The Utility of the War on Terror

This is an analysis of the USA’s invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan written under the influence of one of my favorite books: Rupert Smith’s The Utility of Force.

Iraqi FreedomRupert Smith’s The Utility of Force argues military force has only two immediate effects: death and destruction, and whether these effects serve to achieve a political purpose measures the force’s utility. After 9/11 the political goal of the American government appears obvious – to increase US security and prevent another terrorist attack. George W. Bush’s administration attempted to achieve this by launching two of what Smith would describe as interstate industrial wars, invading Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003. This use of force did not achieve its political end because the Bush administration failed to recognize that the US was engaged in the paradigm Smith describes as ‘war amongst the people’ – the antithesis of interstate industrial war.

Tactics in 'war amongst the people'

Tactics in ‘war amongst the people’

‘War amongst the people’ vs Interstate Industrial War

The September 11 attacks and the tactics used to harass coalition soldiers occupying Afghanistan are both perfect examples of operations in a war amongst the people. While industrial war involves nation-states deploying armies Smith argues the antithesis of industrial war involves guerrilla-like tactics – “small operations, with a minimal amount of people, focused upon disruption rather than a decisive military victory.” Often this involves provoking an enemy into overreacting – “the objective here being to reflect the government as a brutal oppressor … to gain sympathy for the ‘cause’ and gain recruits.” While the US administration reacted by launching industrial wars, it was actually fighting a war amongst the people. Furthermore the Bush administration was certainly provoked into overreacting because its reaction did not achieve the political goal of security and (as this paper will display) the opposite was achieved.

Afghanistan was a terrorist safe haven and “the country where the 9/11 plot was hatched.” Therefore the invasion of Afghanistan had the potential of using military force to achieve the political goal of creating security as it could deny terrorist networks a place to operate. Because the Taliban and al-Qaeda were linked both had to be eliminated to create security. However “Bush and his team forgot their ultimate objective: the destruction of the Taliban and al-Qaeda and an end to the sanctuary that Afghanistan provided.” Ahmed Rashid’s Descent into Chaos argues that the US ignored Afghanistan in favour of invading Iraq and in doing so created more security threats for the US.

Rashid argues that invading Iraq “was critical to convincing Musharraf that the US was not serious about stabilizing the region, and that it was safer for Pakistan to preserve its own national interest by clandestinely giving the Taliban refuge.” Zalmay Khalilzad, the former American ambassador to Iraq and later to the UN, claimed the Iraq invasion “‘helped Iran’s relative position in the region, because Iraq was a rival of Iran,’” – Iran subsequently supported Hezbollah and Hamas. The invasion of Iraq created security threats; the Taliban continued harassing American interests from Pakistan and Iran frustrated American interests in the region. This displays the fact that the Bush administration did not use force to its greatest utility because force was not used to reach a political outcome. Assuming al-Qaeda’s political goal is to damage American security, al-Qaeda’s force was used to a greater effectiveness. Al-Qaeda used perfectly the tactic of provocation described by Smith to entice the US into overreacting.

The decision to invade Iraq as a reaction to 9/11 displays the fact that the Bush administration did not understand the paradigm of war it was engaged in, believing industrial wars could counter the threat presented. Jeffrey Record’s Wanting War presents multiple motives for invading Iraq; they center upon achieving a political goal of intimidating other states by demonstrating that the US was prepared to use its military to strike first. By deterring other states, the US would create security for itself – its central political goal. This way of thinking may have worked for nation-states during the Cold War, when Smith states force’s “utility was in its deterrence, not its application,” but insurgents would not be deterred in this way.

Good, old (and useless) interstate industrial war methods

In a war amongst the people the people are not the enemy, the enemy is amongst the people. Smith argues the key to defeating these enemies “is to differentiate between the enemy and the people, and win the latter over to you.” One must win the ‘hearts and minds’ of the population, however often this is not the overall objective. Rashid argued Afghanistan’s agriculture industry needed investment to “revive public morale in the countryside and convince people of the worthlessness of the Taliban.” However, in 2000 Bush stated, “I don’t think our troops ought to be used for what’s called nation-building – I think our troops ought to be used to fight and win wars.” Fighting and winning industrial wars was feasible for an American force, as initial success in both Afghanistan and Iraq demonstrate, unfortunately nation-building is what is needed to combat insurgency. When the Pentagon’s own Defence Science Board requested that stabilization and reconstruction operations be set as core military tasks, the request was ignored. To reconstruct Afghanistan stability was needed, but the troops needed to provide stability were instead tied down in Iraq.# The Taliban understood this, they realised their greatest weapon “American tentativeness, an unwillingness by Bush or other officials to commit troops, money, and resources.” Because the original threat presented by 9/11 persisted and new threats were created, force was not used to its utility because it did not create security.

The American administration squandered its force’s utility when reacting to the 9/11 attacks because its military strategy did not produce its political goal. While Bush was preoccupied with fighting and winning industrial wars, the US was engaged in the antithesis of industrial war. After overthrowing the Taliban government the Bush administration, not understanding Smith’s paradigm of war amongst the people, believed the first war was won and started a second. However the second war wasted the resources needed to rebuild Afghanistan and truly counter terrorism, while creating more threats to US security. Therefore force was not used to its utmost utility because it was not used to meet the political goal of creating security.

Works Cited
Parent, Joseph M. and Paul K. MacDonald. “The Wisdom of Retrenchment.” Foreign Affairs, vol. 90 no. 6, November/December 2011.

Rashid, Ahmed. Descent into Chaos. New York: Penguin Books Ltd., 2009.
Record, Jeffrey. Wanting War. Washington D.C.: Potomac Books Inc., 2010.
Sanger, David E. The Inheritance. New York: Three Rivers Press, 2009.
Smith, Rupert. The Utility of Force. London: Penguin Books Ltd., 2006.


One comment

  1. Pingback: Cyber-war: The Reality of Modern Warfare « The State of the Century

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