U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, speaking at West Point, said
last month
that “Any future defense secretary who advises the president
to again send a big American land army into Asia or into the Middle East
or Africa should have his head examined.” In saying this, Gates was
repeating a dictum laid down by Douglas MacArthur after the Korean War,
who urged the United States to avoid land wars in Asia. Given that the
United States has fought four major land wars in Asia since World War II
— Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq — none of which had ideal
outcomes, it is useful to ask three questions: First, why is fighting a
land war in Asia a bad idea? Second, why does the United States seem
compelled to fight these wars? And third, what is the alternative that
protects U.S. interests in Asia without large-scale military land wars?

The Hindrances of Overseas Wars

Let’s begin with the first question, the answer to which is rooted in
demographics and space. The population of Iraq is currently about 32
million. Afghanistan has a population of less than 30 million. The U.S.
military, all told, consists of about 1.5 million active-duty personnel
(plus 980,000 in the reserves), of whom more than 550,000 belong to the
Army and about 200,000 are part of the Marine Corps. Given this, it is
important to note that the United States strains to deploy about 200,000
troops at any one time in Iraq and Afghanistan, and that many of these
troops are in support rather than combat roles. The same was true in
Vietnam, where the United States was challenged to field a maximum of
about 550,000 troops (in a country much more populous than Iraq or
Afghanistan) despite conscription and a larger standing army. Indeed,
the same problem existed in World War II.

When the United States fights in the Eastern Hemisphere, it fights at
great distances, and the
greater the distance, the greater the logistical cost
. More ships
are needed to deliver the same amount of material, for example. That
absorbs many troops. The logistical cost of fighting at a distance is
that it diverts numbers of troops (or requires numbers of civilian
personnel) disproportionate to the size of the combat force.

Regardless of the number of troops deployed, the U.S. military is
always vastly outnumbered by the populations of the countries to which
it is deployed. If parts of these populations resist as light-infantry
guerrilla forces or employ terrorist tactics, the enemy rapidly swells
to a size that can outnumber U.S. forces, as in Vietnam and Korea. At
the same time, the enemy adopts strategies to take advantage of the core
weakness of the United States — tactical intelligence
. The
resistance is fighting at home. It understands the terrain and the
culture. The United States is fighting in an alien environment. It is
constantly at an intelligence disadvantage. That means that the
effectiveness of the native forces is multiplied by excellent
intelligence, while the effectiveness of U.S. forces is divided by lack
of intelligence.

The United States compensates
with technology
, from space-based reconnaissance and air power to
counter-battery systems and advanced communications. This can make up
the deficit but only by massive diversions of manpower from
ground-combat operations. Maintaining a helicopter requires dozens of
ground-crew personnel. Where the enemy operates with minimal technology
multiplied by intelligence, the United States compensates for lack of
intelligence with massive technology that further reduces available
combat personnel. Between logistics and technological force multipliers,
the U.S. “point of the spear” shrinks. If you add the need to train,
relieve, rest and recuperate the ground-combat forces, you are left with
a small percentage available to fight.

The paradox of this is that American forces will win the engagements
but may still lose the war. Having identified the enemy, the United
States can overwhelm it with firepower. The problem the United States
has is finding the enemy and distinguishing it from the general
population. As a result, the United States is well-suited for the
initial phases of combat, when the task is to defeat a conventional
force. But after the conventional force has been defeated, the
resistance can switch to methods difficult for American intelligence to
deal with. The enemy can then control the tempo of operations by declining
combat where it is at a disadvantage and initiating combat when it
chooses
.

The example of the capitulation of Germany and Japan in World War II
is frequently cited as a model of U.S. forces defeating and pacifying an
opposing nation. But the Germans were not defeated primarily by U.S.
ground troops. The back of the Wehrmacht was broken by the Soviets on
their own soil with the logistical advantages of short supply lines.
And, of course, Britain and numerous other countries were involved. It
is doubtful that the Germans would have capitulated to the Americans
alone. The force the United States deployed was insufficient to defeat
Germany. The Germans had no appetite for continuing a resistance against
the Russians and saw surrendering to the Americans and British as
sanctuary from the Russians. They weren’t going to resist them. As for
Japan, it was not ground forces but air power, submarine warfare and
atomic bombs that finished them — and the emperor’s willingness to order
a surrender. It was not land power that prevented resistance but air
and sea power, plus a political compromise by MacArthur in retaining and
using the emperor. Had the Japanese emperor been removed, I suspect
that the occupation of Japan would have been much more costly. Neither
Germany nor Japan are examples in which U.S. land forces compelled
capitulation and suppressed resistance.

