The Wages of War Without Strategy

Part II: How we Twitterized Clausewitz and Ended up Bogged Down in Afghanistan and Iraq


Robert Cassidy & Jacqueline Tame


“Well, in our country,” said Alice, still panting a little, “you’d generally get to somewhere else — if you ran very fast for a long time, as we’ve been doing.”
“A slow sort of country!” said the Queen. “Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that.”
- Lewis Carroll, "Through the Looking Glass"

War and violence decoupled from strategy and policy—or worse yet, mistaken for strategy and policy—have contributed to perpetual war, or what has seemed like 15 years of “Groundhog War.” In its wars since 11 September 2001, the United States has arguably cultivated the best-equipped, most capable, and fully seasoned combat forces in remembered history. They attack, kill, capture, and win battles with great nimbleness and strength. But absent strategy, these victories are fleeting. Divorced from political objectives, successful tactics are without meaning.

In theory, we fight wars to fulfill a political purpose and to achieve objectives by aligning the means and methods of war toward that purpose. In theory, the purpose of war is a better peace. In theory, there is no difference between theory and practice, but as history has shown repeatedly, in practice there is.

The purpose of war is to serve policy. Unchecked by reason, unguided by policy, the nature of war is to serve itself. When war and violence serve each other, absent strategy, it is fruitless killing. World War I was a conspicuous example of war for war’s sake, and serves as “an excellent cautionary tale about the dangers of carelessly blundering into a pointless and catastrophic conflagration.” The war in Iraq and the strategic stalemate in Afghanistan, are simply contemporary examples of the same.

In Part I of this series, we revisited the fundamentals of Clausewitz and urged the senior leadership in the new administration to consider lessons long observed, if rarely learned since Vietnam, about the intended distinctions between policy, strategy, and military operations. We offered that equating the three is tantamount to ‘Twitterizing’ U.S. foreign and security policy—something this country has done under both parties, and for many years. In this installment, we urge policy and military leaders to break from the mistakes of the past, and to do so now, underscoring the need for that introspection and more profound thinking on the nature of war, through an examination of our continued inability to align means and ways with achievable political ends in Afghanistan and Iraq.

In theory, there is no difference between theory and practice, but as history has shown repeatedly, in practice there is...

Over the last 50 years, our ill-informed application of Clausewitz’s key tenets in U.S. military engagements has scarred the country’s credibility, moral rectitude, and legitimacy. But at no time have we more superficially or detrimentally applied Clausewitz than in the Global War on Terrorism, or the Long War - a “war,” undeclared by Congress, and about whose purpose the country was so conflicted that its monikers changed constantly.  The Global War on Terrorism revealed not only that the U.S. was in dire need of a viable strategy for undermining ideologically motivated non-state actors, but also that the very meaning of strategy had been fundamentally debased in our political lexicon.  Terror is a tactic, a technique. To wage perpetual war on a tactic, absent a realizable long-term political objective, is not a strategy but a sign of the absence of one.

By misunderstanding, distorting, and ultimately Twitterizing Clausewitz, U.S. policy has unintentionally helped breed, fund, arm, and release on the world the very groups of head-lopping apocalyptic fanatics it fears most.  Moreover, the long-term strategic attention deficit engendered in waging wars without strategy has rendered the American public unaware that its government has, indeed, become a metaphorical Dr. Frankenstein, with ISIS being just the latest monster, albeit one we did not set out to create.

Clausewitz’s Axiom: A Lexical Examination

“War is not merely an act of policy but a true political instrument, a continuation of political intercourse, carried on with other means.” The distortion of Clausewitz’s famous axiom results from a careless reading of the relation between its subject and predicate. This is interesting, because critics have long lexically dissected the phrase, but for a different reason. The phrase itself, Der Krieg ist eine bloße Fortsetzung der Politik mit anderen Mitteln, or “war is a mere continuation of politics with other means,” is traditionally debated because, depending on the translation, Clausewitz uses the words “with” and “by” [other means] at different points in On War.  While this outwardly small distinction seems mere fodder for academic publications, a consequential interpretive difference does arise. The word “with” suggests that the use of force is additive and will complement whatever mélange of diplomacy, information, and economic means currently exists.  The word “by,” however, implies that employment of other means has failed and war is the only remaining option.

But prepositions are a secondary matter here. “Continuation” is the key word in Clausewitz’s sentence (and one never contested in translation) because it implies that a nation waging war must have started with a political objective. A policy matched to some notion of a supporting strategy requires this fundamental clarity about war’s benefits and liabilities in the service of political ends: once prior means become insufficient to achieve political objectives, we may choose war as a means of continuing to pursue these objectives. “Continuation” also illuminates the necessity of sustaining a healthy tension between policy and war to ensure one does not overtake or replace the other.

