By Louis Rene Beres
The Greek poet Archilochus famously wrote: “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.”
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Totally reliant upon his generals, President Donald Trump continues to harbor the idea that our war in Afghanistan can somehow be “won.” Accordingly, he focuses on the “many things” that traditionally preoccupy military planners, but ignores the “one big thing” that is truly important.
More precisely, he thinks of this war as a narrowly operational or tactical problem, but ignores the underlying reality that achieving any “victory” here has no decipherable meaning. It’s not just Afghanistan. Even more generally, the customary criteria of winning and losing in war have largely become outdated and counterproductive.
Most conspicuously, perhaps, whether the United States will actually win or lose in our ongoing or still-expected theaters of military operation, the core vulnerability of American cities to mass destruction terrorism and/or ballistic missile attack would remain largely unaffected. Naturally, our vulnerability to assorted lower levels of terror attacks, especially “lone wolf” operations, would remain even more evidently unchanged.
The overriding point of our huge commitment to the Afghanistan war should be readily determinable. To wit, it should always be to blunt or prevent the infliction of substantial military harms upon our own population. It follows that if our continuing involvement in theatre is not apt to succeed according to this utterly minimum standard, it then becomes logically irrational to proceed.
For President Trump and his generals, there are relevant lessons from the ancient world. At Thermopylae, they could learn from Herodotus, the Greeks suffered a stunning defeat in 480 BCE. What happened next presents a useful historical “benchmark” for better understanding where we are today.
Back then, Persian King Xerxes could not contemplate the conquest of Athens until he had first secured a decisive military victory. Only after the Persian defeat of Spartan King Leonidas could the Athenians be forced to abandon Attica.
Prior to the nuclear era, states, city-states and empires were essentially safe from homeland destruction unless their armies had first been defeated. To be sure, some national homeland vulnerabilities had arisen earlier, together with the appearance of air power and air war, but even those exposures required previous penetrations by a capable enemy air force.
In war, before 1945, the capacity to destroy had always required an antecedent capacity to win. Then, without a victory, intended enemy aggressions could never really amount to much more than certain hoped-for expressions of military intentions. In Afghanistan, the “classical” objective of defeating an enemy army and preventing military defeat should now be replaced with more meaningfully specific and calculable goals.
For all countries in the cross hairs of Jihad, there is no need to worry about suffering a contemporary Thermopylae. There is, however, considerable irony to any such alleged “freedom from worry.” After all, preventing any form of classical military defeat in Afghanistan could no longer assure our safety from either mega-aggression or mega-terrorism.
For our most pertinent enemies, there is no longer any reason to work out what the generals would call “force multipliers,” or to calculate any optimal “correlation of forces.” Today, whatever our own properly selected “order of battle” for Afghanistan, these disparate enemies could possibly wreak varying levels of harm upon us without first eliminating or even weakening our relevant armies and navies.
In some respects, at least, the still seemingly critical war outcome in Afghanistan could eventually turn out to be marginal to our overall national security. For example, should President Trump sometime miscalculate in his potentially expanding crisis interactions with North Korea, the lethal results for the United States could render moot everything pertaining to the Afghanistan conflict.
Far better for Washington to place its dominant current emphases on nuclear war avoidance in Northeast Asia and thereby more explicitly prioritize our overarching national survival over any counterproductive illusions of an Afghanistan “victory.” In any event, we can never defeat enemy armies in Afghanistan as if this were a historically traditional sort of conflict.
For the most part, we still don’t really know exactly who comprises these intersecting armies, and we can never really expect any traditional or enforceable war-terminating agreements.
Instead of announcing plans for an illusory victory in Afghanistan, President Trump and his generals should more comprehensively seek to refine pertinent complex combat orthodoxies (involving advanced integration of all deterrence, preemption, and war-fighting options) and to fashion certain bold new ideas for international ties and alignments.
In this connection, of course, President Trump will also have to more closely examine this country’s intersecting arrangements for active and passive defenses and all similarly overlapping preparations for cyber defense and cyber war.
For President Trump, there is some related good news. It is that what is now threatening to us, as Americans, is simultaneously threatening to our major enemies. Like us, these adversarial states and terror groups will have to confront tangible security vulnerabilities in the absence of suffering any prior military defeats.
With this particular wisdom in hand, President Trump and his generals could soon begin to aim at a much more meaningful and decipherable Afghanistan objective than “victory.”
In essence, better for them to finally learn from the hedgehog, than from the fox.
Louis Rene Beres is professor emeritus of political science at Purdue University. Beres’ lectures and research focus on international relations, terrorism, and international law. He is the author of several books, including, “Surviving Amid Chaos: Israel’s Nuclear Strategy,” which was published in 2016 by Rowman & Littlefield.