Western forces are rushing out of Afghanistan this month. France has reported a significant reduction in its military engagement in Mali. In Iraq, British and Western forces no longer have a major combat role.
Twenty years after President George W Bush’s so-called war on terror, is the era of large “grassroots” military deployments in remote war zones coming to an end?
Not yet – there is still substantial engagement in the fight against jihadists in the Sahel – but there is now a radical overhaul of the way these missions are carried out.
Large-scale and long-term deployments have been extremely costly, in blood, money and political capital here.
The US-led military presence in Afghanistan has cost more than $ 1 billion (£ 724 billion) and thousands of lives on all sides – Afghan forces, Afghan civilians, Western forces as well as their insurgent enemies.
At their peak in 2010, the number of Western troops exceeded 100,000. And yet, now, after 20 years in the country, the few thousand remaining forces are leaving as the Taliban seem poised to seize more and more. territory.
The longer and longer a military engagement in countering an insurgency, the more vulnerable it becomes to a variety of potential “Achilles’ heels.”
The most obvious of these is the accident rate, a trend that can become very unpopular in our country.
More than 58,000 Americans died in the Vietnam War and nearly 15,000 Soviet troops in Afghanistan – factors that precipitated the end of these campaigns. France has lost just over 50 troops in Mali since 2013 and its mission there has largely lost support at home.
Then there is the financial cost, which almost invariably exceeds expectations.
When Saudi Arabia began its intervention in the civil war in Yemen in 2015, it never expected to fight there again six years later. Estimates of the operating costs of the Saudi Treasury to date are as high as $ 100 billion (£ 72.4 billion).
Human rights concerns can also derail a military campaign when you least expect it.
U.S. airstrikes on Afghan weddings, Saudi airstrikes killing civilians in Yemen, and human rights violations by UAE allies there have all come at a cost to these countries’ reputations.
In the case of the United Arab Emirates, stories of prisoners being suffocated to death while locked in shipping containers had a major influence on the push to withdraw from the war in Yemen.
Then there is the possibility that the host government ends up sharing power with a hostile entity.
In Mali, reports that the government is engaged in secret talks with the jihadists were enough to get President Emmanuel Macron to threaten to withdraw French forces altogether.
In Iraq, says retired British Army Colonel James Cunliffe, “there is still real concern about Iranian influence, especially with regard to the Shiite militias.”
In Afghanistan, the Taliban, ousted from power in 2001, should make a comeback. Western security officials say if they end up in government, all intelligence cooperation will cease.
Read more from Frank Gardner:
No easy answers
It is clear that there are no easy answers to the problem of failed states and dangerous dictators. Let’s see some recent examples:
Iraq, 2003-present: A massive US-led military invasion backed by Britain followed by years of occupation and a bloody insurgency. Despite much recent progress, the whole experience was so frightening that it was enough to deter politicians from any large-scale military intervention in the Middle East for a generation, perhaps longer.
Libya, 2011-present: A brief NATO-imposed no-fly zone, but no significant western boots on the ground. This was enough to allow the anti-Gaddafi rebels to overthrow his regime in 2011. But the country then imploded in a civil war and a jihadist insurgency. Initial Libyan gratitude then turned to anger at being ‘abandoned’ by the West
Syria, 2011-present: Extreme reluctance on the part of Western powers to get involved in the civil war between President Bashar al-Assad and the Syrian rebels. The intervention of the great powers was left to Russia, Iran and Turkey. 10 years of violence still simmering
Islamic State Group, 2014-2019: The only clear military achievement with a coalition of 80 nations that ultimately defeated and dismantled the brutal and sadistic caliphate calling itself the Islamic State. But it took five years and relied heavily on destructive air power and awkward alliances on the ground with Iranian-backed militias in Iraq. ISIS is now stepping up operations in Africa
Mali, 2013-present: The initial French military intervention saved the capital Bamako from being almost certainly overrun by jihadists affiliated with al-Qaeda. But eight years later, despite the presence of thousands of multinational troops, the insurgency continues and the French president has expressed his dissatisfaction with the Malian leadership and his intention to reduce his engagement.
So if large indeterminate military deployments are out of fashion, then what replaces them?
One clue can be found in the June 2 speech at the Royal United Services Institute Land Warfare Conference by the British Chief of Staff General Sir Mark Carleton-Smith.
Today’s army, he said, will be “more networked, more expeditionary and more rapidly deployed, more digitally connected, linking satellite to soldier and centered on a special operations brigade.”
Fewer boots in the field inevitably means more reliance on cutting-edge digital technology, including artificial intelligence.
Trends emerging from recent conflicts have prompted a radical rethinking of strategic priorities. The brief war in the Caucasus between Azerbaijan and Armenia saw the latter’s tanks decimated by cheap, unmanned armed drones provided by Turkey and directed at their targets with almost no risk to operators. .
The mercenaries, once seen as a throwback to a bygone era in Africa, are back.
The most obvious example here is Russia’s mysterious Wagner group which allowed Moscow “plausible deniability” while operating with few restrictions in conflict areas from Libya to West Africa to Mozambique. “A state-centered world order,” says Dr Sean McFate, senior researcher at the Washington-based Atlantic Council, “is giving way to a war without states.”
None of this signifies the end of military missions abroad. In Mali and the Sahel, the French could end their mononational operation Barkhane and send thousands of soldiers home. But the UN mission continues and the French retain a reduced force engaged in a multinational mission to fight terrorism.
In Iraq, the NATO mission will continue to train local counter-insurgency forces and provide them with technical support.
In Afghanistan, however, the Western military presence is disappearing on the horizon just when it is perhaps most needed to deal with a combined threat from the Taliban, Al Qaeda and the Islamic State.