Causes and Consequences of Continued Distortion

So how did this country come to equate policy, strategy, and military operations, and absolve itself of responsibility for all but the last?  It stems from a long-standing American propensity for binary perspectives, exacerbated by a cultural proclivity toward anti-intellectualism. It stems from a national intolerance for patience, driven by the availability of on-demand everything. It stems from the 24-hour misinformation overload of mass media, whose scrolling banners and simplistic sound bites convince viewers and readers they don’t need or have time to understand the issues fully. And all of that is underwritten by the explosion of all sorts of information technologies that facilitate scrolling but not reading, listening but not hearing, and killing without having to look one’s enemies in the eyes, or to even pull a trigger. One final factor has contributed to the casual and dangerous blurring of politics and war: domestic political incentives to ignore Clausewitz’s cardinal axioms. Wars, with or without strategy, sell, particularly so, it seems, when those who wage them constitute small fractions of the population.

The U.S. is creating more monsters than it destroys every day, keeping politics and war separate and equal...

Who cares?  Why should people heed a long-dead German soldier-scholar who never had to deal with today’s wars anyway?  Because in this era of war-on-demand, it is even more imperative to beware of the monsters that policy absent strategy can help create, by both action and inaction.  The U.S. is creating more monsters than it destroys every day, keeping politics and war separate and equal.  

American policy makers failed to remain engaged, responsible, and farsighted in 1989 after the Soviets pulled out of Afghanistan, when they washed their hands of a war-torn country where mujahideen forces had, for nearly a decade, served as expendable Cold War proxies. Senior leadership failed again not 15 years later with the invasion of Iraq in 2003, without a viable strategy or honest assessment of why this country would be willing to sacrifice thousands of lives and upwards of a trillion dollars on the altar of an illusion about bringing democracy to Iraq. The products of these decades of desultory action and inaction, uninformed by long-term strategy, have been al Qaeda, the Taliban, and, most recently, ISIS. 

Reflexive War: Afghanistan, al Qaeda, and Iraq

In December 1979, the Soviets invaded Afghanistan. Official reporting indicates that U.S. leadership at the time – unwilling to engage in ways that would escalate the war beyond its geographical bounds – ultimately got involved but in a limited, indirect, and plausibly deniable way. Substituting proxy military actions for viable long-view political objects through various channels, America secretly gave weaponry and money to a host of Afghan resistance groups, known as the mujahideen, or holy warriors. 

Revelations, however, from former Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) Director Bob Gates and then National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brezinski about when the U.S. actually began engaging with those who opposed the Soviet regime in Afghanistan, offer an ironic twist as to a major stimulus for war. The twist was that the U.S., in fact, began aiding the mujahideen nearly six months before the Soviets invaded Afghanistan, and that decision to aid opponents of the regime might have actually been the catalyst that “induce[d] a Soviet military intervention.”

Nonetheless – and far from being driven by a political objective in Afghanistan beyond further eroding Soviet influence in a zero-sum global competition – the U.S. simply wanted the Soviets to suffer as payback for supporting America’s enemies in the Vietnam War. These shortsighted decisions and actions thus continued and further complicated the long and risk-laden U.S. relationship with Islamist extremists.

Ultimately, the Soviet regime’s support for the war eroded – first its will, then its existence – as the war’s costs and losses became higher than the perceived value of the political object in Afghanistan, and its components splintered off into different mujahideen factions. The Soviet-Afghan War was over, but another war was beginning. One about which the U.S. would have done well to think deeply regarding the Soviets’ ability to distinguish between political objectives and military operations. That war was the precursor to the United States’ Global War on Terrorism.

From a potent combination of militant Egyptian expertise, Saudi wealth, and a philosophical foundation for jihad, Osama bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri, and Sayyed Imam Al-Sharif (Dr. Fadl) formed al Qaeda in 1988.  Over the next eight years, bin Laden grew angry over Saudi Arabia’s rebuff when he offered to defend the Kingdom against Saddam Hussein, and then enraged at the Kingdom’s decision to host infidel American forces in what would become the first Gulf War. Bin Laden ultimately cited U.S. forces in Saudi Arabia as one of the reasons he began preparations for a series of attacks against the U.S.

At the end of stage one in the evolution of the monsters we know today, the U.S. had inadvertently helped create al Qaeda: War, Inc.’s Monster, Version 1.0.

Soviets leaving Afghanistan, 15 Feb 1989

Soviets leaving Afghanistan, 15 Feb 1989

In February 1989 the last Soviet troops departed Afghanistan.  The Soviet withdrawal left a power vacuum that drew scarce international attention, and saw armed, angry, desperate young men remain in its wake. Throughout the 1990s, this helped create the perfect storm for the emergence of a group of Pashtun Islamist leaders and their students who - armed and trained in Pakistan thanks to the Pakistani ISI - remained committed to prosecuting holy war.

