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From Fighting the Long War to Fighting to Win

by Bob Warburg, Andy Burton, Jose Ocasio-Santiago, Tom Stuhlreyer, John DeFoor, Blair McFarland, Anthony Stapleton

In early 2007, Deputy Secretary of Defense Gordon England offered the war colleges an opportunity to provide an assessment of a key U.S. strategic vulnerability, for consideration by the Department’s leadership. This article is based on the resulting paper produced by a team of students and faculty mentors at the Joint Advanced Warfighting School of the Joint Forces Staff College in Norfolk, VA. It was originally published in the School’s journal, Campaigning, and is reprinted here by permission. The team found current U.S. strategy in the “Long War,” also known as the Global War on Terrorism, overly ambitious, lacking in clarity, and counter-productive. They call for transition to a new approach that offers better prospects of success. —Ed .

Towards a New Strategic Imperative: From Fighting the Long War to Fighting to Win

On 9/11 a small group of Islamist terrorists carried to the U.S. a war that had been smoldering over the horizon for a decade or longer. In response, the Bush Administration outlined the way ahead in a series of policy documents including The National Security Strategy of the United States of America (NSS), The National Strategy for Counter Terrorism (NSCT), and The National Military Strategic Plan for the War on Terror (NMSP-WOT).

Initially branded the Global War on Terrorism (GWOT), the strategy has also come to be known as the “Long War.” This title is an acknowledgment of the challenging, time consuming task ahead, as well as a nod to the successful U.S. Cold War strategy that George Kennan first described as a “long war” in his famous 1946 Long Telegram from Moscow.

Six years after 9/11, success via the Long War approach may be beyond the reach of U.S. national power. The Long War strategy, lacking proper balance of ends, ways, and means could cripple the U.S. military, deplete American economic resources, exhaust U.S. diplomatic capital, and foment anti-American hostility. To effectively prosecute the GWOT, the U.S. must avoid pursuing unachievable utopian aims, and instead envision a focused, attainable strategic end state. Achieving this strategic end state requires careful use of key U.S. resources, be they global support, national will, economic vitality, fiscal sustainability, or military power. U.S. goals that are too broadly focused, inappropriate emphasis in the chosen methods and the significant risk of exhausting essential U.S. resources makes the Long War approach a strategic vulnerability.

Today the U.S. finds itself in a complex strategic environment that has evolved far beyond the parameters of the Cold War. Rapidly evolving technology, globalized business and social relationships, and expanding information networks connect people around the world. As the U.S. discovered with Abu Ghraib, images and perceptions now shape international public opinion as much as facts and reality.

The rise of non-state actors and a weakening of the Westphalian nation-state system have changed the rules of international engagement. Islamist terrorists seeking to establish a global caliphate capitalize upon every opportunity to twist regional and international events to their advantage. Seemingly simple situations are difficult for U.S. leaders to understand and otherwise straightforward actions are hard to execute.

Current U.S. operations in Iraq and Afghanistan also impact the strategic environment. American failure in those countries would result in lost credibility, resolve, and international influence. Success would eliminate major safe havens for Islamist extremists; create ally states in the Muslim world, and free U.S. resources for other priorities. Either way, the outcome of these conflicts is an indicator of how the U.S. will fare in the GWOT, and discern whether the current Long War strategy is manageable.

Not Postured to Excel
The U.S. government is not postured to excel in this complex strategic environment. Government agencies operate in stove-piped settings, foreign affairs agencies are understaffed, and unity of effort is more sloganeering than reality. Policymakers must contend with Congressional oversight, influential lobbying groups, non-governmental organizations, and aggressive political action committees. Election cycles render politicians and voters unable or unwilling to see beyond the first order effects of policy.

