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Back in 2008, Adm. Michael Mullen, then the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, made what seemed like a self-evident observation, seven years into the Afghanistan war and five years into Iraq: “We can’t kill our way to victory.” Nine years and nearly 2,000 U.S. combat deaths later, the U.S. Naval Institute has published Can’t Kill Enough to Win? Think Again, an op-ed by two retired lieutenant colonels who charge that Mullen was dead wrong, in thrall to a culture of weakness that has permeated and hamstrung the U.S. military. The USNI is a serious outlet for professional military thought; the authors of this particular piece, David Bolgiano and John Taylor, are former paratroopers and JAGs. This article is serious but sorely misguided, another reminder that the military is slow to adapt and has never fully adjusted to counterinsurgency.

Bolgiano and Taylor’s basic premise is this: Soldiers must be willing to act with the “necessary savagery and purposefulness” to destroy “Islamic terrorists worldwide” if the United States is ever going to start winning wars again. The authors say they’re vindicated by history: The U.S. won the Pacific War by dropping two nuclear bombs on Japan (“General Curtis LeMay,” they write, “knew that if he killed enough Japanese they would quit”); it won the Civil War by bleeding the “Confederacy dry of fighting-age men”; and, of course, it defeated Nazi Germany with firepower, maneuver, and ferocity. The authors also attribute the fall of the Soviet Union exclusively to U.S. strategic maneuvering, rather than Moscow’s own self-defeating policies.

U.S. Army photo
Paratroopers with 1st Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division fire at insurgent forces during a firefight June 15 in Afghanistan’s Ghazni Province.

The issue is, every one of those enemies was a nation-state, bearing little resemblance to the transnational, non-state actors the United States fights today. Bolgiano and Taylor acknowledge that the United States is fighting a different kind of enemy today — but they claim the real issue is that the military just doesn’t doesn’t “celebrate its victories” — which they equate with its killings — anymore:

“How many ticker-tape parades have there been for Medal of Honor recipients in this war? When individual warriors are adjudged to have killed the “wrong” target, they face conviction and imprisonment rather than being given the benefit of the doubt, as so many were given during World War II. It is no wonder that post-traumatic stress disorder and suicide levels are so high. Instead of praising its victors, the United States browbeats them about civilian casualty numbers.”

That’s an argument, and not a particularly strong one — but it’s consistent with Bolgiano and Taylor’s other claims about how “the U.S. military has put more effort into combating climate change and training to prevent sexual harassment than it has into training warriors to kill the enemy.” The bigger point, though, is that Bolgiano and Taylor fail to understand the 21st century battlefield or the real meaning of Mullen’s 2008 comments to Congress.

Consider the war in Afghanistan. Kabul still can’t control large swaths of its territory and doesn’t even enjoy legitimacy. The biggest impediment to defeating the Taliban, a fractious and far-flung enemy, has never been an inability to kill its fighters, which U.S. forces still excel at; the problem has been figuring out what comes next, after the killing. The Afghan National Army is still plagued by rampant corruption and ethnic cleavages in Afghan society still hinder a strong national identity. All of these obstacles are compounded by  the fact that Pakistan, Iran, and India all have interests in Afghanistan that clash with those of the United States.

Despite these complexities, Bolgiano and Taylor assume that overwhelming death and destruction will fix it. Just scare an enemy into defeat, they argue, endorsing the advice given to U.S. officials in 2004 by a special operations officer from an unnamed Arab country:

“If you Americans want to win in Fallujah and Iraq, you need to call Al Jazeera and CNN, have them set up their cameras, then call out the insurgents to surrender from a surrounded Fallujah. If, in 24 hours, the insurgents do not come out, you then must make repetitive low-level bombing runs with your B-52s and flatten Fallujah. Then, and only then, the Iraqis will know they have been beaten. They do not yet know this.”

The urge to have a clear, massive victory is understandable — but it’s never proven effective in a battlespace where multiple insurgencies are occurring at once and in competition with one another, as was the case in Iraq. ISIS rose in cities that were once completely controlled by the Iraqi government. Winning the immediate battle, especially by attrition, doesn’t always win the war. Long-term success in places like Afghanistan and Iraq requires a credible alternative to insurgency and sectarian conflict; it requires the building of central governments with legitimacy. This feat that has so far eluded the United States and its allies in Iraq and Afghanistan. Killing many, and often, hasn’t helped.

The U.S. military has vastly superior firepower compared to its enemies, but insurgencies can still kill with ease and relative efficiency. An example from my own deployment to Afghanistan highlights the comparative advantage non-state actors have in a conflict, regardless of raw killing ability.

On Aug. 30, 2012, an Afghan National Army soldier killed three Australians at a patrol base in Uruzgan province. I was an enlisted Marine serving in support of the Australian-led Special Operations Task Group, based in another part of the province. We immediately moved to cordon off an arterial road that could be used by the rogue ANA soldier to escape southward to Pakistan. The Australian soldiers were better-trained than the Taliban, had the benefit of close air support, and could access a host of intel, surveillance, and reconnaissance systems. All of this proved irrelevant when a Taliban sympathizer was able to shoot them at close-range and then escape.

U.S. Navy Photo
Soldiers from the 4th Brigade Combat Team of the 82nd Airborne Division, the Afghan National Police, and the Afghan National Army’s 203rd Corps assemble for a recognition ceremony for Operation Maiwand.

The massive search that followed is an example of the exponential power of an insurgency to drain the resources of a conventional army — and the strategic costs of going kill-happy. The rogue ANA soldier was arrested inside Pakistan and eventually returned to Afghanistan for prosecution, but such a move requires cooperation. In order to convince states to cooperate with our efforts, especially when those states have competing interests, the U.S. military must consider the impact of its actions.

Last month, while in Pakistan for a conference on conflict in the region, I asked Pakistanis from all walks of life, including former military officers and academics, about their perception of continued U.S. drone strikes against terrorists inside Pakistan. One individual told me he supported “personality” strikes, coordinated between the two nations to target a specific individual, over protracted conventional operations, because those drone strikes actually succeeded in killing terrorists rather than civilians. But “signature” strikes, which often produce high civilian casualties, were unpopular across the board.

Analysts who have seriously pondered drone strikes acknowledge that their net benefits are up for debate, but the military must not lose sight of the bigger picture in this global war on terrorism, where prudence gets you further than impunity.

It is important never to confuse tactics with strategy or the immediate firefight for the desired long-term outcome. What could have been an interesting critique of U.S. military tactics at the operational level by Bolgiano and Taylor instead became a disjointed bravado-filled tirade that reeks of a longing for a time when war was simpler. The U.S. Naval Institute can do better.

Adam N. Weinstein served in the Marine Corps Reserves. He deployed to Afghanistan as a detachment to 2nd ANGLICO in 2012 and was based in Uruzgan province. After the military, he became a lawyer but now works as a policy analyst. He should not be confused with Adam Weinstein, senior editor at Task & Purpose.