The problem the United States has in the Eastern Hemisphere is that
the size of the force needed to occupy a country initially is much
smaller than the force needed to pacify the country. The force available
for pacification is much smaller than needed because the force the
United States can deploy demographically without committing to total war
is simply too small to do the job — and the size needed to do the job
is unknown.

U.S. Global Interests

The deeper problem is this: The United States has global interests.
While the Soviet Union was the primary focus of the United States during
the Cold War, no power threatens to dominate Eurasia now, and therefore
no threat justifies the singular focus of the United States. In time of
war in Iraq and Afghanistan, the United States must still retain a
strategic reserve for other unanticipated contingencies. This further
reduces the available force for combat.

Some people argue that the United States is insufficiently ruthless
in prosecuting war, as if it would be more successful without political
restraints at home. The Soviets and the Nazis, neither noted for
gentleness, were unable to destroy the partisans behind German lines or
the Yugoslav resistance, in spite of brutal tactics. The
guerrilla has built-in advantages in warfare
for which brutality
cannot compensate.

Given all this, the question is why the United States has gotten
involved in wars in Eurasia four times since World War II. In each case
it is obvious: for political reasons. In Korea and Vietnam, it was to
demonstrate to doubting allies that the United States had the will to
resist the Soviets. In Afghanistan, it was to uproot al Qaeda. In
Iraq, the reasons are murkier
, more complex and less convincing,
but the United States ultimately went in, in my opinion, to convince
the Islamic world of American will
.

The United States has tried to shape events in the Eastern Hemisphere
by the direct application of land power. In Korea and Vietnam, it was
trying to demonstrate resolve against Soviet and Chinese power. In
Afghanistan and Iraq, it was trying to shape the politics of the Muslim
world. The goal was understandable but the amount of ground force
available was not. In Korea, it resulted in stalemate; in Vietnam,
defeat. We await the outcome in Iraq and Afghanistan, but given Gates’
statement, the situation for the United States is not necessarily
hopeful.

In each case, the military was given an ambiguous mission. This was
because a clear outcome — defeating the enemy — was unattainable. At the
same time, there were political interests in each. Having engaged,
simply leaving did not seem an option. Therefore, Korea turned into an
extended presence in a near-combat posture, Vietnam ended in defeat for
the American side, and Iraq and Afghanistan have turned, for the time
being, into an uncertain muddle that no reasonable person expects to end
with the declared goals of a freed and democratic pair of countries.

Problems of Strategy

There are two problems with American strategy. The first is using the
appropriate force for the political mission. This is not a question so
much of the force as it is of the mission. The use of military force
requires clarity of purpose; otherwise, a coherent strategy cannot
emerge. Moreover, it requires an offensive mission. Defensive missions
(such as Vietnam and Korea) by definition have no terminal point or any
criteria for victory. Given the limited availability of ground combat
forces, defensive missions allow the enemy’s level of effort to
determine the size of the force inserted, and if the force is
insufficient to achieve the mission, the result is indefinite deployment
of scarce forces.

Then there are missions with clear goals initially but without an
understanding of how to deal with Act II. Iraq suffered from an
offensive intention ill suited to the enemy’s response. Having destroyed
the conventional forces of Iraq, the United States
was unprepared for the Iraqi response
, which was guerrilla
resistance on a wide scale. The same was true in Afghanistan.
Counterinsurgency is occupation warfare. It is the need to render a
population — rather than an army — unwilling and incapable of resisting.
It requires vast resources and large numbers of troops that outstrip
the interest. Low-cost counter-insurgency with insufficient forces will
always fail. Since the United States uses limited forces because it has
to, counterinsurgency is the most dangerous kind of war for the United
States. The idea has always been that the people prefer the U.S.
occupation to the threats posed by their fellow countrymen and that the
United States can protect those who genuinely do prefer the former. That
may be the idea, but there is never enough U.S. force available.

