The American imperatives in southwest Asia remain akin to nation-building. We’re failing because of extreme cultural weaknesses that serve asymmetric interests in a region shaped by obscurantist political regimes. Because the West conceives of war within the confines of politics, we remain unable to gain traction in conflicts where political institutions cannot develop.
The origins of civil society are indissolubly linked to the process of political liberalization. Islamic regimes throughout the southern tier of Eurasia and the subcontinent have limited sources for developing and preserving components of political liberalization. In a sentence: winning in southwest Asia means limited war. It means resourcing our posture for paltry gains that often cannot fit within our neatly bureaucratized vision of conflict.
If the gains of US conflict throughout Mesopotamia meant the reform of entire fiefdoms of US defense, then our time, objectives and framework for engaging Kabul and Islamabad must be reshaped akin to imperial Britain. This will not play well domestically, but US war planners have acknowledged the value and limit of overt violence. In a sentence, Thucydides’ admonishment to value both domestic politics while acknowledging the nature of regimes has returned with a vengeance. Only those close to combat know this and remain unable to institutionalize their insights to the broader US public; contemporary studies in foreign policy alone have ignored this for decades at the nation’s peril.
The US isn’t in a quagmire. The term reflects exhaustion on behalf of professional media that remain unassimilated to US cultural norms. The enormous friction generated by the regional asymmetry of interests has enormous geo-strategic consequences that will affect both regional governments and US policy.
What US war planners learned was the absolute need to shape the goals of those it serves at home
What Islamic republics have learned is the enormity of governing under the pall of democracy. What US war planners learned was the absolute need to shape the goals of those it serves at home. We’ve learned what imperial brutes refused to acknowledge, namely that war aims cannot be procured in archaic regions.
In Pakistan and Afghanistan, US combatant commanders have learned that the key to securing American interests in southwest Asia resides in actively managing dysfunctional alliances. It means acknowledging the limits of applied counter-insurgency and counter-terror doctrines. It means working to alter Pashtun intransigence while countering the ideological militancy of regional governments.
Pakistan’s weak political economy and radicalized security institutions reflect and embody insufficient culture. What US war planners have learned is simple: these aren’t war aims.
The key to successful American engagement in southwest Asia is political reform and civilian supremacy. Previously, the US sought total war, even occupation to achieve these aims. Today we don’t.
The long war is a generational conflict whose contours embody previous episodes between competing civilizations. Even still, US war planners and combatant commanders are learning to impart insights to their civilian counterparts procured from engaging an intractable region.
The question remains, is US political leadership listening?