[End State] Violent extremist ideology and terrorist attacks eliminated as a threat to the way of life of free and open societies. A global environment that is inhospitable to violent extremism, wherein countries have the capacity to govern their own territories, including both the physical and virtual domains of their jurisdictions. Partner countries have in place laws, information sharing, and other arrangements, that allow them to defeat terrorists as they emerge, at the local and regional levels.1

Good strategy must conform to the strategic environment and be achievable with the capabilities and resources available, and accomplish the objective within an acceptable level of risk. Furthermore, good strategy must establish balance between ends, ways, and means, as well as satisfy the litmus tests of suitability, feasibility, and acceptability.2 When viewed in this light, the Long War approach suffers from a dangerous lack of clarity. The NMSP-WOT, which is strongly informed by the Long War approach, aims to “defeat violent extremism as a threat to our way of life as a free and open society.”3 It is not immediately clear whether the goal of the Long War is the total elimination of all terrorism, or the focused destruction of terrorists directly threatening the U.S. and its interests. Defeating all violent extremism as a threat to free and open society is a utopian vision that is both unnecessary and unachievable. The recognition that terrorism cannot be completely eliminated around the globe is critical, enabling the U.S. to focus on defeating extremist groups which directly threaten its way of life.4

Lack of Clarity
While understandable that policymakers hope to frame U.S. goals in terms that do not insult Muslims, the unavoidable reality is the U.S. does not need to wage a global war on terrorism, but rather must fight a war against Islamist terrorists. Al Qaeda and associated movements wish to spread their radical beliefs throughout the Muslim world and ultimately seek to establish a global caliphate and impose Islamic law on the entire world.5 Saudi Arabia’s aggressive exportation of the extremist Wahhabi strain of Islam and Iranian efforts to spread revolutionary Shia militancy radicalizes Muslim populations and incites anti-Western violence. In the face of such threats, framing the U.S. goal as prevailing in a generic struggle against unspecified terror and violent extremist ideology is dangerous and potentially self-defeating.

The lack of clarity in the NMSP-WOT prevents the U.S. from correctly identifying the principal threats and the critical theaters. The U.S. experience in the Cold War is instructive in this regard. Despite setbacks such as the loss of China, stalemate in Korea, and defeat in Vietnam, the U.S. never lost sight of the primacy of de-legitimizing communism and defeating the Soviet Union in its struggle for control of Europe. Instead of a focused effort against Islamist extremists, the U.S. has taken on a Sisyphean task, while appearing imperialistic, antagonizing neutrals and allies alike, and losing international legitimacy.

The U.S. has identified the greater Middle East, South Asia, Africa and the Indonesian archipelago as the primary focus of strategic attention. These regions are home to a majority of the world’s Muslims, they are the origin of Islamist terrorism and extremist ideology, and serve as the financial hubs for Islamist terrorist financing. Conflict in the Middle East threatens access to oil supplies and could undermine global economic prosperity. The U.S. must focus on destroying Islamist terrorist organizations, neutralizing terrorist enablers, and mitigating associated risks arising in these identified regions.

Of all the security threats arising in the Muslim world, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) is the most challenging. Unlike the Cold War era, the U.S. nuclear arsenal no longer provides the deterrent effect that it once did. Deterring a nation-state such as the Soviet Union is significantly different from deterring Al Qaeda and Islamist extremist groups. Under the Long War approach, the assumption that exporting liberal democracy will alleviate grievances and temper the behavior of Islamist terrorists and extremists permeates U.S. strategic thinking. In light of the devastating potential consequences of a terrorist WMD strike on American soil, U.S. strategists simply cannot afford the foolish luxury of wishing away an existential threat. The U.S. must forgo vague hopes that democratization will temper the behavior of adversaries and instead establish means for deterring Islamist terrorist organizations and enablers who seek WMD.

