Iraq remains a mess from which the US military seems increasingly uninterested in withdrawing fully and Afghanistan a disaster area, but it's never too soon to think about the next war. The subject is already on the minds of Pentagon planners. The question is: Are they focusing on how to manage future wars so that they won't last longer than the American Revolution, the Civil War and World War II combined?
There's reason to worry, especially since the lessons of both Iraq and Afghanistan are clear: it takes years after a war has been launched for the US military to develop tactics that lead to stasis. ("Victory" is a word that has gone out of fashion.)
Here, then, are three modest suggestions for recalibrating the American way of war. All are based on a simple principle–"preventive war planning"–and are focused on getting the next war right before it begins, not decades after it's launched.
1. Make the Apologies in Advance
Who can doubt that the American way of war has undergone changes since, in December 2001, a B-52 and two B-1B bombers using precision-guided weapons essentially wiped out a village celebrating a wedding in Eastern Afghanistan? Of 112 Afghans in that wedding party, only two women survived. Similarly, in August 2008, in the village of Azizabad in Herat Province, at least ninety Afghans, including sixty children, were killed in a series of US airstrikes, while in May 2009, up to 140 Afghan civilians died in a US bombing attack in Farah Province.
Understandably, such "incidents" have done little to endear the US and its allies to Afghans. Until recently, the US military would initially deny that civilians had even died; if the incident refused to go away, military spokespeople would then admit to small numbers of civilian deaths (often blamed on the Taliban), while launching an "investigation" and waiting for the hubbub to die away. Apologies or "regrets" came late and grudgingly, if at all (along with modest payments to the relatives of the dead). Back then, being American and at war in distant lands meant never having to say you were sorry.
More recently, Afghan war commander General Stanley McChrystal has changed the rules, curbing airstrikes (though not drone strikes), warning his troops to prevent civilian deaths, and instituting an instant expression of "regrets" for such deaths. One thing, however, has changed only marginally: the civilian deaths themselves.
In mid-February, for instance, twelve civilians died when two US rockets slammed into a compound near the city of Marja in Helmand Province. The following day, five Afghan civilians digging at the side of a road in Kandahar Province were killed in an airstrike after being mistaken for insurgents planting a roadside bomb. Then, in Uruzgan Province, US Special Forces troops in helicopters struck a convoy of minibuses, killing up to twenty-seven civilians, including women and children.