The title of this article does not come from the author, but from the November-December issue of the well-known Foreign Affairs magazine which compiled articles previously published on a particular topic. The dominant subject of the “Forgotten Wars” issue is the number of wars that America has entered without knowing how to end them. Since exiting the wars could have serious strategic implications on a global level, the decision to stay does not mean winning the war in the end, but merely reducing the costs of staying. Yet the wars are never resolved, and it is better to forget them.
The most prominent example of this is the American war in Afghanistan, which began in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and which is still burning today. Sixteen years of military presence has resulted in direct fighting on one day, and support for Afghan forces on another; a day of escalation and then a day of rest. Even when America wanted to exit after former President Barack Obama’s election and then the election of President Donald Trump, both of whom called for leaving in their campaigns, they both quickly chose to re-escalate the conflict. This is the only time that has happened, and it is the longest continuing war in American history.
During the Vietnam War, America had the ability to withdraw, but this capacity for decision-making no longer exists. United States citizens no longer hear about the war in Afghanistan. It is surprising that no one knows how America plans to rebuild Afghanistan as a country and a nation, nor the extent of coordination between Washington and NATO, as long as no one hears any news about the war.
Similarly, America invaded Iraq and did not know how to exit. As it did in Afghanistan, it envisioned the possibility of building a state, but countries are not built by external forces. While former President George W. Bush attempted to reduce the American presence, and his successor sped up the withdrawal briefly—with the exception of the training forces that remained—the situation quickly re-escalated, due to the vacuum that led to the creation of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, and then Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi,* so it was not viable to leave Iraq to Iran. Thus, America not only stayed, but increased its presence through special forces, air support and other allied forces from the east and west.
Now, after the liberation of Mosul, the Iraqi situation doesn’t allow the Americans to close the file on Iraq, not only because of the remaining Islamic State group, but because there is still an ongoing war in Syria. Despite U.S. training, air and financial support for Syrian, Kurdish and Arab forces, America can’t leave Syria since it did not officially enter the country. In recent years, America has been both negligent and absent, a complex condition that won’t be solved by avoiding vital decisions. As long as these decisions are postponed, war is nonexistent.
The issue is simply that in the wars of Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria, there is no precise explanation for why the conflict continues. What is the end game? What is the definition of victory or defeat? Are the wars solely to stop Iran or to change unpopular political systems? When it comes to terrorism, or the Islamic State group, or al-Qaida or others, or when it comes to Russia, when does it not seem like anyone in Washington knows whether they can be considered enemies or friends?
Historically, Russia is an enemy, a legacy of the Cold War. Currently, perhaps because it entered Ukraine, it also sits on the opposite side of the negotiating table against Iran, the United States and other prominent members of NATO. No one would argue that the Russian presence in Syria was not acceptable to Washington. However, this lack of acceptance has never meant the absence of coordination concerning multiple military operations.
The new aspect to the relationship with Russia is that a door is opening to a new type of war: cyberwarfare. At the very least, U.S. security services have determined that Russia affected the course of the last U.S. presidential election, not only in the hacking of the Democratic National Committee, but also by direct intervention through social networking. These campaigns against Hillary Clinton were not conducted from Washington or New York, but directly from Moscow. What is strange is that the state of war with Russia was unique; there was no bloodshed, but the goal was to overthrow a president.
Another mark of success for Russia has been that the current president is not able to carry out his campaign promise to improve Russian-American relations. This is a cybercrime that has not been addressed by international law or by the laws of war. It is a completely new situation, which has no parallel in history.
In theory, the war on terror can be said to constitute an important chapter, in which the end has arrived with the fall of Mosul and Raqqa. A large number of terrorists have fled, and up to 70,000 or more of them have been wounded. But no one can say that the war is over, as now the question is where will the terrorists go, and where will the war continue. All military operations were flexible during the Vietnam War, operating within the borders of the Vietnamese state or within the general framework of Indochinese countries, but counterterrorism operations occur throughout the world. What is happening across the world is not a conflict with known lines of attack or defense, not a conflict that will find a place within the daily news, and not a conflict that will become a war after entering a cycle of forgetfulness.
Truthfully, the “forgotten wars” remain wars in the end, as long as humans fall dead and wounded, and cities and civilizations are destroyed. Wars continue, and yet are forgotten, because they linger and are not conclusive as of this moment. No conclusion has yet been reached because strategic thinking is still inadequate to deal with these types of wars, regardless of whether it is a war over the dissolution of the state (Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria), or a novelty because cyberwarfare is not yet common practice. If no one knows whether a war between America and Russia can be considered hot or cold, can it be considered a war?
*Editor’s note: Abu Musab al-Zarwawi was a Jordanian jihadi who ran a paramilitary training camp in Afghanistan and later went to Iraq where he was responsible for a series of bombings and attacks. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is the leader of the Islamic State which controls territory in several countries.