The New Triad
Fortunately, the means for deterring these actors already exists in the form of the new triad. Following the success of the Cold War deterrent strategy, U.S. policymakers sought to capitalize on strategic nuclear capabilities while simultaneously adjusting U.S. nuclear force posture in the absence of a singular nuclear peer threat. The new triad combines nuclear and non-nuclear capabilities into a single offensive strike capability, and would give the National Command Authority (NCA) various options for preemptive and/or responsive actions. It also adds a combination of active and passive defenses, as well as a revitalized responsive defense infrastructure that could be aimed at any adversary—not just one posing a monolithic nuclear threat. First proposed in the 2001 Nuclear Posture Review (NPR), the new triad was further elaborated in the 2002 Annual Defense Report (ADR), and identified for future force structure in the 2006 QDR.6 . However, the new triad has yet to be operationalized, and is not integrated into national or military strategic doctrine. 7

Given the threat posed by Al Qaeda, it is time to operationalize the new triad. The U.S. must establish a strong link between deterrence, both nuclear and non-nuclear, and a positive duty on the part of all nation-states to prevent WMD attacks against the U.S. from being facilitated, planned, financed, or launched from their territory. Regimes which harbor or support Islamist terrorist organizations contemplating WMD attacks on the U.S., as well as rogue states such as Iran and Syria, must receive unequivocal warning that any degree of culpability in a terrorist WMD attack against the U.S. will result in devastating U.S. retaliation. To maximize deterrence, culpability in a terrorist WMD attack must include direct financial and logistical support, facilitation, willful failure to control sub-national groups, and ideological incitement. While remaining consistent with the long-standing preference for “strategic ambiguity,” the U.S. must stress that this retaliation may well include the use of nuclear weapons. Although the chances of deterring Al Qaeda with this approach are probably not very good, key Islamist terrorist enablers may well desist when forced to contemplate the ramifications of their support for WMD attacks on the U.S. As unpalatable as the prospect of the U.S. actually employing nuclear weapons may be, this revision of nuclear strategy would force overt and tacit enablers of Islamist terrorist organizations to realize that waging jihad against the U.S. using WMD places them and their nations in an existential struggle which they will not survive.

The key elements of the U.S. government GWOT strategy are: protect and defend the homeland; attack terrorists and their capacity to operate effectively at home and abroad; and support mainstream Muslim efforts to reject violent extremism.8

Goals, objectives, and terminology are critically important since they form the constellation that allows the U.S. to chart a course toward success in the GWOT. Problems with the strategic end state will almost certainly lead to a lack of balance in methods and risk the misapplication of key resources. The Long War approach has three primary lines of operation, supported by a number of cross-cutting enabling activities. It is hard to take issue with the first two lines of operation, defending the homeland and attacking terrorists before they can attack the U.S. The risks involved in these two lines of operation are significant, but can be managed and mitigated.

Risky Third Pillar
The third pillar, however, which calls on the U.S. to “support mainstream Muslims,” presents the gravest risk in the Long War approach. The NSCT argues that “through the freedom agenda, we also have promoted the best long-term answer to al-Qaida’s agenda: the freedom and dignity that comes when human liberty is protected by effective democratic institutions.” 9 This mindset reflects the broader U.S. aim of counteracting Islamist extremism by gradually expanding democracy in the Muslim world.

The ambitious goal of democratizing the Middle East requires sweeping cultural changes. According to scholars Lawrence Harrison and Samuel Huntington, fomenting fundamental change in cultural values and attitudes which shape the behavior of non-Western societies is a daunting task.10 As the experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan indicate, efforts to foment profound cultural change in foreign societies do not readily translate into strategy. The halting democratic progress in these two countries suggest implementing cultural change within the Muslim world is likely to prove prohibitively expensive, and take far longer than the U.S. is prepared to wait.

Moreover, efforts to export liberal democracy to the Middle East are predicated on the assumption that there is a significant moderate element within mainstream Islam that is amenable to peaceful accommodation with the West. This assumption may well be unwarranted. As a Muslim reformer living in the West recently wrote: “It is vital to grasp that traditional and even mainstream Islamic teaching accepts and promotes violence.” 11 Perhaps more sobering is a recent poll cited in The Economist indicating that “eight percent of Muslims round the world —at least 80m people—strongly support terrorist acts against America.”12

Since the Middle East is unlikely to transition to liberal democracy in the foreseeable future, the real issue at hand is the outcome of an ideological struggle internal to Islam, in which radical Islamists are waging war on any moderate elements amenable to accommodation with the Western world. Internal political divides within Turkey, the most secular and modern Muslim state, provide a glimpse of this conflict.

