This article was previously published in Small Wars Journal.
There is a growing consensus that the United States should not engage in another major land war in Asia or Africa, a view encapsulated in the catchphrase “no more boots on the ground.” Indeed, currently the US is either refraining from taking military action, or is limiting itself to drone strikes, covert operations, “capacity building” of local forces, and advising. This consensus, we shall see, is based in part on a fundamental misunderstanding of the course of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. In fact, the US won both easily, quickly, suffering few casualties and low costs—causing rather limited collateral damage. Both campaigns ended up badly (although major analysts differ with regard to the question of how badly and what exactly caused the unfavorable outcomes) once the US decided to engage in nation building, helping these nations build stable, democratic, US-friendly regimes. There are many reasons for the US not to engage in a war in Syria or Iraq, or avoid placing boots on the ground to fight Islamic terrorist or insurgent groups in Yemen or Africa. However, the argument that the US could not win such wars with much difficulty is not supported, I will next show, by previous experiences. What failed was the nation building that followed solid military victories. These failures were not accidental. The conditions that made successful nation building possible in Germany and Japan after WWII are currently missing in much of the Middle East and Africa.
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