The Biden Transition and Reshaping U.S. Strategy: Long Engagements vs. Long Wars

The ongoing Trump efforts to withdraw U.S. forces from Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, and other countries where a U.S. presence involves some form of active combat will be one of the earliest major decisions the Biden Administration will have to make. It is also a decision that the Trump Administration is clearly trying to preemptively affect by cutting U.S. force levels to a point where they are too ineffective to meet the needs of a host government. The size of U.S. force levels and force cuts, the missions such forces are actually performing, the facilities and basing access the U.S. still has, and the actual levels of spending involved are all unclear that it is almost impossible to judge what the Trump Administration is actually doing.

The tendency of much of the current policy and media debate to label current U.S. military activities as “long wars,” without looking at the changes in force levels, the kind of forces involved, and the current cost of U.S. action also does far more to confuse the situation than to explain it. It leads to the use of grossly exaggerated costs based on the cost of past periods of actual war fighting, and it also results in the implication that U.S. land forces still heavily dominate the fighting.

Most media reporting and some academic reporting also further complicates the situation by focusing on the immediate impact of rough estimates of civilian air casualties without addressing the cost of land fighting, the casualty effect of creating refugees and displaced persons, and the impact of extremist and authoritarian rule and actions on the civil life of the populations in the areas they threaten or control.

Committing to Long Engagements Rather than Long Wars

The Biden Administration needs to assess these issues from a fundamentally different perspective. It needs to fully reshape any existing commitments it decides to continue by using the right tools and levels of resources, and it should only make new commitments, if it finds the right answers to the following questions:

  • What is the real world strategic value to the United States of a given level of military effort? The U.S. cannot provide forces to deal with every risk, and no commitment of U.S. forces and resources should be unconditional or treated as some kind of morality play where the U.S. must act or continue to provide support to another government or faction because it has done so in the past. The key issue is what value can the U.S. credibly gain from committing a given level and type of military forces – and from dispensing civil and military financial aid over a certain period of time.

  • What is the probable real-world value of a given long level engagement in achieving direct strategic benefits? The issue is not the length of the engagement, it is the cost-benefits from a given level of effort. This is particularly true when the strategic importance of a given country or partner is anything but truly vital to U.S. strategic interests and those of America’s major strategic partners.

The world is filled with states that face low level threats and can serve as bases for extremists. At the same time, the lessons of Afghanistan and Iraq – like the lessons for South Korea, Vietnam, and other U.S. strategic partners – strongly argue that the U.S. should neither attempt to transform a failed government or state nor become the major source of land forces for a country that is incapable of defending itself. They warn that corrupt, divided, and ineffective governments are not worth supporting, and that the U.S. should make aid ruthlessly conditional on the performance of the host country’s government and forces.

  • Can low levels of engagement while aiding another state or partner to develop its forces, economy, and capability credibly offer a high probability of winning or sustaining a meaningful level of security and development? Here, it is important to note that the U.S. has made massive progress in reducing the cost of providing support to Afghan, Iraqi, and Somali forces.

  • Will focusing on building host country land forces with forward train and assist and active combat support, and then sustaining the host country forces at acceptable levels of effort be enough within a credible period of time? The U.S. land presence in Afghanistan and Iraq was reduced to a functional minimum as host country land forces took over the bulk of the mission. Specially, tailored mixes of Security Force Assistance Bridges (SFABs), elite U.S. combat units, civilian intelligence forces, and contractors provided enough support at relatively low levels of effort.

  • Can providing tailored – but limited – packages of air combat strikes and advanced intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (IS&R) capabilities provide a critical additional source of U. combat support? The U.S. has developed far more advanced targeting and strike capabilities to deal with the threat posed by extremist forces, even when they are embedded in populated areas and use human shields as defensive weapons.

The use of airpower cannot avoid significant civilian losses even with good rules of engagement, but the true cost in casualties must be judged in very different ways. Any effort to estimate the true cost should consider the following: what would be the result of urban or populated area land combat without air power, what would the probability be of an extremist takeover with all of its human costs, and what other credible options exist? It is also dangerous to rely on external intelligence and air support without a U.S. forward presence to train and assist a targeting effort with HUMINT. Once again, cutting too much too soon is not a meaningful option.

  • Is there an effective civil structure as well as a military one? One critical problem that still remains in the U.S. efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq is the failure to tie the military effort to effective civil efforts by the host country, to actually implement reform and development plans, and to operate without conditionality that would immediately halt aid when given officials prove to be corrupt or incompetent. These are the product of critical structural failures in the Department of State and USAID that have not been addressed in the previous two QDDRs, and there is little practical point in winning at the military level and losing at the civil one.

  • Can the U.S. government provide an honest level of transparency? The systematic over-classification of data on the effectiveness and cost of U.S. efforts as well as the cancellation of most detailed trend reporting of both civil and military trends has done nothing to establish the credibility of the changes in the U.S. efforts described above, or to serve the purpose of supporting conditionality in providing support to host country forces and governments. If you can’t report honestly and fully, don’t engage.

The Strategic Case for Long Engagements

The U.S. should conduct these forms of strategic triage in choosing to engage against extremism and terrorism at low levels. Looking at the current situation in Afghanistan, an objective answer to these questions may indicate that long engagements will not succeed and may support departure, but too few data are available to fully judge the options. Iraq seems to make a much better case for a long engagement, but much again depends on the host country’s future government – and the failures and weaknesses of its past governments have often been as much of a threat as the extremist enemy.

This need for strategic triage in committing the U.S. to long engagements is an equal issue in Yemen, Somalia, the rest of Africa, and the rest of the world. It highlights the need for a truly objective assessment of the risk and cost-benefits of action, and it emphasizes the extent to which the Biden Administration must look beyond the extremist threat and judge if the host country is a serious threat to its own success.

There will, however, be many cases where using limited amounts of U.S. land and air forces over an extended period of years will be able to limit the growth of extremist movements, reduce the threat to the United States and other outside powers, as well as prevent extremists from presenting a critical threat to the government and the development of a more stable form of governance and economy. Even if the U.S. has no near-term prospects of creating a successful state, it can achieve important goals through limited levels of military engagement over a period of years.

Somalia and most of AFRICOM’s operations are cases in point. Meanwhile, Yemen may still be an option, and Iraq is a nation of key strategic value to the U.S. in limiting the risk posed by both Iran and extremism. Long wars are not the answer, but long engagements that keep extremism and terrorism down to limited levels can be an option, and tailoring the levels of such engagements to the particular threats involved can buy time for the governments involved to change and evolve.

Moreover, this kind of U.S. intervention not only can play a critical role in aiding America’s strategic partners in areas where such threats exist, it can play a critical role in boosting U.S. capability to compete with Russian and Chinese influence – both in military terms and civil ones.

This report entitled, The Biden Transition and Reshaping U.S. Strategy: Long Engagements vs. Long Wars, is available for download at https://csis-website-prod.s3.amazonaws.com/s3fs-public/publication/201209_Cordesman_Biden_Transition_Military.pdf

Anthony H. Cordesman holds the Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. He has served as a consultant on Afghanistan to the United States Department of Defense and the United States Department of State.

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Anthony H. Cordesman

Anthony H. Cordesman

Former Emeritus Chair in Strategy