I often see the phrase “manage two wars” in popular media. But are there just two wars now, and is it even helpful to think of US wars in the Mideast in this way?
The phrase refers the fact that President Bush, and soon, President Obama, need to manage wars in Iraq and Afghanistan while also addressing needs in the economy, health care, environment, education, and other areas. One implication is that two wars is too many, and perhaps, if we could just wrap up the one that hasn’t gone so well (Iraq), we could then focus our energies on the one we should have addressed earlier (Afghanistan).
There are several problems with this way of thinking. The first is that it’s not true. The US battles in the Mideast aren’t restricted to two countries. In the last three months, US-operated pilotless drones have launched more than 20 missile attacks in Pakistani tribal areas, killing hundreds of people, some who are violent themselves, but many who are civilians as well. Americans don’t think of Pakistan as the site of a war, because US ground troops are not based there, but the fact is that our drones kill people and US forces regularly violate Pakistani sovereignty. Hundreds of NATO and US military vehicles destined for neighboring Afghanistan have been attacked and destroyed (in multiple attacks) by militants there. We risk a larger-scale war in, against, or through a bitterly divided country.
So, perhaps we should be saying “manage three wars”? or more if we look at the swath of interconnected conflicts running from Israel and Jordan, often including parts of Syria, Iraq of course, possibly Iran, Afghanistan, all the way to Pakistan?
Wars, or at least the kind of war the US has been engaged in, aren’t waged directly against nations or national armies, which means that they cannot be won in the conventional way either. The issue isn’t to track down and subdue a foe, but to engage with people and ideas. That larger enterprise is the one we’re losing, despite enormous cost in lives and dollars, as evidenced by al-Zaidi’s shoe throwing and the widespread support it received.
The idea of wars as neatly defined by national boundaries implies that we just need to pick our wars more carefully, and then prosecute them cleanly and efficiently. We have a management problem with two; wouldn’t one be better? But the reality is that it’s not better management in the narrow sense that’s needed, but a different way of thinking about how we can act productively in the world, starting with a reassessment of why we’re there in the first place.