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With the United States now well into the second decade of what the Pentagon has styled an “era of persistent conflict,” the war formerly known as the global war on terrorism (unofficial acronym WFKATGWOT) appears increasingly fragmented and diffuse. Without achieving victory, yet unwilling to acknowledge failure, the US military has withdrawn from Iraq. It is trying to leave Afghanistan, where events seem equally unlikely to yield a happy outcome.
Elsewhere—in Pakistan, Libya, Yemen and Somalia, for example—US forces are busily opening up new fronts. Published reports that the United States is establishing “a constellation of secret drone bases” in or near the Horn of Africa and the Arabian Peninsula suggest that the scope of operations will only widen further. In a front-page story, the New York Times described plans for “thickening” the global presence of US special operations forces. Rushed Navy plans to convert an aging amphibious landing ship into an “afloat forward staging base”—a mobile launch platform for either commando raids or minesweeping operations in the Persian Gulf—only reinforces the point. Yet as some fronts close down and others open up, the war’s narrative has become increasingly difficult to discern. How much farther until we reach the WFKATGWOT’s equivalent of Berlin? What exactly is the WFKATGWOT’s equivalent of Berlin? In fact, is there a storyline here at all?
Viewed close-up, the “war” appears to have lost form and shape. Yet by taking a couple of steps back, important patterns begin to appear. What follows is a preliminary attempt to score the WFKATGWOT, dividing the conflict into a bout of three rounds. Although there may be several additional rounds still to come, here’s what we’ve suffered through thus far.
The Rumsfeld Era
Round 1: Liberation. More than any other figure—more than any general, even more than the president himself—Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld dominated the war’s early stages. Appearing for a time to be a larger-than-life figure—the “Secretary at War” in the eyes of an adoring (if fickle) neocon fan club—Rumsfeld dedicated himself to the proposition that, in battle, speed holds the key to victory. He threw his considerable weight behind a high-tech American version of blitzkrieg. US forces, he regularly insisted, were smarter and more agile than any adversary. To employ them in ways that took advantage of those qualities was to guarantee victory. The journalistic term adopted to describe this concept was “shock and awe.”
No one believed more passionately in “shock and awe” than Rumsfeld himself. The design of Operation Enduring Freedom, launched in October 2001, and of Operation Iraqi Freedom, begun in March 2003, reflected this belief. In each instance, the campaign got off to a promising start, with US troops landing some swift and impressive blows. In neither case, however, were they able to finish off their opponent or even, in reality, sort out just who their opponent might be. Unfortunately for Rumsfeld, the “terrorists” refused to play by his rulebook and US forces proved to be less smart and agile than their technological edge—and their public relations machine—suggested would be the case. Indeed, when harassed by minor insurgencies and scattered bands of jihadis, they proved surprisingly slow to figure out what hit them.