Operation Flailing Empire
You’ve got to hand it to the good old US of A: We sure know how to overpromise and underdeliver. After 17 years of perpetual wars stretching from West Africa to South Asia, nobody does it better. America’s military—the nation’s governmental tool of choice these days—never saw a problem it couldn’t “fix” or missed an opportunity to coin a slick code name for its open-ended operations.
First, we had Operation Enduring Freedom (Afghanistan), then Iraqi Freedom (well, you know where), New Dawn (Iraq, again), Unified Protector (Libya) and now, Freedom’s Sentinel (Afghanistan again). Boy, do these operations sound cool and altruistic. Hmm … I wonder how they actually turned out?
Well, that’s the tricky part. See, in reality, the U.S. has naught but a few defeats, several ongoing stalemates and a trail of chaos to show for all that effort. And, predictably, the local civilians usually foot the bloody bill.
If only the outcomes for the people on the ground bore any resemblance to those uplifting titles. And we’d hate to be dishonest or inaccurate in our labels, so how about we find a remedy? Seeing as Washington shows no predilection to even vote on, let alone end, its ongoing wars, perhaps the best we can do is review America’s recent record and suggest more appropriate code names for its ongoing wars.
The invasion and occupation of Afghanistan in 2001—this is the one we had to do, right? The one even “liberal” President Barack Obama referred to as the “good war.” After all, al-Qaida had attacked the homeland, Osama bin Laden was there and, it seemed, the Taliban wouldn’t give him up—not fast enough for our liking, anyway.
Still, that mission “creeped” from counterterrorism to full scale nation-building. Nation-building on the cheap, that is, because most resources were promptly shifted to a war of dubious legality in Iraq. Seventeen years later, the only thing “enduring” in Afghanistan is chaos, and “freedom,” well, that’s limited, at best, to the urban centers the marginally legitimate, U.S.-sponsored Afghan government actually controls. With corruption rampant in Kabul, record numbers of districts contested by the Taliban and the harvesting of a record opium crop, it’s hard to argue that the U.S. military mission has lived up to its name.
After Obama finally reduced U.S. troop counts in 2014-15, Enduring Freedom was rebranded as Operation Freedom’s Sentinel, and the American military shifted to an advise, assist and sustaining force. Problem is, enduring freedom hadn’t ever been realized, so how the heck could the remaining U.S. troopers act as “sentinel” for the success-of-liberty that never came? It’s all so confusing.
For the sake of truth in advertising, let’s rename this ongoing conflict Operation Everlasting Quagmire.
Operation Iraqi Freedom
Boy, did the military planners dodge one heck of a gaffe when naming this one. They originally wanted to call it Operation Iraqi Liberation, but, yikes, that acronym spelled OIL—a bit too on the nose, no? Anyway, Washington settled on Iraqi Freedom and supplied a litany of reasons to invade: Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction (he didn’t), he’d colluded with al-Qaida (he hadn’t), the war would pay for itself (it wouldn’t), and on and on.
The conventional ground war took less than a month, President George W. Bush flew onto an aircraft carrier in a flight suit and declared the “mission accomplished” and everyone waited for Iraqi “freedom” to break out across the country. We waited and waited and … the place fell apart. The reality is that the U.S. military fractured an ethno-sectarian basket case of a country and unleashed chaos. We triggered a civil war, exponentially multiplied anti-American Islamists and delivered an Iraq even worse than had existed before 2003. Some 4,500 Americans and at least a couple hundred thousand Iraqis died. My unit didn’t arrive in Baghdad until October 2006, and one of the most heartbreaking—and recurring—interactions I had with those poor people was listening to them lament that life in the city was actually better under Saddam.
Iraqi Freedom was later renamed New Dawn when Obama shifted the mission to advisory and assistance and turned Iraq’s security over to a suspiciously chauvinist Shiite government under the strongman Nouri al-Maliki. New Dawn had such a nice ring to it. No more overt U.S. military occupation, increased Iraqi sovereignty and a fresh start for the embattled local civilians. A few years into New Dawn, in December 2011, almost all U.S. troops—as Obama had promised—left the country. Victory in Iraq.
