Academic journal article Parameters

Collapsed Countries, Casualty Dread, and the New American Way of War

Academic journal article Parameters

Collapsed Countries, Casualty Dread, and the New American Way of War

Article excerpt

The combination of failed states, elite casualty phobia, and unfolding aerial precision strike and associated technologies is profoundly altering the locus and style of future US military interventions overseas. The United States is beginning to practice a new way of warfare in parts of the world peripheral to traditional American security interests.

The Gulf War was a turning point. It was both an end and a beginning. It was perhaps the last large American full-spectrum conventional war waged against another well-armed state and the first in which airpower did the bulk of the heavy lifting against not only strategic targets but also enemy fielded forces. The Gulf War was also the first war in which casualty minimization became from the start an independent operational objective; both the formulation of war aims and the conduct of military operations were governed by dread among the political and especially military leadership that too many American lives lost would implode public and congressional support for the war.

Since the Gulf War, the United States has launched military interventions in Somalia (1992-94), Haiti (1994), Bosnia (1995), Kosovo (1999), and, most recently, in Afghanistan (2001). Unlike the Gulf War, which was waged in a place of undisputed strategic vitality to the West, these post-Gulf War interventions have been undertaken in locales beyond the traditional US strategic foci of Western Europe, East Asia, and the Persian Gulf. Also unlike the Gulf War, these interventions were all launched in or against failed states incapable of offering effective resistance to US conventional military power. In all cases, US airpower had virtually free run of the enemy's air space. Even more important, in two of the last three--Bosnia and Kosovo--US ground forces were deliberately withheld from participation; and in the last--Afghanistan--US ground forces that were committed initially were small and functioned primarily as scouts for American airpower and searchers for the enemy's leadership. In Bosnia and Afghanistan, large indigenous friendly ground forces served as surrogates, thus holding down US casualties and their perceived potential domestic political consequences.

The war in Afghanistan exemplifies a growing American propensity for intervention in failed states (there are no qualified conventional military adversaries left, and China's future emergence as a competitive strategic rival is far from a done deal) and for risk-averse reliance on ever-more-effective airpower. These propensities are a function of three factors: (1) profound structural change in the international political system--specifically, the emergence of weak and failed states as the primary threat to US security; (2) a casualty-phobic political and military leadership; and (3) the availability of new military technologies that seem to permit effective military intervention, primarily from the air, at little cost in friendly military and even enemy civilian casualties. The war in Afghanistan also shows that modem airpower, under the right conditions, can achieve decisive strategic effects even against the kind of irregular, pre-industrial enemy once thought unbreakable by air attack. (1)

How did we get to this point?

Failed States as the Primary Threat

The most devastating foreign attack in American history was planned and carried out at the direction of an international terrorist network headquartered in a failed state. Indeed, the relationship between the Taliban and Osama bin Laden and his al Qaeda was symbiotic; the Taliban provided safe-haven for bin Laden and his high command, and bin Laden, in return, provided financial and professional assistance to the Taliban. Indeed, there has been a mutually supporting relationship between international terrorists and failed states worldwide, and the number of failing and failed states is growing, especially in the Islamic world and sub-Saharan Africa. …

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