04.11.2019 | U.S. Strategy—Strategic Triage and the True Cost of War: Supporting Enduring Commitments versus “Endless Wars”
by Anthony H. Cordesman - CSIS

The analysis shows that there are good reasons why the United States should constantly reexamine its military commitments and deployments overseas, and especially its active uses of military force. The U.S. may not face endless wars, but it does face endless threats and instability. History has not ended and will not end, and “Globalism” has not put the world on a path towards growth, progress, peace, and stability. The ISIS “Caliphate” may be gone, but ISIS, its affiliates, Al Qaida, and a host of other extremist and terrorist movements survive. No MENA, South Asian, or Central Asian country has made a major reduction in the political, economic, or demographic causes of instability that triggered the political upheavals in the Arab World in 2011 or that shape the future of all too many countries in the developing world. Defeating one movement in one location does not secure even a single country in the face of continued failures in politics, governance, economic, and demographics that have been the source of extremism, uprisings and civil war. And, these same failures affect all too many countries in the rest of Asia, Sub-Saharan Africa, and Latin America. The U.S. cannot ignore these forces, let them destabilize the global economy, or become direct threats to the United States. It is all too clear from the analyses of given countries made by the bodies like the UN, IMF, World Bank, and CIA that many of the fracture lines between and within states, are causes of instability that are “structural” in the sense that they are likely to last for at least one more decade and evolve into other challenges for at least several decades more. It is also clear from the actions of countries like Russia that other states will exploit such failures and fracture lines to serve their own interests and use them against the United States. The U.S. not only faces direct military and economic challenges and competition from states like Russia, China, North Korea, and Iran, it faces “gray area” challenges from these and other potentially hostile states in other countries throughout the world. The U.S. can certainly choose its conflicts, its strategic partners, and the way it deploys and fights far more wisely. The United States should refine and improve its current pattern of global engagements, and its current active military engagements The U.S. cannot survive, however, as a major, modern global economy and retreat from the world while other competitors seek to expand their influence through the global economy and develop their military capabilities. It cannot turn away from its role as a global power and rely on random and arbitrary withdrawals and force cuts, and focus on transactional burden sharing. This can only end in making the U.S. its own worst enemy. Neo-isolationism is not a viable option, but neither is repeating America’s past mistakes. On the one hand, the United States can only secure its position by maintaining effective defense, deterrence, and the selective use of force. On the other hand, the U.S. must make hard choices as to where it makes commitments, exercises “strategic triage” to put its forces where they are most effective, and accepts the fact that it can neither police the world nor eliminate every source of risk. This analysis focuses on two of the key trends that must be considered in making such choices. First, it focuses on the key issues which affect the current U.S. debate over its “long wars.” It examines the financial and warfighting impacts of the changes in American methods of war fighting. It shows that the U.S. has already made critical changes in its military posture that have already greatly reduced the cost of U.S. involvements in the Afghan and Iraq/Syria conflicts, and shown the U.S. can find affordable ways to fight such wars. These changes include shifts from a reliance on massive deployments of to a reliance on host country forces advised and supported by small cadres of expert U.S. ground forces and continued support from precision air strikes. They exemplify the need to tailor U.S. military efforts to limit the costs and risks of war, focus on building up host country forces as quickly as possible, and carefully performing strategic triage in ways that avoid over-commitment to failed states. These sharp reduction in the cost of the Afghan and Iraq/Syria wars also shows that the tendency to focus on the total costs of such war from 2001 to date is seriously misleading in showing the way the U.S. should apply strategic triage to its current and future wars and gray area operations. The U.S. needs to learn from its mistakes, not retreat from the world. Second, the analysis shows that current U.S. engagements do not now strain U.S. military resources, the Federal Budget, or the American economy in spite of the fact that the U.S. has been fighting two wars. The U.S. now spends only a limited portion of its economy on military forces, and total U.S. overseas deployments are now far smaller than they were at the time of the Cold War. The deployments that remain produce immense benefits in terms of strategic partnerships throughout the world, and are essential elements of any strategy that focuses on Russia and China, as well as the myriad of other threats and challenges that exist in the rest of the globe. At the same time, the analysis does warn that the U.S. has not addressed the massive failures it is still making in the civil side of its civil-military campaigns. It has made critical advances in the military half of its wars, but it has largely abandoned effective nation building, and efforts to reshape the failures of host country governments that are the key causes of extremism, terrorism, and violence. It is available on the CSIS web site at public/publication/191101_True_Cost_of_War.pdf.


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