Vanishing and Expanding Causes of War

May 13, 2011 § 1 Comment

Following the death of Bin Laden and the surge of democratic revolutions in the Middle East known as the Arab Spring, debate over the continued U.S. military presence in Afghanistan has begun in Congress. Bin Laden was not only the founder of Al Qaeda, he was also often referred to as the “spiritual leader” of the terrorist organization, and was considered an important symbolic figurehead in the effort to recruit new members to their cause. But, even before Bin Laden’s death, there was some debate over Al Qaeda’s relevance in a Middle East marked with democratic uprisings. After all, as Richard Clarke notes in a New York Times Op-ed, one of Al Qaeda’s express purposes was to replace governments in the Middle East with Islamic governments, such as Mubarak’s regime in Egypt, a goal that may now become a reality, depending on the path democratic reforms take in the region.

It is unclear whether Bin Laden’s death and the Arab Spring will truly marginalize Al Qaeda, but these events have led American Democrats to call for the beginning of troop withdrawals in the region. As reported by Josh Rogin for Foreign Policy, Democratic policymakers addressed a letter to President Obama that stated the following:

“Our nation’s economic and national security interests are not served by a policy of open-ended war in Afghanistan,” that letter stated. “A significant redeployment of U.S. troops from Afghanistan beginning in July 2011 will send a clear signal that the United States does not seek a permanent presence in Afghanistan.”

Additionally, breaking from his party platform, Senator Richard Lugar argued that “with Al Qaeda largely displaced from the country, but franchised in other locations, Afghanistan does not carry a strategic value that justifies 100,000 American troops and a $100 billion per year cost, especially given current fiscal restraints.”

However, there is significant support in Congress for the continued presence of the U.S. military in Afghanistan. Representative Howard P. McKeon, Republican of California, recently proposed a renewal of authorization to use military force against Al Qaeda to the House Armed Services Committee. Opponents of this bill argue that it would unnecessarily renew presidential war powers, thus continuing the exceptional war-time authority of the executive branch.

Underlying current debate on whether or not to continue America’s military presence in Afghanistan is a vast history of expansionist warfare. As James Sheehan states in his course “History of the International System,” (lectures available on Itunes U), wars are often begun for the sake of a policy goal relevant at the inception of conflict, but tend to persist for very different reasons. The Iraq War is an example of this: The United States invaded that country to remove Saddam Hussein and dismantle the country’s WMD potential, but the war persisted long after Hussein’s death and the discovery that WMD intelligence was false and came to be more about state-building in Iraq, and even “winning” in Iraq, than anything else.

The example that Professor Sheehan uses to make this point is World War I. Professor Sheehan notes that the original cause of conflict was the Austro-Hungarian invasion of Serbia. This invasion in turn triggered responses from the great powers in Europe: The Russians backed the Serbs, the French backed the Russians, the British backed the French and the Germans backed the Austrians. However, as Sheehan states, once conflict began “Serbia disappears from everybody’s screen almost at once.” Instead, World War I evolved into a war of attrition in both Western and Eastern Europe, and lacked a clear, overriding goal fueling the cause for war. As Sheehan notes, as the war dragged on it became more about the inability of the officials conducting the war to admit that the enormous sacrifices their country had made in human life and resources were in vain. Thus, the longer the war persisted and the greater those sacrifices became, the more important it was to “win” the war, despite the fact that the original cause for conflict, the invasion of Serbia, was no longer a relevant policy pursuit for any nation involved (except of course, Serbia).

At the onset of the Afghan War, President Bush characterized America’s purpose there as “carefully targeted actions  designed to disrupt the use of Afghanistan as a terrorist base of operations and to attack the military capability of the Taliban regime.” Since 2001, however, the Afghan War has expanded to include some state-building goals, such as training the Afghan military, and the complete overthrow of the Taliban regime in favor of Karzai’s government. Now, Representative McKeon’s proposal would renew conflict in Afghanistan. While the original Congressional approval for military force authorized action against the perpetrators of 9/11, McKeon’s proposal would expand this to authorize force against Al Qaeda, the Taliban and “associated forces.”

Perhaps the most important takeaway from Professor Sheehan’s lecture is his comment that the persistence of World War I caused the rivalries and antagonisms among Europe’s great powers to harden and become more steadfast, arguably contributing to World War II. Renewing conflict in Afghanistan and allowing the War on Terror to persist, and the executive’s ability to indefinitely detain terrorist suspects to persist along with it, risks the potential of further ingraining a sense of Islamic rivalry with the West and America. The Arab Spring and Bin Laden’s death have arguably given us an opportunity for a fresh start in the Middle East. Not only will there be new regimes with which to conduct diplomacy, the Islamic world will also have less frustration with their own government and less of a sense that America is partly responsible for propping up the abysmal, yet America-friendly regimes in the Middle East. Al Qaeda’s support relies on viewing America as an enemy. If we take this opportunity to lessen our military presence in the Middle East, we may very well succeed in our original goal as of September 12th, 2001: to undermine Al Qaeda to such an extent that it becomes wholly irrelevant.


§ One Response to Vanishing and Expanding Causes of War

  • George Newell, Sr. says:

    I have been thinking about the history of warfare in the western world and how every war that I have read about has it’s causes vanish and then expand. I am not a war historian but it strikes me that a common pattern is that leaders rattle the saber for one reason or another, energize people and resources for war, only to find themselves generating different motives for being at war. Vietnam is an obvious example of how early on war was necessary to save the world from communism and then expanded into salvaging the political reputation of the American presidency and proving American might.

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