Military victories are easy to analyze correctly with some hindsight. Victories of challengers to major military powers are particularly hard to predict.
Is it possible for the United States of America to lose its current round in its war against Asia, which currently is what we call the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan? And by lose I don’t just mean withdrawing because of political considerations at home. I mean withdrawing because the military situation becomes untenable.
Go back in history to the start of the Islamic conflicts. Like all major religions Islam was expansionist; you don’t get to be a major religion unless you are expansionist. Early on the prophet Mohammed preached peace, humility, social justice and brotherhood, but when his followers started winning small battles against local pagan opponents, he increasingly put value on military valor and conversion at sword point. While they were defeating local tribes in the Arabian Peninsula none of the big powers of the day were much impressed. But then the Islamic armies steadily defeated the Christian armies of the Eastern Roman Empire. These armies were formidable armies that had defeated many major adversaries, that were better equipped, and that had a tradition of military knowledge and training that was far beyond the early Islamic armies. Restricted to Arabia in 632 A.D. when Mohammed died, by 732 the Caliphate extended from the southern border of France, across north Africa and east to the borders of India.
Another great historic military expansion began when English settlers founded Virginia at Jamestown in 1607. England itself was a military power of minor global importance at the time. War with the native American Indians, fueled by greed for land, gave English-Americans a martial spirit which they eventually turned against the British government. War allowed these people to take the greater part of Indian lands and defeat Spain and Mexico both. While territorial expansion ceased with the conquest of the Philippines, military capability was honed on a global scale in World War I and World War II, leaving the United States the dominant military and economic power of the world.
The modern remnants of the Caliphate look weak, and are mostly governed by U.S. puppets. The invasion of Iraq in 2003 by the United States military made defeating conventional armies in the Middle East seem easy.
But the world has changed and those who want to predict the future should take a good hard look at the current military situation. The U.S. has, overall, the best fighting machine in the world at every level. West Point, Parris Island, and Fort Benning provide training that make Taliban and al-Qaeda training seem astonishingly primitive. Only a tiny percentage of the military-age population of the U.S. are in its military. A command decision to draft and equip a much larger army to fight in Asia would not significantly impact U.S. resources, thought its social and political impact could be enormous. To date even if you include mercenaries the U.S. has suffered less than 4000 deaths from military activities in Iraq and Afghanistan. As long ago as the U.S. War Between the States it was not uncommon for more than that many soldiers to die in battle in a single day. The U.S. population today is approximately ten times what it was during that civil war.
The Islamic warriors’ disadvantages are worth enumerating. They have no state, no truly safe territory to use as a base. They are divided, primarily into Sunni and Shia factions, but also according to nationality and even clans. In short, their situation is similar to pre-Islamic Arabian militias or to the native American Indians.
But there is another way that they are similar to pre-Islamic Arabian militias. They are schooled in the art of war by life experience, in a way that even the American son of a soldier who attends West Point is not. Teenage boys who die fighting for the Taliban are part of a grim calculus of evolution: the boys who do not die and who continue to fight have learned lessons you can’t learn at West Point. Combat veterans are the core of proficient armies.
The resilience of the Islamic fighters approaches that of the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army. America’s Army, of course, has its combat veterans, who are well trained and well equipped. But it tends to rely on technological fixes, both of the old style like artillery, tanks, and fighter-bombers, and on sophisticated electronic gear. There is already a bunker mentality in Iraq; troops are (understandably) reluctant to get themselves killed to no end, so they minimize their exposure by minimizing their attacks.
And so the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have evolved. For the most part the Islamic soldiers have minimized the suicidal frontal attack. Hidden explosive devices not only occasionally kill a few Americans, they slow down the pace of U.S. attacks. Snipers who can aim are far more effective than spraying bullets in the general direction of armored troops.
So it would seem that there is a stalemate: neither side can win. The last time the U.S. won such a war was when the Philippines were conquered, which required killing between one and two million Filipinos. The U.S. killed similar numbers in Vietnam and still lost the war.
The population of Afghanistan is near 30 million. The population of Iraq is about 27 million. Clearly a genocidal American President would have the resources to “pacify” both countries. The American people could probably be manipulated to accept such a policy. The real problem is the number of Muslims in the world. Act in too brutal of a manner in Iraq and Iran and chances are devout Muslims would overthrow their own governments and send substantial aid to fight U.S. troops. There are 1.4 billion people who are at least nominally Islamic. Say 1% are serious enough to fight against the U.S., you are talking about 14 million soldiers.
Muslims probably won’t be eager to fight in large numbers unless the Islamic army improves its performance. People like to be victors much more than they like to be martyrs. Is there any way this could happen?
There are actually several factors that could make it happen. One would be unification of command that puts aside the Sunni/Shia and other splits. This seems the least likely in the short run, but a charismatic leader or charismatic cultural structure could emerge and push things in this direction.
The second is already happening: Islamic adoption of technological solutions to supplement tactical and strategic military solutions. This can range from the already continuing refinement of explosive devices to strategies to destroy U.S. air power. Without command of the air the U.S. military would not be equal to the task of controlling rebellious populations or determined lightly-armed fighters. Camouflage and deception are ancient practices that can be furthered by modern technology. With computer chips and in particular microcontrollers costing a few dollars each, it is surprising that the insurgents have not yet developed some improved weapons to target U.S. vulnerabilities. In one sense the U.S. best allies are the Islamic Schools that exclusively teach the Koran; that book has no instruction in math or modern technology.
Another factor would be the emergence of a leading state that could not immediately be crushed by the U.S. military. This could be a country like Iran or Pakistan deciding to enter the war, or the establishment of a pro-insurgent government in a state like Egypt, Turkey, or Saudi Arabia.
It is even conceivable that one of the states that has led the Caliphate in the past, or one that thinks it is capable of leading it in the future, will have a leader who thinks: since the Caliphate is being restored, better that I be the new Caliph than one of those other guys.
None of this may come to pass, but the risks to U.S. global domination are substantial. Refusing to “cut and run” may, in retrospect, seem more like the stupidity of a drunken gambler at a craps table, than the philosophy of an honorable man.
A better alternative for all the world’s people would be a culture (and corresponding governance) based on peace, understanding nature, and mutual cooperation. I’ll address how to get there, both in the developed and less developed countries, in later essays.
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