Argument

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America Doesn’t Control the Forever Wars

The slow fall of the nation-state’s monopoly on violence will shape future conflicts.

By , a scholar of 17th-century military history.
Afghan militia gather in Afghanistan.
Afghan militia gather in Afghanistan.
Afghan militia gather in Herat, Afghanistan, on July 9, 2021. Hoshang Hashimi/AFP via Getty Images

The U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan invited both praise and blame, but most commentators assumed this action, begun under the Trump administration and finalized under U.S. President Joe Biden, signaled a new stance for U.S. foreign policy. In sharp contrast to the previous three administrations, Biden has seemingly repudiated so-called forever wars, lingering conflicts without defined aims.

But this assumption rests on the belief that whether or not the United States enters forever wars is the result of discrete decisions. Becoming entangled in Iraq—if not Afghanistan—was a war of choice. But at a deeper level, structural characteristics of the current international order make forever wars highly likely. These structural characteristics are beyond the choice of any single political agent, even one as nominally powerful as the United States. The nation-state is no longer the sole agent of legitimate deadly force, if it ever was. The difference between nations and nonnational or quasi-national agents of violence are not clear.

The international order of early modern Eurasia, from approximately 1500 to approximately 1780, shared the same characteristics. These produced repeated wars, like numerous brief conflicts in northern Italy and lingering wars like the Thirty Years’ War or the Franco-Spanish War. These unstable situations can be compared to the forever wars of the post-Cold War, post-9/11 international order or to modern “frozen wars,” such as the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict, unstable situations where active conflict has ended but has not been legally resolved—and can therefore restart at any time.

The U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan invited both praise and blame, but most commentators assumed this action, begun under the Trump administration and finalized under U.S. President Joe Biden, signaled a new stance for U.S. foreign policy. In sharp contrast to the previous three administrations, Biden has seemingly repudiated so-called forever wars, lingering conflicts without defined aims.

But this assumption rests on the belief that whether or not the United States enters forever wars is the result of discrete decisions. Becoming entangled in Iraq—if not Afghanistan—was a war of choice. But at a deeper level, structural characteristics of the current international order make forever wars highly likely. These structural characteristics are beyond the choice of any single political agent, even one as nominally powerful as the United States. The nation-state is no longer the sole agent of legitimate deadly force, if it ever was. The difference between nations and nonnational or quasi-national agents of violence are not clear.

The international order of early modern Eurasia, from approximately 1500 to approximately 1780, shared the same characteristics. These produced repeated wars, like numerous brief conflicts in northern Italy and lingering wars like the Thirty Years’ War or the Franco-Spanish War. These unstable situations can be compared to the forever wars of the post-Cold War, post-9/11 international order or to modern “frozen wars,” such as the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict, unstable situations where active conflict has ended but has not been legally resolved—and can therefore restart at any time.

Today and the early modern period share one key feature: states with a truncated ability or desire to project hard power and gather resources like revenue and potential soldiers. The reasons are different—but the results are similar.

Early modern states had tiny administrations, rudimentary infrastructure, and relied on primitive technology. They had not yet developed modern abilities to gather resources and control people. Modern states like Afghanistan are similar, and this article primarily deals with states like this.

Contemporary great-power states have a more complex relationship to the lineaments of force. These states technically have the capacity to marshal great resources, but neoliberal social, economic, and governmental changes over the past 50 years have produced a situation where the public and private are intertwined, limiting the state’s will to impose itself overtly. Whereas in early modern Eurasia the characteristics that defined the stereotypical nation-state were developing, they have today been in the process of unraveling or turning into something else. Powers the United States has technically developed are no longer in use, either from a deliberate choice or shift in the socioeconomic context. For instance, although the United States technically carries out contingency planning for conscription, a draft is currently politically unthinkable. Meanwhile, in states like Russia, the public and the private, the legitimate and the corrupt, are so interpenetrated it is almost indistinguishable.

For these reasons, early modern war and contemporary war are both marked by the widespread use of mercenaries, agents of war whose organization combines the public and private. Many officers of early modern states were subjects of those states and served their feudal overlords for a combination of financial payment and government reward. Syrian officers are agents of a state’s standing armies and private enterprisers at the same time, who are expected to buy supplies for their men out of pocket—and rely on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for their plum apartments. Iranian-backed militia are forcibly recruited out of refugee camps and serve inside Syria for what loot they can carry. The pattern repeats up and down the social scale.

Many early modern political entities were oriented around their sovereign, with weak institutional security. Once mercenary armies were raised, they could be hard to dismiss, which contributed to instability or kept wars going for longer than they otherwise would have. Powerful officer subcontractors acted as political agents—the most independent of which were military leaders Albrecht von Wallenstein and Ernst von Mansfeld—like they do in modern Syria and Afghanistan. Syria is factionalized now because, for decades, it was a state whose stability was built on patronage and the subcontracting of markets to military leaders whose loyalty was assured by that privileged access, like an early modern royal patent. One component of Syrian foreign policy in Lebanon was based on preserving the ability of Syrian generals to run their commercial operations in that country, including smuggling goods out of it. Like early modern Swedish contractor-generals in Germany, Syrian generals built up personal fiefs in their “backyard.”

