Small Wars Journal

Machiavelli and our Wars in the Middle East

Tue, 07/20/2021 - 12:57pm

Machiavelli and our Wars in the Middle East

By Chad M. Pillai

The upcoming twentieth anniversary of the September 11th attacks and the recent passing of former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld require thoughtful attention as the nation completes its final troop withdrawal from Afghanistan, ending the longest war in U.S. history.  The war in Afghanistan and the subsequent wars in Iraq and Syria have shaped my generation's cultural image, similar to the Vietnam War's generation. In both instances, the U.S. entered the wars believing its martial superiority ensured victory and ended each war wondering what went wrong.  

The political, strategic, and emotional rationale for the war in Afghanistan was logically tied to the heinous attacks on September 11th. The world watched as Al Qaeda hijacked commercial airliners and flew them into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and one that crashed in Pennsylvania when the passengers revolted. Shortly after the attack, President George W. Bush spoke with first responders at ground zero in New York. He announced, "the world will hear all of us soon!" Within weeks, the CIA and U.S. Special Operations spearheaded our response in Afghanistan that led to the U.S. overthrowing the Taliban government and the displacement of the Al Qaeda terrorist network. The rapid victories represented by the famous "Horse Soldiers" of the 5th Special Forces Group highlighted the nation's martial superiority. They gave strategic leaders like former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld the confidence needed to expand the global war on terrorism to Iraq. 

Assured of rapid victory and that senior policy makers believing U.S. forces would be greeted as liberators, the United States, and its allies launched a war to overthrow Saddam Hussein and his regime. Like the victory in Afghanistan, the initial success took less than a month. In both Afghanistan and Iraq, the U.S. and its allies employed fewer forces than they did to expel Saddam Hussein’s forces from Kuwait in 1991. Sadly, in both Afghanistan and Iraq, rapid tactical victory did not yield long-term strategic peace or stability. Twenty years after 2001, the U.S. is departing Afghanistan with a resurgent Taliban and a fragile Iraq that continues to battle Al Qaeda's offshoot – the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) – and is caught in a low-level regional conflict between Iran and its Arab neighbors.  

Policymakers and academics such as Carter Malkasian have and will continue to ask what went wrong. There are plenty of reasons for the perceived failure including not sending enough forces into Afghanistan early to prevent the Taliban's and Al Qaeda's senior leaders from escaping and finding sanctuary in Pakistan, diverting troops from Afghanistan to Iraq, and colossal errors like disbanding the Iraqi Army. Each error compounded on the other; however, the primary mistake was hubris.  

    To avoid hubris, senior political and military leaders should have read closely Niccolò Machiavelli book The Prince on what a ruler should expect when conquering foreign land. In chapters four and five, Machiavelli lays out the fundamental principles a ruler needed to understand before embarking on conquest by highlighting the differences between the Kingdom of France and the Ottoman (Turkish) Empire. To briefly paraphrase Machiavelli's advice in chapter four, he wrote that states that are hard to conquer are easy to rule while states that are easy to conquer are hard to rule.  

In chapter five, Machiavelli providers further advice on what to expect when conquering another with the following words:

When a state accustomed to live in freedom under its own laws is acquired, there are three ways of keeping it:  the first is to destroy it, the second is to go to live there in person; the third is to let it continue to live under its own laws, taking tribute from it, and setting up a government composed of a few men who will keep it friendly to you.  Such a government, being the creature of the prince, will be aware that it cannot survive without his friendship and support, and it will do everything to maintain his authority.  A city which is used to freedom is more easily controlled by means of its own citizens than by any other, provided one chooses not to destroy it. 

The American experiences with Germany and Japan after World War II and South Korea after the Korean War shaped our perception of what could be achieved by the nation's military presence and commitment to long-term peace and stability. The U.S. and its allies fought four bloody and expensive years against Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, and Imperial Japan, leading to their unconditional surrender. The Japanese were prepared for national suicide and destruction but submitted when they heard the Emperor speak for the first time announcing the war's end.  After the war, the U.S. maintained a large military footprint in Germany and Japan and helped them democratize and become long-term allies. Despite being challenging to conquer, the Germans and Japanese proved easy to rule. 