Focus on Containment
The intra-civilizational struggle in the Islamic world is one which the U.S. and the West can only hope to impact peripherally. The U.S. should drop grand plans for democratizing the Middle East. The U.S. instead needs to focus primarily on containing Islamist violence within the boundaries of the Muslim world. This will necessitate redoubling U.S. efforts to destroy Islamist terrorist organizations, and to track down, capture, or kill known Islamist terrorists. The U.S. must cut off the flow of funds to jihadist organizations, preventing Islamist operatives from further radicalizing the large Muslim populations residing in Europe, Africa, and Indonesia. Similarly the U.S. should discretely support existing elements within Islam which favor peaceful accommodation with the non-Islamic world, while at the same time use diplomacy, alliances, strategic communications, trade, financial leverage, and development assistance to strengthen and enlarge the global community opposed to Islamist extremism.

International support, diplomatic leverage, national will, capable military forces, a robust national economy, and a sound federal budget are essential to achieving U.S. objectives in the GWOT. National strategic documents such as the NSS, NSCT, and NMSP-WOT extensively consider end states, objectives, and methods, but fail to focus on the resources critical for success. This lack of consideration of means in the Long War approach poses a grave risk of depleting essential economic, military, and diplomatic resources.

The will of the American people is arguably the most critical national resource. The NSCT concisely summarizes the requirement for national will, stating “as always, we will rely on the strength of the American people to remain resolute in the face of adversity.”13. The U.S. government is not currently sustaining the national will necessary to win the GWOT. Public relations missteps along the lines of Abu Ghraib, coupled with disproportionate media emphasis on U.S. combat casualties erode national will. This creates momentum for strategic pull-back and neo-isolationism, and risks making the Long War unwinnable. Offering a compelling explanation of enemy objectives, as well as a coherent explanation of America’s goals, will fortify the will of the American people.

Strain on Military
American military power is the most stressed national capability under the current approach. Prior to the GWOT, the nation’s military force structure was based on a 1-4-2-1 construct that consisted of the military protecting the homeland, operating in four forward regional areas, fighting two overlapping military campaigns, and winning one of those conflicts with a decisive and enduring operation.14 Fighting the GWOT was not factored into this calculus. This force construct was reevaluated in the 2006 Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR), and the decision was made that the future force structure would not support the 1-4-2-1 model. Rather, the new model focuses on three objective areas: homeland defense, the war on terror, and conventional campaigns.15 The QDR acknowledges the strain the GWOT places on the military, stating that “for the foreseeable future, steady-state operations, including operations as part of a long war against terrorist networks, and associated rotation base and sustainment requirements, will be the main determinant for sizing U.S. forces.”16

While describing in detail the ends and ways, the NMSP-WOT simply states “the combination of the Combatant Commands, the Military Departments, the Combat Support Agencies, and the programs and resources of the DoD constitute the military means for fighting the GWOT.”17 The reality, however, is that once these resources are exhausted, the U.S. will be forced to alter its strategy. Given this dynamic, the U.S. must take steps to ensure the long-term availability of adequate military resources.

The economic impact of the Long War approach also merits serious consideration. A 2007 Congressional Research Service report calculated the total fiscal obligation to the GWOT as of March 2007 at $510 billion.18 The U.S. economy is currently experiencing a prolonged period of economic prosperity and has so far been able to shoulder this economic burden. The Long War strategy assumes that economic growth will continue uninterrupted, and that the U.S. can continue to obligate large portions of its economic resources to the Long War far into the foreseeable future. While it is possible that the U.S. may be able to continue to fund the GWOT, strategists must balance this burden against other national commitments. Growing concerns about the viability of Social Security, the desire to reform health care, and the need for prudent fiscal policy are just a few of the many interests competing with the GWOT. Additionally, U.S. dependence on foreign oil appears to provide significant financial resources to Islamic extremists.