That U.S. security elites substituted emotion-driven proxy military actions for a genuine political objective was sufficient folly in itself.  But, while the U.S. did not create the Taliban, as some rhetoric purports, history has shown that our friends and interlocutors from the Soviet-Afghan War in the Pakistani ISI, in particular, directly helped fund, train, and arm the Taliban - a group that would ultimately ally with and provide sanctuary to al Qaeda. Once again, this was a direct outcome of not linking military action to political objectives after careful assessment of all enemies and the potential character of the war.  By 1996, internecine war ravaged Afghanistan. Upon returning from Sudan to Afghanistan that year, bin Laden built a relationship with Mullah Omar, leader of the new Taliban-led Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. The then U.S. leadership’s decision to generally ignore the rise of the Taliban from 1994 onward--to do nothing as the Taliban imposed its Islamist emirate and antediluvian governance on the Afghan people, and to stand by as the Taliban provided succor to bin Laden and his al Qaeda lieutenants upon their return to Afghanistan in 1996—was, as the 9/11 Commission Report put it, “a dangerous failure of imagination.”

At the end of stage two, then, the monster had evolved.  In addition to al Qaeda, the U.S. stood by and observed rather indecisively and ineffectively during the Taliban’s emergence and takeover of Afghanistan: War, Inc.’s Monster, Version 2.0. 

In February 1998 – not three years after the bombing of the Office of the Program Manager, Saudi Arabian National Guard Modernization Program Headquarters, which preceded bin Laden’s first fatwa–bin Laden issued his second famous fatwa, calling upon Muslims to ‘perform their duty’ by killing American citizens, whom he declared ‘legitimate targets’ of al Qaeda. Heeding bin Laden’s call, six months later in August 1998, al Qaeda carried out twin embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania.  The U.S. retaliated with cruise missile strikes on al Qaeda in Sudan and Afghanistan. Al Qaeda subsequently attacked the USS Cole in 2000 and the East Coast of the United States a year later. 

The warping of Clausewitz’s theory of war over the decade that followed this country’s pivot away from its primary theater-of-necessity in Afghanistan to open a secondary theater-of-choice in Iraq was compounded by the complexity of the enemy that U.S. actions there helped catalyze. The devastating September 2001 attacks irrevocably shook the American psyche and spirit, and ensured a continuation of reflexive war as the essence of its Middle East and South Asia ‘policy.’

In October 2001, U.S. troops invaded Afghanistan, set on expelling the Taliban government to deny al Qaeda continued sanctuary in the country and, ultimately, to dismantle the group responsible for the 9/11 attacks. Then, in March 2003, in a decision, unconstrained by reality and uninformed by strategic analysis, the U.S., opened a secondary theater. It was a war of choice, against an odious but secular dictator, who was in no way linked to the events of 9/11. Scores of books and articles have examined the colossally bad decision to go into Iraq in 2003. We won’t add to that body of analysis and interpretation. For the purposes of this series, that aim to amplify examples of the United States’ propensity to conflate policy and tactics, to substitute action for strategy, suffice it to note that the 2003 invasion and occupation of Iraq served no real political or strategic objective. Instead, it resulted in the creation of more insurgents and terrorists animated by the Salafi-Wahhabi-jihadist creed, a power vacuum, and the very chaos and instability that helped lead to the emergence of ISIS.

The sequence of disconnected events following the 2003 invasion of Iraq resulted in the replacement of Saddam Hussein’s government with a predominantly Shiite administration. The Sunni majority areas of the country suffered from vast unemployment, aggravated by a near-total loss of assets and political influence. “Rather than promoting religious integration and unity, American policy in Iraq exacerbated sectarian divisions and created a fertile breeding ground for Sunni discontent, from which al Qaeda in Iraq took root.”

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Three and a half years into the Iraq war, on 6 December 2006, the Iraq Study Group released its report.  One of several approaches offered in the report advocated a significant surge in U.S. ground troops to help train Iraqi Army units and secure the population. The idea of a surge was contentious for war-weary Americans, but ultimately the prospect of expanding military operations, in lieu of conducting the hard work of generating viable strategic options and putting into place thoughtful, well-crafted policy, won the day. Accordingly, and in keeping with our culturally ingrained and increasing propensity to distort Clausewitz’s cardinal axiom, the United States introduced the surge itself as the new “strategy” in Iraq. The new objective – neither strategic nor political in the traditional sense – was to find a way out of Iraq without explicitly acknowledging defeat.

Much like peering through the looking glass, “the war on terror has been like the nouveau roman, with no coherent plot, only jarring disjunctions of cause and effect, time and place.”


Robert Cassidy, Ph.D., is a retired U.S. Army officer that has served in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere in the region. He formerly taught strategy at the U.S. Naval War College and has written books and articles on war and Afghanistan

Jacqueline Tame is an intelligence and national security professional that has worked throughout the Intelligence Community as a strategic planner and policy advisor. 

The ideas in this series do not represent the views of the U.S. Naval War College, the Department of the Army, the Intelligence Community, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.


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Header image: Last stand of the 44th Regiment at the Battle of Gandamak on 13th January 1842 in the First Afghan War | William Barnes Wollen