Finding 21st Century Strategies for 21st Century War

The Iraq War is about to end. Osama bin Laden and dozens of other Al-Qaeda operatives are dead. NATO successfully intervened to protect civilians and aid in the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi. This is a string of success that former President George W. Bush and the neo-conservatives could only dream of.

The reason for the recent military achievements is that the United States and its allies have found, for the first time, an effective strategy for waging 21st century war against 21st century threats. Improved technology and better intelligence have trumped outdated methods dependent on large troop deployments and brute force, which was the initial tactic of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Wars are now won with strategic strikes, multilateral efforts, and limited engagement.

The first feature of the 21st century model is that limited and targeted air strikes work better than a large ground presence. All of the major conflicts today, from Iraq to Afghanistan to Libya, prove that quality matters more than quantity. Precision matters more than force. When the United States invaded Iraq and Afghanistan, it did so with tens of thousands of troops. Yet the conflicts still drag on nearly a decade later. The fallacy of the Bush administration was that it thought 21st century goals — combating terrorism, building democratic states, and stopping humanitarian disasters — could be achieved with 20th century methods based on military scale. But terrorists are wily and fickle and move across borders in a way that armies cannot. Insurgents hide amidst civilian populations. Revolutions cannot be won by outside forces alone.

The Obama administration has found success in a precision war with the use of drone attacks that target specific people and have limited collateral damage. I do not want to dismiss the legal and ethical controversies of drone forces, which I believe are valid in many cases. However, from a purely military standpoint, the drone program is justified by tremendous successes in the war against non-state actors. The NATO bombing campaign in Libya that carried out 26,000 sorties and 10,000 strikes over seven months occurred without a single casualty among NATO forces. This is a model that can be used again in future conflicts.

A second feature of 21st century military engagements is multilateralism. Indeed, it is also the more responsible choice. Multilateral efforts hold more legitimacy in the international community, especially when paired with UN Security Council resolutions, as was the case in Libya (and not the case in Iraq). Multilateralism ensures that the costs and risks of military engagement are spread across multiple countries.

A third feature of 21st century war is a definitive exit strategy. If you go in, you must have a way out. And if you don’t have a way out, you shouldn’t go in. This is the principle mistake of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Wars used to be fought until one side either won or lost. Now, wars pitch powerful national armies against terrorist groups, insurgencies, and other actors that operate on the small scale. It is not always known if or when an enemy is defeated or when the goal is achieved. As Georgetown professor and former intelligence analyst Paul Pillar wrote, “The prospect of U.S. involvement in a war in the Middle East dragging out [nine years] would have killed the possibility of neocons being able to conduct their great experiment in trying to inject democracy through the barrel of a gun.” In other words, time-scale matters in modern warfare and should therefore be a principle consideration in decisions to engage in war. Libya succeeded in this goal even with a loosely defined endgame because the absence of ground forces made an exit clean and exact.

The lessons of modern wars and the successful strategies now being used show that the military must break out of its old mold and forge a new model. Indeed, military operations can now be won with fewer forces, better intelligence, and less money than previous conflicts. The principle lesson for the 21st century war is that the U.S. and its allies can succeed in their military and diplomatic goals with minimal troop deployments, precision bombing, and supportive intervention. The old model of war will have little benefit in future conflict.

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