During the Korean War, the U.S. and its allies fought the first major "hot war" of the "Cold War" when it helped South Korea maintain its sovereignty. Since the 1953 armistice, the U.S. has maintained a sizeable military footprint and helped South Korea democratize between 1953-1997 and become a long-term ally. The U.S. did not conquer South Korea, but its assurance of long-term defense against its North Korean enemy helped make its transition a stable democracy easier, which allowed the Republic of Korea to contribute to U.S. military operations during the Vietnam War and in Iraq

In Germany, Japan, and South Korea, the U.S. applied Machiavelli advice by destroying the state, living there (long-term military presence), and setting up governments friendly to the United States that made post-war stability possible. The political and military decisions made regarding Afghanistan and Iraq were the opposite of those made concerning Germany, Japan, and South Korea. In Afghanistan and Iraq, senior political and military leaders had no intention of staying and quickly installed Hamid Karzai in Afghanistan and Ahmed Chalabi in Iraq to govern. While Hamid Karzai had some legitimate claims to his role as a leader in Afghan society as the son and grandson of the chief of the Popalzai Pashtuns who served in the former King of Afghanistan’s government, Ahmed Chalabi was a corrupt banker with no ties to the ruling elite in Iraq. The desire to run for the exits before Afghanistan and Iraq were fully stabilized set the conditions for the insurgencies that bogged down the U.S. military for the past twenty years.  

For twenty years, the U.S. fought a counter-insurgency in both Afghanistan and Iraq that still fell short of completely destroying the insurgents, their means of resupply (narcotrafficking and the funds provided to the Taliban as an example), and eliminating those agents that provided sanctuary (Pakistan, Syria, and Iran). Employing the means to destroy the insurgents or those who provided haven was politically untenable and therefore should have heeded Machiavelli's advice in chapter five when he said:

For in truth there is no sure method of holding such cities by destruction.  Anyone who becomes master of a city accustomed to freedom and does not destroy it may expect to be destroyed by it; for such a city may always justify rebellion in the name of liberty and its ancient institutions.  These are not forgotten either through passage of time or through benefits received.  Despite any actions or provisions one may take, if the inhabitants are not divided and dispersed, they will not forget the name and those institutions, and will quickly have recourse to them at every chance.

The rapid victories against the Taliban and Saddam's regimes were warning signs that ruling Afghanistan and Iraq would not be easy. The fact that the Taliban, Al Qaeda, and remnants of Saddam's regime found sanctuary in Pakistan, Iran, and Syria, respectively, ensured the memories of their past institutions would live on and serve as a call to arms. This fact meant that labeling the Taliban insurgents was inaccurate since the Taliban and its supporters have continued to view it as the legitimate Afghan government, even in exile. 

The counter-insurgency victories against the Taliban and insurgent forces in Afghanistan, Iraq, and today in Syria may prove fleeting as time marches on. The United States never lost a tactical battle in Vietnam but proved strategically irrelevant in defeating the communist because we failed to understand the war's political nature. The North Vietnamese were prepared to pay any cost to win unification after suffering foreign interference by China, France, and the United States. Likewise, the Taliban proved they were willing to pay a high price in their efforts to reclaim their right to rule Afghanistan. The wars in Iraq and Syria remain unresolved and may eventually fracture those two nation-states as the various groups and tribes seek a new political reality.  

As the junior leaders during Vietnam War and Cold War assumed senior leadership political and military positions misapplied the lessons learned from their experience, the September 11th generation must do better and learn from both. Future leaders must ask themselves the hard questions and challenge their assumptions about whether a proposed conflict and post-conflict scenario would abide by Machiavelli's dictum on what it takes to conquer another state. Finally, a careful reading of history, like former Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis said, would ensure "nothing new under the sun." This fact would ensure future leaders ask the right questions when considering Machiavelli's advice and understand why our experience in Afghanistan and Iraq went wrong. 

About the Author(s)

Lt. Col. Chad M. Pillai is a U.S. Army strategist who has completed multiple joint and institutional Army planning assignments. He earned his master's degree from Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) and will begin his War College fellowship at Queen's University in the fall. The views expressed in the article are his and do not reflect the official position of the U.S. government and the Department of Defense.



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Regarding Vietnam, a major problem was (and is today) that the Army didn't want to think about Vietnam even before it ended. The return of emphasis on the Fulda Gap (Europe) was expressed in all the training and doctrine, Vietnam was almost a taboo subject. The Vietnam-experienced officers experienced RIFs, which were keenly felt. This left few who could pass along any lessons-learned, especially in our service academies and colleges.

The result has been that the teaching of Vietnam has greatly missed reality. Instead, the history of our efforts in Vietnam is either pooh-pooed or demeaned usually by those who weren't there and have no interest in listening or reading about what happened. I have personally heard professors teaching our soldiers demean our efforts in Vietnam and others saying they avoid teaching anything about the Vietnam War. Civilian colleges are often much worse.

It may be that Afghanistan will face a similar fate.