Another model for dealing with the problem of shaping political
realities can be seen in the Iran-Iraq war. In that war, the United
States allowed the mutual distrust of the two countries to eliminate the
threats posed by both. When the Iraqis responded by invading Kuwait,
the United States responded with a massive counter with very limited
ends — the reconquest of Kuwait and the withdrawal of forces. It was a
land war in Asia designed to defeat a known and finite enemy army
without any attempt at occupation.

The problem with all four wars is that they were not wars in a
conventional sense and did not use the military as militaries are
supposed to be used. The purpose of a military is to defeat enemy
conventional forces. As an army of occupation against a hostile
population, military forces are relatively weak. The problem for the
United States is that such an army must occupy a country for a long
time, and the U.S. military simply lacks the ground forces needed to
occupy countries and still be available to deal with other threats.

By having an unclear mission, you have an uncertain terminal point.
When does it end? You then wind up with a political problem
internationally — having engaged in the war, you have allies inside and
outside of the country that have fought with you and taken risks with
you. Withdrawal leaves them exposed, and potential allies will be
cautious in joining with you in another war. The political costs spiral
and the decision to disengage is postponed. The United States winds up
in the worst of all worlds. It terminates not on its own but when its
position becomes untenable, as in Vietnam. This pyramids the political
costs dramatically.

Wars need to be fought with ends that can be achieved by the forces
available. Donald Rumsfeld once said, “You go to war with the Army you
have. They’re not the Army you might want or wish to have at a later
time.” I think that is a fundamental misunderstanding of war. You do not
engage in war if the army you have is insufficient. When you understand
the foundations of American military capability and its limits in
Eurasia, Gates’ view on war in the Eastern Hemisphere is far more sound
than Rumsfeld’s.

The Diplomatic Alternative

The alternative is diplomacy, not understood as an alternative to war
but as another tool in statecraft alongside war. Diplomacy can find the
common ground between nations. It can also be used to identify the
hostility of nations and use that hostility to insulate the United
States by diverting the attention of other nations from challenging the
United States. That is what happened during the Iran-Iraq war. It wasn’t
pretty, but neither was the alternative.

Diplomacy for the United States is about maintaining
the balance of power
and using and diverting conflict to manage the
international system. Force is the last resort, and when it is used, it
must be devastating. The argument I have made, and which I think Gates
is asserting, is that at a distance, the United States cannot be
devastating in wars dependent on land power. That is the weakest aspect
of American international power and the one the United States has
resorted to all too often since World War II, with unacceptable results.
Using U.S. land power as part of a combined arms strategy is
occasionally effective in defeating conventional forces, as it was with
North Korea (and not China) but is inadequate to the demands of
occupation warfare. It makes too few troops available for success, and
it does not know how many troops might be needed.

This is not a policy failure of any particular U.S. president. George
W. Bush and Barack Obama have encountered precisely the same problem,
which is that the forces that have existed in Eurasia, from the Chinese
People’s Liberation Army in Korea to the Taliban in Afghanistan, have
either been too numerous or too agile (or both) for U.S. ground forces
to deal with. In any war, the primary goal is not to be defeated. An
elective war in which the criteria for success are unclear and for which
the amount of land force is insufficient must be avoided. That is
Gates’ message. It is the same one MacArthur delivered, and the one
Dwight Eisenhower exercised when he refused to intervene in Vietnam on
France’s behalf. As with the Monroe Doctrine, it should be elevated to a
principle of U.S. foreign policy, not because it is a moral principle
but because it is a very practical one.

George Friedman is chief executive officer of Stratfor, the world’s
leading online publisher of geopolitical intelligence. “Never
Fight a Land War in Asia
is republished with permission of
STRATFOR.”

George Friedman

George Friedman is chief executive officer of Stratfor, the world’s leading online publisher of geopolitical intelligence. He is a widely recognized international affairs expert and author of numerous...