The drone strike that accidentally killed two hostages held by al-Qaida, one of them American, in Pakistan’s northwest frontier was a rare moment of media attention for a seemingly endless military campaign. It’s 6 years old if you date it to President Barack Obama’s escalation of drone warfare, 11 if you date it to the first American drone strike inside Pakistan, and 14 if you date it to when U.S. Special Forces first slipped into Afghanistan after 9/11. By any estimate, our AfPak intervention has lasted longer than most major wars in U.S. history. By the third estimate, it’s lasted longer than several of the biggest ones combined.
There have been periods in this long conflict when the United States was arguably fighting with some hope of final victory. But that possibility went the way of most victories sought by foreigners in Central Asia, and now we’re in a very different mode. Our AfPak war today, with its drones and Special Forces and deliberately light footprint, is open-ended by design, a war of constant attrition that aims just to keep our friends (such as they are) in power and our enemies from gaining ground.
In essence, what we’ve chosen in Afghanistan and northwest Pakistan is a kind of “frozen conflict,” in which a war is pursued without any vision of an endgame, and that’s actually the point. “Frozen conflict” is a term you’re more likely to hear applied to the borderlands of Vladimir Putin’s Russia, where the Kremlin has encouraged low-grade civil wars (in the Caucasus, in Moldova, now Ukraine) that are designed to just percolate and fester, keeping Moscow’s former satellites from turning fully to the West.
But while America’s motives are very different, we have this much in common with Putin: We, too, see advantages in managing conflicts, intervening just so far and no further, keeping a hand in (or a drone above) without seeking a final victory or a final peace. That’s true of the AfPak wars; it’s true for now of our interventions against the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria; it’s true of smaller antiterrorism forays the world over. It’s even true of our quasi-conflict with Putin himself: He wants to divide and destabilize Ukraine without actually conquering it, we want to limit his gains without provoking escalation, and the result is grinding violence without much chance of resolution.
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A few weeks ago, I wrote that Obama’s grand strategy (such as it is) is defined by a desire to lay down some of the burdens of the Pax Americana. I also wrote that it’s nearly impossible for a superpower to simply slip into a supporting role. Combine Obama’s vision with that Atlas-Can’t-Shrug reality, and frozen conflicts are the near-inevitable result: In theater after theater, this administration has us in just far enough to shape events, but without a plan to win it.
Over the next 18 months, you’re going to hear Republican politicians and - barring a Rand Paul upset - the eventual Republican nominee campaigning vigorously against this state of play and arguing that America should be fighting more to win and less to draw. Napoleon’s maxim, “When you set out to take Vienna, take Vienna,” will be repurposed as a critique of this president and all his many half-fought, unwon wars.
That critique will have some teeth. Even frozen conflicts cost lives and treasure (and invite blowback), the world has grown more dangerous and chaotic across Obama’s second term, and the sense that U.S. policymakers are constantly playing not to lose is plainly informing the calculations made in Moscow, Tehran and Beijing.
The problem is that Republican hawks have too many wars where they seem intent on turning up the heat, too many Viennas that they want to take at once. There is no sign as yet that the president’s would-be successors have clear strategic priorities; instead, the tendency is to treat every conflict that comes into the headlines, whether it involves Libya or Iran, Syria or Ukraine, AfPak or the Islamic State, as a theater where there’s no substitute for U.S.-led victory.
Some of this is just posturing, and if elected, no Republican president (well, except maybe Lindsey Graham) would actually escalate militarily on every front at once. But it isn’t exactly clear what they would do, because their critique of Obama scores points without acknowledging the real limits on U.S. power - and the structural, and not just ideological, realities behind the decisions that he’s made.
There may be cases where America needs to fight to win, enemies that we need to actually defeat instead of manage. But there are also wars that shouldn’t be joined at all and situations where a kind of frozen conflict really is the best out of our bad options. So the test facing this president’s would-be successors, the challenge that should be posed to them as candidates, is to tell us which kind of war is which.