Only the whole thing was a new-dawn-that-wasn’t. Maliki was an authoritarian, his government held little legitimacy in the eyes of minority Sunnis and Kurds, and the Iraqi army we’d trained and equipped collapsed in the face of the veritable Frankenstein’s monster that had grown up in U.S. military prisons: Islamic State. These lunatics helped themselves to billions of dollars’ worth of U.S.-supplied equipment and ran rampant for a couple of years across western Iraq and eastern Syria.
So, in round two (or three, if you count 1991’s Operation Desert Storm), the U.S. military was back on the ground, the Air Force was back to bombing and, while Islamic State has been rolled back, American troops are still there, with no end in sight.
So, in honor of a 1980s cult classic film, I propose a coded title that’s more apropos: Operation Neverending Story.
Operation Unified Protector
This is the NATO “humanitarian” mission to “protect” Libyan rebels from the vicious tyrant Moammar “Mad Dog” Gadhafi. The Arab Spring uprisings toppled a few Mideast dictators in 2011, but Obama had been elected on a promise of no more new wars in the region. So when assorted Libyan rebels were in danger of losing out to Gadhafi’s army, Obama assured us that Americans would “lead from behind,” keep U.S. “boots off the ground” and simply deter a massacre.
Unfortunately, that protection from the world powers wasn’t so unified after all, with Russia and China bowing out when the full scope of the NATO project became clear. And as for the “protection” part, or all that due-process stuff that Americans are always talking about, well, it didn’t apply to Gadhafi himself, who was tortured and murdered in a grisly manner by a lynch mob.
Things only deteriorated from there. Humanitarian intervention evolved into regime change, and then into the fracture of Libya into statelets led by rival warlords. Even Islamic State opened a local franchise. And that arsenal of guns Gadhafi had spent three decades accumulating? Tribal fighters took those south and across the border to sow chaos and destabilize Cameroon, Niger and Mali.
So in honor of what’s really occurred in Libya, I’ll leave the naming of this mission to former President Obama, who, in hindsight, referred to the Libyan mission as a “shit show.” Operation Shit Show. It has a nice ring to it.
Operation Restoring Hope
Yemen, 2015-present. Sure, it’s Saudi Arabia that kicked this one off and came up with the impressively ironic title. And sure, it’s Saudi pilots bombing and Saudi ships blockading that have unleashed the worst cholera epidemic in recorded history and brought millions of civilians to the brink of famine. So why should we care?
Simple. The U.S. backs and enables the Saudi terror campaign and has the power to end this war. The Saudi campaign could not continue without U.S. military support in the form of aerial refueling, targeting intelligence and guided munitions sales. One vignette, among countless others, says it all: In 2016, when a Saudi airstrike killed 140 Yemenis attending a funeral, it did so with American-manufactured bombs. Yemenis are fond of digging up the tail fins of these munitions, and many are manufactured in the USA. Nonetheless, the war, and America’s support for it, continues to this day.
Here’s an apt title for what America is really enabling in Yemen: Operation Moral Repugnance.
The hard truth is that too often, in contrast to the noble code names, U.S. military operations have had precisely the opposite of their intended effects for the people living in the Greater Middle East.
What shall historians call these 17 years of post-9/11 warfare? Bush called it the “war on terror,” but terror is a tactic and not a tangible enemy. Others labeled it the “long war,” but that’s vague and not catchy enough. Esteemed historian Andrew Bacevich suggested “the war for the Greater Middle East,” which is indeed accurate, but a bit too scholarly and bland.
Given the actual outcomes of these campaigns, the horrors endured and the illogical paths blazed along the way, I’ll affix one more appropriate label to these disasters: “the war on reason.” Code name: Operation Flailing Empire.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author, expressed in an unofficial capacity, and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.