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Commentary

The Capillary Growth of Counterproductive Wars



It is clear enough that the introduction of John Bolton as national security advisor and Mike Pompeo as secretary of state makes war more likely. But that shouldn’t obscure the existing reality: that the Trump administration is already fighting many wars and escalating them without the constitutional requirement of congressional approval. Thus, ill-advised military operations threaten to expand in capillary fashion from North Africa.

Take the expansion of counterterrorism strikes in Libya. The Pentagon recently carried out a drone strike that killed militants from an al Qaeda regional affiliate in Southwestern Libya. Prior to that operation, the Obama and Trump administrations had focused drone attacks and airstrikes on Islamic State fighters in Northern Libya.

Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) fighters and other extremist militants also operate in the Sahel region -- in Niger, Chad, Mali, and Algeria – and the seeming expansion of U.S. military activities in Libya comes after many in Congress were surprised to find out last fall that the U.S. military was fighting Islamists in Niger. The realization came about suddenly after four U.S. servicemen were killed in that country. (More recently, the American media found about another U.S. battle with militants in Niger than killed 11 Islamic State fighters there in December of last year.)

The Trump administration is not asking whether such combat deaths are worth carrying out the aggressive U.S. role as the world’s policeman in faraway countries. These groups normally have regional goals, and redirecting their ire toward Americans is something that should not be done without a sense of clear strategic purpose. Yet, the Pentagon seems ready to double down on its not-so-secret war in this region by preparing to fly combat drone missions from Niamey, Niger’s capital. To what aim?

After 20 years of military quagmire and strategic debacle, the potential for counterproductive outcomes to military action should be obvious to the swamp of national security bureaucracies in Washington. President Trump, who seemed to recognize this problem in his presidential campaign, just told us that he signed the budget-busting spending bill only because George W. Bush and Barack Obama depleted the U.S. military. Yet he is expanding the same long-running brushfire wars in remote countries that depleted the military in the first place. Trump has accelerated the already lost war in Afghanistan and escalated the fight against al Shabaab in Somalia, and he just inked a new deal to sell weapons to Saudi Arabia, which is also getting valuable U.S. targeting and refueling assistance to bomb civilians in Yemen -- a country in which the United States continues a long-running air campaign against another al Qaeda regional affiliate, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. The United States also continues to maintain ground forces in Iraq and Syria, even though ISIS has been tamed.

One of most clear-cut illustrations of the counterproductive overuse of military action is indeed in Libya. The United States created the very mess in that country that it is now trying to clean up using still more force. Barack Obama opposed George W. Bush’s disastrous invasion of Iraq to topple Saddam Hussein. Then as president, Obama was convinced by France and then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton that it would be a grand idea to use force to similarly topple another leader of an artificial country -- Libya’s Moammar Gadhafi. Unsurprisingly, chaos arose in Libya too, with Islamic State, AQIM, and other extremist groups filling ungoverned spaces while weapons from Gadhafi’s vast arsenal dispersed to further destabilize other Sahel countries. Now the United States is also present in those countries, trying to clean up the mess by using more of the military force that generated the problems in the first place.

The New York Times quoted Luke Hartig, a former senior director for counterterrorism at the National Security Council, as cogently arguing:

Beginning a concerted strike campaign against AQIM or other AQ elements in the Sahel, akin to what we are doing in Yemen and Somalia, would mark a significant expansion of our counterterrorism efforts. If this is going to be the start of a broader campaign, it would be helpful to hear more from the administration about the threat posed by AQIM and why it merits putting our people in harm’s way and conducting strikes.

Amen, but justification from the Trump administration would not be enough. Congress should debate this new chapter in the so-called war on terror and decide whether to authorize it. While they are at it, maybe they could debate all the other ongoing chapters, each of them a war being waged without sufficient congressional approval.


Ivan Eland is Senior Fellow and Director of the Center on Peace & Liberty at the Independent Institute. Dr. Eland is a graduate of Iowa State University and received an M.B.A. in applied economics and Ph.D. in national security policy from George Washington University. He spent 15 years working for Congress on national security issues, including stints as an investigator for the House Foreign Affairs Committee and Principal Defense Analyst at the Congressional Budget Office.


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