The State of U.S. National Security

The September 11th attacks led to various responses in the American public, shock and outrage the most immediate. Subsequent polling data showed another response. Trust in government rose sharply and immediately – a curious phenomenon, for 9/11 could be readily seen as resulting from colossal government failures. The eighth anniversary should be a time of solemn remembrance, but not of unreflective support. It should be a time of assessing the ensuing wars and the competence of national security institutions.


Initial campaigns in both Afghanistan and Iraq were truly remarkable and will be benchmarks for future conventional operations. Special forces and airpower worked alongside Northern Alliance fighters to drive out Taliban and al Qaeda troops in short order. In early 2003, the military plunged into Iraq and seized Baghdad in a manner that astonished all.

Soon thereafter, however, insurgencies developed. The military was slow to identify the nature of the fighting as an insurgency, and in any case acquiesced to characterizations of the fighters as only a few “dead-enders” – a judgment made by political hands in Washington with no military background or regional expertise. The military responded to the insurgencies with conventional methods of meeting force with force and calling in air power – quite effective in conventional warfare in which the military had long trained, but counterproductive against insurgencies.

Though colonels and generals who had been platoon and company commanders during the Vietnam War made the military of today, they refused to make counterinsurgency principles basic parts of its doctrines and training. Most knew that such principles had had at least some success in Southeast Asia when put to use by special forces and marines, but the post-Vietnam military reasoned that proficiency in counterinsurgency would increase the likelihood that politicians would send them off into another insurgency, which would again gravely damage the military’s cohesion and prestige – evidence that armies are not always designed to fight the previous war.

The likelihood of insurgencies developing in Afghanistan and Iraq was clear to most military analysts with even a basic understanding of those countries, and their subsequent development was apparent early on. Nonetheless, counterinsurgency principles were put into operation only slowly and belatedly. They might have been put into play too late in Afghanistan.


The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq began as a result of intelligence failures regarding al Qaeda and its determination to attack inside the US – this, even after an attempt to smuggle explosives into the country was discovered in December of 1999. Subsequent intelligence assessments have done nothing to enhance the luster of the intelligence community.

Studies of potential adverse consequences to a US presence in Afghanistan or Iraq were either inadequately developed or insufficiently disseminated to policy makers and congressional oversight committees, apparent though many such consequences were. Instead, fierce insurgencies developed, al Qaeda’s support in the Islamic world and Europe has gone up, and Iranian influence in the region has grown.

The US intelligence community is confused by the Middle East and has been since it concluded some thirty years ago that the mass movements that ousted the Shah had been orchestrated by Soviet intelligence – a preposterous assessment born of Cold War anxiety and institutional group think.

US intelligence is balefully influenced by pressures from the White House and by internal politics. It was silent when ambiguities about Saddam Hussein’s WMDs were neatly redacted by neo-conservative appointees and when the same people overstated the role of foreign powers in the Iraqi insurgency. Perhaps most importantly now, the status of Iran’s nuclear program is “determined” more by antagonistic cliques than by thoughtful analysts.


The September 11th attacks gave the Bush administration the opening to embark upon an ambitious program of transforming countries of the Middle East into western-style democracies, amenable to liberal economics and non-threatening to allies. The ambitious agenda would have remained in think tanks and lobbies along with plans for interplanetary colonization, but 9/11 brought it to the Pentagon and then to CENTCOM.

The impracticality of the program is clearer with each passing year, but amid the sense of mission and might that 9/11 brought – in the administration and the public as well – it seemed both the decent and practical thing to do. Nonetheless, the administration felt the need to redact irksome intelligence reports, deleting ambiguities and nuances on WMDs in Iraq, the presence of al Qaeda in Iraq and Iran, and the eagerness of people in the Middle East to be liberated.

Meanwhile, back in Afghanistan, special forces and intelligence personnel – critical elements in stabilization and counterinsurgency efforts – were withdrawn for seemingly more useful service in Iraq. Many critical projects such as building the Afghan army were left to private contractors whose results were as invisible as the hand that guided them. Consequently, the Afghan army is poorly trained, unmotivated, and ineffectual against the Taliban. This has set the stage for sending in more and more US troops.

The administration rebuffed Iranian overtures for a rapprochement that would have proved beneficial in the war on terror, preferring instead to keep regime change there on the agenda. Relations worsened and cooperation on stabilizing post-invasion Iraq was delayed and plagued by mistrust.

Developing the government of Hamid Karzai was highly limited, inconsistent as it was with the priorities of the Bush administration in Iraq, uncomfortably resonant as it was with the ill-fated “nation-building” of the Clinton administration in Somalia. The vacuum has been gradually filled by the resurgent Taliban ever since. They now control over one-third of the country and may be so ensconced as to make the recently launched counterinsurgency campaign a hundred billion bucks short and six years late.

National Security

Once embarked upon, wars are beclouded by stirring exaltations of honor, pithy quotes from bold commanders of yesteryear, partisan entreaties and condemnations, and various emotional tides sweeping the public. Amid so much cant and rhetoric the original purpose of the war can be lost. The first casualty is said to be the truth; the second might well be remembering that wars should increase national security.

The war aimed to destroy al Qaeda and other terrorist organizations that sought to harm American citizens in and out of the United States. The initial campaign in Afghanistan drove al Qaeda across the frontier where it has enjoyed sanctuary in the tribal areas of Pakistan. However, the lengthy US presence in Afghanistan and the invasion of Iraq have bolstered support for Islamist militancy throughout the Middle East and South Asia. The US and other nations have been reasonably successful in interrupting communications and money transfers between al Qaeda along the Afghan-Pakistani frontier, but al Qaeda has grown from a small organization to a widespread social movement that no longer needs the old al Qaeda leadership.

The Islamic world is even more disposed to see the United States as hostile to their religion and bent on dominating the region. The US has weakened the governments of generally supportive countries such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia by augmenting domestic anger over their rulers’ linkage to US meddling. The long-term possibilities are staggering and greatly harmful to American foreign policy objectives.

Long-time allies are questioning the judgment of so tactless a power. Many Sunni Arab states saw Saddam Hussein as a vicious tyrant but a useful buttress against Iran. His ouster upset the security situation in the Gulf region. NATO allies must contend with homegrown terror from Arabs in the diaspora of Western Europe, and are increasingly restive over how badly managed post-Taliban Afghanistan is and the growing insurgency there.

As part of the “axis of evil,” Iran was very much a target of US plans. But the wars have removed two enemies of Iran (Saddam and the Taliban) and substantially increased Iranian influence in the region. Leaders and parties close to Iran have come to control the Iraqi government, as was predictable in a country with a Shia majority and political movements long tied to Iran. In Afghanistan, Iranian influence in western provinces has grown, though in a manner that has probably brought more stability than found in other parts of the country. And throughout the Middle East, Iran has been able to play to the Arab street by pointing out the support of Arab rulers for the United States.

The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have ensnarled the military in long conflicts that have cost the lives of thousands of young Americans and inched the country toward fiscal calamity. In so doing, they have also weakened American security. Stirring exaltations and pithy quotes can do nothing to alter that.

BRIAN M. DOWNING is the author of several works of political and military history, including The Military Revolution and Political Change and The Paths of Glory: War and Social Change in America from the Great War to Vietnam. He can be reached at:

Brian M Downing is a political-military analyst, author of The Military Revolution and Political Change and The Paths of Glory: Social Change in America from the Great War to Vietnam, and co-author with Danny Rittman of  The Samson Heuristic. He can be reached at (Copyright 2015 Brian M Downing)