'Forgotten wars' shouldn't be fought on autopilot

Some people call them small wars. Others call them forever wars or forgotten wars. Whatever we call them, military conflicts have kept the U.S. armed forces engaged around the world since the September 2001 attacks.

We learned recently that these conflicts create casualties. Four Green Berets were killed Oct. 4 in Niger, a Western African nation where 800 U.S. troops are stationed. Leading members of Congress apparently weren't even aware of the deployment.

It's well known that we face active conflicts with a lot of enemies -- including the Taliban in Afghanistan, ISIS in Iraq and Syria, and al-Qaida in Yemen and other places -- in addition to challenging relationships with traditional adversaries like China, Iran and Russia.

But these small wars are in a different category.

These forgotten wars produce relatively few casualties. They are usually not even identified as wars; the Pentagon characterizes them as "low-intensity conflicts." They often don't involve a lot of U.S. combat forces, but we provide air power, intelligence, training, logistics and many kinds of aid.

What is striking about these wars is that our government seems indifferent. President Trump only rarely talks about them and provides little information when he does. Members of Congress don't discuss them much and conduct few if any hearings on them. They balk at providing a legal basis for the wars or approving any clear, specific authorization for committing troops, but they do provide funding. The public, meanwhile, is neither well informed nor engaged about these wars.

But these complicated wars create a long list of questions: What are the objectives, and what is our strategy for achieving them? What American national interests are at stake? What resources are we prepared to expend to protect these interests? What is our exit strategy? What are we doing to promote a political settlement? Why aren't these wars getting the debate and discussion they deserve? Why don't the president and Congress give us clear legal authority for them? Where is the congressional oversight?

Except for the Americans who are directly involved, we seem content to ignore these wars and let them continue. The same was true during the Obama administration: Few Americans knew we had a presence in Benghazi, Libya, before the 2012 attacks that killed four Americans, including a U.S. ambassador. It's as if these wars are being fought on autopilot. I'm worried about where this indifference and ignorance will lead.

I find myself very uncomfortable with wars we cannot, or at least do not, explain, in which the American interest is not clear, where we are unable or unwilling to win and our leaders don't want to talk about what's going on.

Most of us support the use of military force to protect the vital interests of the United States or to eliminate safe havens from which enemies can attack us (which we can often do with air power, drones and special operations, without committing a large number of troops). Many of us, including myself, are willing to provide humanitarian aid, help refugees and offer economic assistance.

But we have to be aware of the limitations of what we can do. There are places where respect for human rights, democratic norms and good governance cannot be achieved by us alone. We cannot do it for them.

I am extremely wary of the deployment of American combat forces without powerful, persuasive evidence of their need. We must continually ask what it is possible to achieve and what price we are willing to pay.

Our resources are being drained by conflicts that don't seem to go anywhere. Mission creep is always a risk, especially when some of our leaders talk about nation-building, establishing stability, defending sovereignty, promoting good governance and embracing democracy. Tasks like these can mean an extensive commitment over a long time.

We may have a military strategy of some kind to deal with these wars, but we lack a political strategy or a plan for after the fighting stops. The result is a political vacuum that allows China, Russia and others to step in.

I want to break our habit of getting involved in forever wars and forgotten wars without a clear examination and discussion of what we're trying to do. When it comes to developing and carrying out foreign policy, this is an area where we must do better.

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