Meanwhile, despite U.S. officers’ conviction that the Afghan army’s shortcomings could be made up by top-down strategies like more or better training, reports accounting for common soldiers’ experiences describe a failure of institutionalization leading to lack of pay, lack of food, and reliance on U.S. contractors. (When these modern mercenaries left, it was a turning point in the war.) Claims that the Afghan army was defeated quickly because Afghans are “tribal” or because “they did not have a nation to fight for” seek to explain away the material reality by referring to a fictitious ideological reality. They ignore how Afghan soldiers and police are thinking agents who make decisions within their material constraints; in similar contexts, such as early modern Europe, soldiers would desert, surrender, or accept pay from someone else if not paid, armed, or fed.

“Institutionally unfinished” early modern political entities depended on external support for legitimation and subsistence. Heads of state depended on private financing for credit. Early 17th-century Swedish imperial policy financed war through contributions levied by the army it paid. Political entities appealed to mutually contradictory religions to legitimate their rule, each claiming a total monopoly on truth. These confessions fissured political entities and catalyzed transnational relationships among co-religionists. Transborder religious loyalty is an obvious cause of ongoing conflict right now, and so is transborder loyalty, such as between the Taliban in Pakistan and the Taliban in Afghanistan.

Organizational difficulties, such as difficulties in tracking funds and assets, are common to early modern and contemporary states. Both are characterized by very rapid financial expansion beyond the ability of those nominally in control to track and control funds’ movement. Money disappeared into the personal possession of powerful independent agents. The Afghan National Army’s corruption followed the same patterns as 17th-century military corruption because both were emergent results of similar conditions on the ground, including large amounts of money given to major officers to parcel out with no accountability. In both cases, officers invented false soldiers, called “dead pays” in 17th-century Europe and “ghost soldiers” in modern Afghanistan, and pocketed the money intended for their pay and supplies.

Meanwhile, other political or quasi-political entities are assuming state functions. The Taliban, Hezbollah, and Brazilian gangs have implemented public health campaigns, enforced lockdowns, and disseminated information during the coronavirus pandemic. The Taliban have been vaccinating against COVID-19 in Afghanistan. Islamic State bureaucratic documents analyzed by George Washington University and the New York Times reveal the many small acts of governance the Islamic State performed to manage and extract revenue from the territory they controlled. The Islamic State performed the functions of a state.

I do not claim that the actions of nonstate political entities show the failures of institutions to respond to changing events; instead, I argue that state-like actors are institutions as well. All huge social networks can take on institutional characteristics. Networks of power encompassing great numbers organize themselves and are organized similarly to the networks of power we call states.

During the 16th and 17th centuries, the high modernism of sovereign nation-states was in the process of forming. Now, it is changing shape. Studying the early modern period teaches interesting methods for examining modern political entities. In both cases, funds and goods are allocated through unofficial social networks, which are ephemeral. The difference between official and unofficial is not profoundly significant. Members of these social networks have interests in nation-states and are prepared to pursue them. Which people are entitled to engage in legitimate violence is not entirely clear. Governance depends on getting powerful local elites to opt in. Without these powerful elites, no heads of state can promulgate war, but these elites are also the ruler’s rivals. “Criminals” are often demobilized troops continuing the same acts without an official patent—and can easily become troops again.

This sketch of power networks is a recapitulation of sociologist Charles Tilly’s insight that war-making and state-making are forms of organized crime—not because the people involved are any more self-interested than anyone else but because cells, gangs, corporations, and political entities organize themselves in similar ways on larger and smaller scales. Tilly wrote “War Making and State Making as Organized Crime” in 1985, comparing early modern European political entities to the political entities he saw forming in the developing world. But after almost 40 years, it is not only the developing world where the network nature of power and violence is laid bare.

The characteristics shared by early modern and contemporary states as well as other political entities contribute to lingering conflicts, chronic conflicts, and recurrent conflicts. What Biden or anyone else wants may not be as relevant as the deeper structural factors that shape states’ actions. Even if the United States swears off interventionism, the conditions will not change, and other states will step in to fill the gap, as they have in Libya, Syria, and Sudan. Forever wars will continue for the foreseeable future.

Lucian Staiano-Daniels is a scholar of 17th century military history, who was most recently a Dan David Prize Fellow at Tel Aviv University.  He is finishing a book on the historical social anthropology of early seventeenth century common soldiers. His most recent academic article was "Masters in the Things of War: Rethinking Military Justice during the Thirty Years War."

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