A Viable Strategic Balance
The NSS, NMSP-WOT, and NSCT chart the course for the U.S. to fight the GWOT using a Long War approach. While the Long War has some strong points, it has several weaknesses that pose a strategic risk to the U.S. The solution to preserving our national resources while prosecuting the GWOT lies in arriving at a viable strategic balance. The U.S. must be judicious in allocation of resources and guard against framing unnecessarily broad, utopian goals. At the same time, the U.S. must identify the primary threat and the primary theater of operations, and resource and plan accordingly. It must marshal robust and dependable resources, to include national will, international support, a fully resourced military, a credible deterrent against terrorist use of WMD, economic strength, and sound fiscal policy. Progress on seemingly unrelated issues, such as the formulation of a national energy policy emphasizing independence from foreign oil and the need to address the looming crisis in social entitlement programs, are also critical to success. Despite the difficulty of the task at hand, the U.S. has the resources and the capacity to prevail. By adopting a new strategic imperative, the U.S. can arrive at the proper balance of ends, ways, and means, and transition from fighting a Long War to fighting to win.End.


1. U.S. Department of Defense, The National Military Strategic Plan for the War on Terrorism (1February 2006), 20-21.
2. Harry R. Yarger, Strategic Theory for the 21st Century: The Little Book on Big Strategy (Washington, DC: Strategic Studies Institute, February 2006), 68.
3. NMSP-WOT, 19-20
4. While the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka, ETA in Spain, and the Sendero Luminoso in Peru are troublesome, they do not directly threaten the U.S. way of life.
5. Douglas J. Macdonald, The New Totalitarians: Social Identities and Radical Islamist Political Grand Strategy, Foreword by Douglas C. Lovelace, Jr. (Washington, DC: Strategic Studies Institute, January 2007), iii.
6. U.S. Department of Defense, Nuclear Posture Review (31 December 2001), foreword, U.S. Department of Defense, Annual Report to the President and Congress, (2002), 83-92. QDR, 49-51.
7. The new triad timeline is depicted in ADR, 91. The new triad is not mentioned in the current NSS or NDS and is only briefly mentioned in the current National Military Strategy.
8. NMSP-WOT, 6
9. NMSP-WOT, 5 and NSCT, 1
10. See Lawrence Harrison and Samuel Huntington, eds., Culture Matters: How Values Shape Human Progress (New York: Basic Books, 2000) for a detailed discussion of this topic.
11.Tawfik Hamid, “The Trouble With Islam,” The Wall Street Journal, 3 April 2007
12. “If You Want My Opinion: Testing Muslim Views,” The Economist (10 March 2007), 58.
13. NSCT, 2
14. U.S. Department of Defense, The National Defense Strategy of the United States of America (March 2005), 16. The NDS does state that this force structure will be reviewed in 2006 QDR.
15. U.S. Department of Defense, Quadrennial Defense Review Report (February 2006), 35-38.
16. Ibid., 36
17. NMSP-WOT, 8
18. This cost includes Operation Iraqi Freedom, Operation Enduring Freedom, and Operation Noble Eagle. Amy Belasco, The Cost of Iraq, Afghanistan, and Other Global War on Terror Operations Since 9/11, CRS Report for Congress March 14, 2007,, (accessed on 5 April 2007).

The authors were all students in the 2006-07 class at the Joint Advanced Warfighting School (JAWS), Joint Forces Staff College (JFSC), Norfolk, VA. The JFSC is a constituent unit of the National Defense University. It trains mid-level and senior military officers and civilians, as well as foreign military officers, for the integrated employment of U.S. and multinational forces with interagency personnel. JAWS is an 11-month program that confers a fully accredited Master of Science degree in Joint Campaign Planning and Strategy.

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