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Moving the Future War Debate Forward

Andrew Exum of Abu Muquwama is soliciting submissions for short op-ed style pieces about what America’s Afghanistan strategy should be. In the spirit of encouraging debate, I think there are three unanswered questions about future warfare and policy that need to be asked.

1. What are America’s fundamental grand strategic interests?

      I do not subscribe to the concept of “realism” in foreign affairs, but nonetheless find the concept of national interests useful as an ordering principle. There are certain objectives, such as Britain’s focus on prevention of a European hegemon from emerging, that can be traced over time. People talk of the concept of the national interest in the abstract but rarely bother to define it. This is in part responsible for some of the “mission creep” seen in some stability operations. A working definition gives us something of a yardstick to evaluate our involvement overseas.

2. Many new military concepts argue that the character of war or the environment it takes place in has fundamentally changed. Is this true?

      The lack of a peer competitor and the underdetermination of national interests means that defense debates occur primarily over the validity of concept of future warfare. Has the character of war changed or is there truly nothing new under the sun? Most believe that the nature of war (i.e Clausewit’z concept of a violent struggle of wills) remains essentially same, but the way it is fought has differed from time to time. The question is whether today’s warfare is greatly different from that of the recent past. This point has been tremendously controversial, not only for academic reasons. Opponents of new strategic ideas argue that muddled thinking leads to muddled fighting, while proponents either defend the validity of the new terms or claim that they, while inexact, are needed as forcing mechanisms to nudge military establishments forward.

3. What level of risk are Americans willing to accept?

      A compelling justification for the now largely bipartisan thrust of the Global War on Terror (now known as the Overseas Contingency Operation) is the protection of the American homeland from non-state threats. Likewise, opponents of military intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan argue that overseas US involvement produces “blowback.” While the validity of both notions is debatable, it is clear that both continued engagement and “offshore balancing” carry risks to the homeland. The greater question is what level of systemic risk Americans are willing to tolerate. Any option, no matter how seemingly secure, contains a level of risk. Getting closer to this variable will help us understand which national security policies will be sustainable over the long term.
      Perhaps one of our most eccentric (and damaging) quirks is our core irrationality in properly assessing risk. Getting into a car and driving to work is perhaps the most dangerous everyday activity we participate in, yet we hardly seem to notice.