Danny Sjursen—a prominent U.S. Army strategist and also a former history instructor at West Point Academy—posits that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan aren’t winnable. So… why don’t we leave? As he puts it: “We have the inertia of a military-industrial complex, which makes a lot of money for a lot of people and keeps a lot of people employed, on one end, and then we have the sunken cost fallacy on the other side, where we say “We’ve committed so much we can’t possibly leave.” Danny is brought to you today by the Charles Koch Foundation. The Charles Koch Foundation aims to further understanding of how US foreign policy affects American people and societal well-being. Through grants, events, and collaborative partnerships, the Foundation is working to stretch the boundaries of foreign policy research and debate by discussing ideas in strategy, trade, and diplomacy that often go unheeded in the US capital. For more information, visit charleskochfoundation.org. NOTE: The views expressed in this video are those of the guest speaking in an unofficial capacity and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Command and General Staff College, Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the US government.
Danny Sjursen: Iraq and Afghanistan are very different wars. They’ve been equally ill-advised in my opinion.
Iraq, what I saw in Iraq was a civil war, a straight forward civil war.
And I remember a moment in 2007, three of my soldiers were already dead, about eight had them wounded in a unit of just 20 soldiers, so we were pretty battered, we were pretty beaten up. And there was a moment when we were retrieving bodies, quite frankly, because in the night the two militias would just kill these teenagers and attack each other and in the morning the bodies would be there for us to find.
And so I was recovering bodies as we often did, and on the way back from the recovery of these bodies we were hit with an IED, and so I realized: not only am I policing a civil war that only started because of the American invasion, but I’m being attacked by both sides in the civil war because of my presence, because of the American occupation.
So America’s occupation had unleashed a civil war. I don’t think it was on purpose, but it was an ill-advised invasion.
We didn’t understand Iraq or its inner dynamics, its ethno-sectarian milieu, we did not understand that. So I think for Iraq what turned me off was watching the civil war unfold and America’s helplessness to truly respond.
Afghanistan I would call “the unwinnable war,” and again, that’s my opinion, but if you look at Soviet record in Afghanistan or the British record in Afghanistan it has gone poorly for ANY occupier over the course of several hundreds of years of history.
It would take more soldiers than we are capable of providing; it would take more money than we could afford. And what we’ve done instead is we’ve sort of muddled our way through an ongoing insurgency with the Taliban. And here’s the problem in both in Iraq and Afghanistan: the governments we put in place, the governments that we—instead of democratically elected but America creates the conditions for these governments—We back certain parties.
The governments that we’ve put in place are generally considered illegitimate, corrupt ,only marginally effective in both Iraq and Afghanistan.
So what we have in Afghanistan is the unwinnable war, 17 years after the war starts. And the Taliban is stronger today, in control of more provinces today—and there is nothing that 15,000 Americans soldiers can do, besides die of course, they can do that—but there’s nothing that 15,000 American soldiers can do besides muddle along and keep the insurgency going and just keep everything at sort of a stasis.
We’re not winning. And so if we’re not winning then I think that we have to take a hard look at our interventions in Iraq in Afghanistan. And if we’re going to take a hard look at Iraq and Afghanistan we ought to take a very hard look at our other undeclared wars in Yemen, Libya, Pakistan, Somalia, and everywhere else that we’re currently either bombing or flying drones over.
So when you talk about why we’re there, because this is an important question, what are we doing, if not winning?
I wish it was as simple as what some sort of conspiracy theorists or certain parties think, it’s all about the oil or it’s all about the money. And all of that is a part, but I think it’s much more complex.
I think there are two major threads that told us in these wars: Number one is that there’s a lot of profits being made in the military industrial complex.
Quite frankly the war—selling arms—is one of the last American industries that’s left. It’s one of the last things the United States does well, that we’re still number one at—number one at dealing arms in the world.
Number one at supporting our military budget. Our military budget is eight or ten times Russia’s. It’s three times China’s. It’s more than the next nine or so in a row. So that’s one thread.
And the other one is we’ve got sunken costs. It’s a sunken cost dilemma. We’ve lost all these soldiers. We’ve spent all this money. We’re fighting “terrorism.” That’s a tactic, that’s a very strange thing to declare war on.
We’re fighting “Islamist extremists,” we say, in the Middle East.
When we do that, if we pull out there’s a portion of the American electorate, I would say probably a majority, that would say, “We can’t leave, because if we leave there will be more terrorist attacks on us! We can’t leave, we’ve already spent 7000 lives and $2.2 trillion.” And so I think this sunken cost fallacy steps in.
So what do we have now? We have the inertia of a military industrial complex, which makes a lot of money for a lot of people and keeps a lot of people employed, on one end, and then we have the sunken cost fallacy on the other side, where we say “We’ve committed so much we can’t possibly leave.”
No president wants to be the president that “lost the war on terror.” Instead we’re on our third administration now, President Bush he just wanted to leave without losing.
Barack Obama, totally different figure, he wanted to leave without losing. He didn’t want to be the president that lost the war on terror.
And I would argue that it is very unlikely that President Trump will be the president who ends the war on terror.
So that means we’re looking at potentially up to seven more years of war with no end in sight, and no one even talking about final victory anymore.
And that’s interesting because soldiers will join the army next year who were born after 9/11. And we need to think on that for a second and what that says about our republic, what that says about the nature of service and the nature of warfare, of perpetual warfare in the American psyche.
How do you tell a child, how do I tell my teenager what peace even looks like? He’s never lived it. He’s never seen it. He was born in 2002.
I think we have a lot of—These are things where we’re going to have to grapple with as a society. It’s more than just the military, it’s more than just the defense industry or the politicians. We have to grapple with what it means when a republic—an ostensible democracy—goes to war and stays at war for decades.