policy establishment to re-think the country’s endless policies and commitments. Trump forced the nation to confront the fact that team America could no longer sustain its role as world police. 

America, he said, is a sovereign country of sovereign people who are governed by their own consent. America would look out for its own interests and place them first. It wasn’t a jingoistic or chauvinistic approach, but a practical, transactional one. Trump encouraged all countries governed by the consent of the governed, or at least friendly to those who are, to seek their own sovereign interests, and in so doing, find common cause with the United States. He transformed the Middle East with his historic “Drive Them Out” speech in Riyadh, followed by his national sovereignty speech in Warsaw to call NATO members to live up their defense commitments. 

The Riyadh speech helped Arab countries unite against Qatari terrorism and subversion. The Warsaw speech forced allies, some kicking and screaming, to face up to the fact that most were freeloading and shirking their commitments even as they assisted the U.S. in Iraq and Afghanistan. 

Meanwhile, certain able figures on his National Security Council staff devised a remarkable National Strategy of the United States that was more coherent, comprehensive, and crystalline than any since President Ronald Reagan. But it was too little, too late, for Trump’s often squandered presidency.

While there is much to criticize about Trump’s many disastrous diplomatic, defense, and national security personnel appointments, two elements of his legacy particularly stand out to show what a few committed and determined appointees can accomplish: the Abraham Accords that united most of the Gulf Arabs against Qatar and Iran and with the state of Israel; and a strategic interagency active defense against Communist China. 

Those accomplishments are being undone. And the lack of strategy enabled our enemies, on the 20th anniversary of the al-Qaeda attacks, to declare an Afghan Caliphate.

J. Michael Waller is Senior Analyst for Strategy at the Center for Security Policy.