George W Bush declared war on terror after the September 11th attacks. To that end he marched into Iraq and unhorsed Saddam Hussein in a matter of days and then famously declared, 'Mission accomplished!' Shortly after this faux triumph, he went into Afghanistan and sent the Taliban packing. To be fair, he managed to inveigle the coalition of the willing to come along for the ride. So, for the past ten years or so, soldiers from the States, Canada, UK, Australia, Germany, France and the Netherlands among others have been cantering round both countries losing their lives and bringing about much mayhem to the native populations.
The US has left Iraq now and plans to abandon Afghanistan in the next couple of years. Iraq is a mess with regular outrages being perpetrated by one religious group upon another. Sunnis are blowing up Shiite pilgrims when they get the chance and the Shiites are retaliating just as hard as they can. 'Peace' is a long way off. Afghanistan is worse: warlords are in control of large areas of the land, the Taliban is resurgent, the central government under the egregious Mohammed Karsai is riven with corruption and its writ runs about as far as the city limits of Kabul. The Taliban are openly claiming that they will take control of areas presently watched over by Allied personnel within two weeks of their departure.
The history of foreign intervention in Afghanistan is not encouraging. The British were seen off a couple of times during the Raj. Colonel Younghusband's expedition was sent packing by the local tribesmen in the late 1800s. The Soviet Union had another go in the 1970s and they, too, left with their tails between their legs after a few years. Vivid television footage is available showing their last soldiers scuttling over the bridge back into the then Soviet Union. Now it is the turn of the mighty United States to withdraw. The American public is fed up with the carnage that is slaughtering their men. Most of that public have no idea why they are in Afghanistan anyway and would have difficulty finding the place on a map. If asked they would mutter something about the war on terror but would be very hazy about the particulars.
The Americans have not gone yet. They intend to beat a strategic retreat during the next eighteen months or so. They have undertaken to pull out the forces but to continue to train the local security forces so that the latter can take on the Taliban. It is painfully obvious that once the Americans have gone, the Taliban will march right back into power and feel free to impose their rancid doctrines.
American troops have not covered themselves with glory during these Middle Eastern adventures. Firstly, there was the scandal at Abu Ghraib in which a bunch of enlisted men and women took degrading pictures of Iraqi detainees. The leader of this bunch was Lindie England, a lass form the Deep South with the morals and integrity of an alley cat. In Afghanistan, pictures were taken of a group of America's finest peeing all over the corpses of local fighters. Then there was the occasion on which some low level soldiers burnt several copies of the Koran. Next a staff sergeant ran amok and shot dead 17 or so women and children. Claims have been made that this man acted alone but it seems likely that he had accomplices in that several of the dead were stacked up and set on fire.
All of these incidents are evidence of stupidity and foolishness and revealed a complete lack of knowledge about local sensitivities and understanding of how the local societies operated. They caused outrage among the local population and the Army High Command was forced into making humbling apologies.
While it is hard to condone any of these acts, it is not hard to understand how they came about. American troops are not recruited from the best and brightest. Many of them have served more than two tours of duty in either Afghanistan or Iraq and in many instances, both. The wars are seen as unwinnable. The prime reason for the 'War on Terror' is fading into distant memory. And, what does it mean to fight a war on terror?
When a country declares war war on a neighbour it most often has good reasons for doing so: threatening behaviour; the danger of cutting off the supply of drinking water; fostering of subversive elements are all possible reasons. It is obvious who the enemy is, where it is and what it intends to do. The enemy is a concrete entity and the threat it offers is tangible and immediate.
Contrast this with a war on terror, or a war on drugs, or a war on bad grammar. Whence comes this terror? Where are these drugs? Who is using bad grammar? All very hard to define and locate.
Most military staff colleges teach their students about the principle of warfare which are based on the work of Carl von Clausewitz, a Prussian soldier and military theorist, who enumerated them between 1816-30. Before this, Sun Tzu wrote about war 2000 years ago and his work influenced all who came after him.
The British hold that there are ten principles: selection and maintenance of the aim, maintenance of morale, offensive action, security, surprise, concentration of effort, economy of effort, cooperation and sustainability. How is it possible to select and maintain an aim if the target is a nebulous collection of small cells of terrorists scattered half way round the globe? Is it not likely that morale will suffer when regular forces are pitted against fighters who see no benefit in following the Queensbury rules? How does one surprise such opponents? How is effort to be concentrated when fighting opponents as 'Islamic Jihadists' spread all over the place? It is easy to see how these principles have not been and cannot be followed in the war on terror and also how impossible it is to do so.
On the other hand, how easy it is to follow them in a conventional battle. Western soldiers are trained for conventional warfare. When faced with enemies that they are unable to distinguish from the local populations and who can melt away and return another day to renew the conflict, their training and morale are shown to be inadequate.
The American public now realises that the war on terror is unwinnable. It has been engaged in this war for more than ten years and its soldiers are regularly slaughtered with no end in sight. The American forces - at least at the level of the enlisted men - know this as well. No war in American history has lasted so long. War weariness infects the USA and it armed forces. It is hardly surprising that some of their troops have been silly. What else could have been expected under the impossible circumstances in which they have found themselves?