The remains of A US Army soldier arrive for burial at a cemetery in Illinois in August 2019. Two more US troops have been killed by an Afghan soldier but details about the incident are not yet clear. File photo: Scott Olson / Getty Images / AFP

The United States has a serious problem: Despite thousands of coalition deaths, untold civilian casualties, and trillions of dollars in defense spending, the Terror Axis of the Taliban, al-Qaeda and ISIS control more Afghan territory than any time since September 11, 2001. There remains no end in sight to the longest war in America’s history. America needs to redefine why, when and how it wages wars.

The unconventional enemies of the US and its allies have used the ongoing gains in Afghanistan to expand their influence abroad. The inability of the allies to deter these unconventional foes showed itself again on Saturday, when Iranian proxies successfully attacked Saudi oil facilities. The attack, termed an unsophisticated drone strike, cut Saudi production in half and will raise energy rates across the world.

The problem is clearly not money or troop levels. The US defense budget accounts for 36% of the world’s defense spending – greater than the next seven largest national defense budgets combined – and supports a network of more than 400 military bases across the globe. The deployment of trillions of dollars’ worth of advanced weapons systems, aircraft, precision bombing and surveillance technology, has not enabled victory. Nor has it really made America or its allies safer.

The “scholar generals” and “warrior monks” who perpetuated this debacle have never been held accountable for the blood and treasure squandered, nor for their failures to achieve a stated and promised mission. We laud each new leadership alumnus with praise and patriotic fervor while they sell books on leadership and strategy justifying our willingness to muddle along.

America, above all else, celebrates success. Imagine a CEO who posted 18 years of losses selling a book? Or 18 CEOs who achieved one year of losses? Would any board of directors with stakeholder responsibility enable the continuation of the same process that embraced this paradigm?

The problem, of course, does not lie entirely with the leadership tasked with perpetuating the folly of an 18-year conflict. The Washington Beltway carousel, always pushing for an unhealthy appropriation of taxpayer money by a spendthrift Congress, feeds a Pentagon machine all too willing to maintain “spend it or lose it” budget oversight. The dreaded military-industrial complex, worse now than Dwight Eisenhower could have envisaged, finances Congress with campaign donations to support the ongoing status quo.

Regrettably, many Americans reflexively “support the troops” but fail to hold their leaders accountable for the loss of their brethren. The troops must be supported for their well-being and to maintain our honor. But the all-volunteer military has never been more removed from society after 18 years and countless wars. The military employs 0.5% of the US population, with 3-5% of Americans having active-duty friends and relatives. Approximately 95% of Americans, therefore, have minimal – if any – connection to the enormous emotional and physical loss endured by brave, patriotic, and always committed troops. The 95% would, despite supporting their country the best they can, have little reason to demand a rationalization of Pentagon spending and young Americans sent into battle because they are removed from the horrors during and after.

It’s time for everyone to start caring. The effectiveness and perception of America’s interests overseas are critical to our future and has far-reaching implications to the American voter.

Many of America’s best and brightest can be engaged in nimble and innovative unconventional warfare solutions without the spend and bureaucracy involved in tank divisions and strategic nuclear triad. The involvement of the Department of Defense uniformed personnel should be a last-ditch effort in encountering asymmetric enemies, not the first-choice default. The “golden sledgehammer” of conventional military forces has proved largely wanting in America’s endless brush-fire wars in Somalia, Libya, Syria and Iraq, let alone Afghanistan.

Our inability or unwillingness to impart many of the values that enable our current status – efficiency, effectiveness and compassion (for our troops as well as the enemy) – has resulted in a vacuum increasingly filled by the enemies of our nation. Iran continues to march across the shadows of the Middle East. The US continues to fortify established positions that fit a budgetary imperative without, in many cases, regard for effectiveness against an enemy that refuses to engage us directly. The Beltway carousel, mindful of satisfying its client, collects its fees and ratifies the decision to perpetuate conflict.

The murder of 3,000 innocents on September 11, 2001, demanded a response. US Special Forces, backed by massive airpower, were the embodiment of American ingenuity and grit, achieved rapid victories with minuscule budgets and personnel. The US won, but snatched defeat from the jaws of victory by allowing a bloated, expensive, conventional effort to expand its mandate with a permanent military presence, in essence a replica of the Soviet-Afghan approach of the 1980s. A war of necessity eventually saw every act of battlefield heroism matched with a General Officer career promotion.

The US approaches its third decade in a war it won in its first month. We Americans must ask ourselves why we do not demand change.

As a presidential candidate, Donald Trump campaigned against endless wars and demanded a better way for our country. His perception about waste and inefficiency is illustrated in his experience with the Wollman Ice Rink in New York City, where he stepped in to solve a problem that the city repeatedly failed in completing. The problem now, much like the ice rink, is the system that refuses the innovation required to break a cycle of non-victory. We are in a loop of spending that has bridged multiple election cycles and budgetary allocations. As commander in chief, President Trump must take responsibility for the failure of creativity that allows an 18-year conflict to endure. Different voices must be willing to stand outside the existing system of Beltway carousel rewards, and stand up for the ideals that candidate Trump espoused.

America must return to what works against asymmetric, clever enemies. We must get back to small, innovative and unconventional solutions to these problems. We cannot afford abandonment or the continuous failures that we have endured over the last 18+ years. Abandonment of Afghanistan is utter foolishness, just like current state wastage of American blood and treasure. It is hoped that Trump soon will turn to a historically proven set of ideas and get America back on track in its foreign-policy challenges.

Erik Prince

Erik Prince is an American entrepreneur and security expert. He is a philanthropist and the founder of the Frontier Group of companies.

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