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Assassination Is the New Shock and Awe

Why the US's favorite new war strategy will only drag out the War on Terror.

| Thu Feb. 23, 2012 5:30 PM EST
Soldiers fire illumination at suspected enemy movements in Afghanistan's Zabul province.

This story first appeared on the TomDispatch website.

With the United States now well into the second decade of what the Pentagon has styled an "era of persistent conflict," the war formerly known as the global war on terrorism (unofficial acronym WFKATGWOT) appears increasingly fragmented and diffuse. Without achieving victory, yet unwilling to acknowledge failure, the United States military has withdrawn from Iraq. It is trying to leave Afghanistan, where events seem equally unlikely to yield a happy outcome.

Elsewhere—in Pakistan, Libya, Yemen, and Somalia, for example— US forces are busily opening up new fronts. Published reports that the United States is establishing "a constellation of secret drone bases" in or near the Horn of Africa and the Arabian Peninsula suggest that the scope of operations will only widen further. In a front-page story, the New York Times described plans for "thickening" the global presence of US special operations forces. Rushed Navy plans to convert an aging amphibious landing ship into an "afloat forward staging base"—a mobile launch platform for either commando raids or minesweeping operations in the Persian Gulf—only reinforces the point. Yet as some fronts close down and others open up, the war's narrative has become increasingly difficult to discern. How much farther until we reach the WFKATGWOT's equivalent of Berlin? What exactly is the WFKATGWOT's equivalent of Berlin? In fact, is there a storyline here at all?

Viewed close-up, the "war" appears to have lost form and shape. Yet by taking a couple of steps back, important patterns begin to appear. What follows is a preliminary attempt to score the WFKATGWOT, dividing the conflict into a bout of three rounds. Although there may be several additional rounds still to come, here's what we've suffered through thus far.

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The Rumsfeld Era

Round 1: Liberation. More than any other figure—more than any general, even more than the president himself—Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld dominated the war's early stages. Appearing for a time to be a larger-than-life figure—the "Secretary at War" in the eyes of an adoring (if fickle) neocon fan club—Rumsfeld dedicated himself to the proposition that, in battle, speed holds the key to victory. He threw his considerable weight behind a high-tech American version of blitzkrieg. US forces, he regularly insisted, were smarter and more agile than any adversary. To employ them in ways that took advantage of those qualities was to guarantee victory. The journalistic term adopted to describe this concept was "shock and awe."

No one believed more passionately in "shock and awe" than Rumsfeld himself. The design of Operation Enduring Freedom, launched in October 2001, and of Operation Iraqi Freedom, begun in March 2003, reflected this belief. In each instance, the campaign got off to a promising start, with US troops landing some swift and impressive blows. In neither case, however, were they able to finish off their opponent or even, in reality, sort out just who their opponent might be. Unfortunately for Rumsfeld, the "terrorists" refused to play by his rulebook and US forces proved to be less smart and agile than their technological edge—and their public relations machine—suggested would be the case. Indeed, when harassed by minor insurgencies and scattered bands of jihadis, they proved surprisingly slow to figure out what hit them.

In Afghanistan, Rumsfeld let victory slip through his grasp. In Iraq, his mismanagement of the campaign brought the United States face-to-face with outright defeat. Rumsfeld's boss had hoped to liberate (and, of course, dominate) the Islamic world through a series of short, quick thrusts. What Bush got instead were two different versions of a long, hard slog. By the end of 2006, "shock and awe" was kaput. Trailing well behind the rest of the country and its armed forces, the president eventually lost confidence in his defense secretary's approach. As a result, Rumsfeld lost his job. Round one came to an end, the Americans, rather embarrassingly, having lost it on points.


The Petraeus Era

Round 2: Pacification. Enter General David Petraeus. More than any other figure, in or out of uniform, Petraeus dominated the WFKATGWOT's second phase. Round two opened with lowered expectations. Gone was the heady talk of liberation. Gone, too, were predictions of lightning victories. The United States was now willing to settle for much less while still claiming success.

Petraeus offered a formula for restoring a semblance of order to countries reduced to chaos as a result of round one. Order might permit the United States to extricate itself while maintaining some semblance of having met its policy objectives. This became the operative definition of victory.

The formal name for the formula that Petraeus devised was counterinsurgency, or COIN. Rather than trying to defeat the enemy, COIN sought to facilitate the emergence of a viable and stable nation-state. This was the stated aim of the "surge" in Iraq ordered by President George W. Bush at the end of 2006.

With Petraeus presiding, violence in that country did decline precipitously. Whether the relationship was causal or coincidental remains the subject of controversy. Still, Petraeus's apparent success persuaded some observers that counterinsurgency on a global scale—GCOIN, they called it—should now form the basis for US national security strategy. Here, they argued, was an approach that could definitively extract the United States from the WFKATGWOT, while offering victory of a sort. Rather than employing "shock and awe" to liberate the Islamic world, US forces would apply counterinsurgency doctrine to pacify it.

The task of demonstrating the validity of COIN beyond Iraq fell to General Stanley McChrystal, appointed with much fanfare in 2009 to command US and NATO forces in Afghanistan. Press reports celebrated McChrystal as another Petraeus, the ideal candidate to replicate the achievements already credited to "King David."

McChrystal's ascendency came at a moment when a cult of generalship gripped Washington. Rather than technology being the determinant of success as Rumsfeld had believed, the key was to put the right guy in charge and then let him run with things. Political figures on both sides of the aisle fell all over themselves declaring McChrystal the right guy for Afghanistan. Pundits of all stripes joined the chorus.

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