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“We are in this to win”

Outdated goals of war in the 21st century

By Louis René Beres


Even now, when the “fog of war” in Iraq and Afghanistan is likely at its thickest point, our leaders and military commanders still speak in starkly traditional terms. Such ordinary emphases on “victory” and “defeat” belie the profound and critically-nuanced transformations of war presently underway.  For the first time in modern history, genuinely tangible criteria of demarcation between success and failure in war are nowhere to be found. In essence, once determinable and indispensable standards of conflict assessment will no longer allow us to evaluate conclusively when our wars have been won, and when they have been lost.

Think about this. At the Pentagon, the ever-changing assessment parameters will produce expanding cognitive dissonance. In war planning, clarity has always been expected. More than likely, it was with this idea in mind, that General Jim Amos, US Marine Corps Commandant, recently affirmed we must stay the course in Iraq and Afghanistan “until we win.”

The general, who was likely taking a tacit swipe at the president’s announced troop withdrawal timetables, did not acknowledge that once clear war outcomes have become blurred. Whatever happens in our current wars, these conflicts will “end” without any formal signings of verifiable peace documents.  There will be no ritual parades down Fifth Avenue or Main Street. Instead, there will remain, “in theatre,” only disputable claims, indecipherable armistice arrangements, and multiple protracted uncertainties.

Other serious problems will accompany now-outdated American war talk about “winning” and “losing.”  The results in Iraq and Afghanistan may have little effective bearing on our overall national security. However these conflicts are concluded, and this cessation is sure to take place in inconvenient increments, the overall vulnerability of American cities to mass-destruction terrorism will remain pretty much the same.

Assorted jihadist forces are already securing new terrorist bases in such distant places as Yemen and Somalia. It will also be some time before we are able to meaningfully sort out the long-term geo-strategic implications of a plainly uncertain “Arab Spring.”

In these matters, history may have an ascertainable significance. Until the Nuclear Age, states, city-states and empires were safe from homeland destruction unless their armies had first been defeated. Before 1945, prospective aggressors always had to demonstrate a prior capacity to win before being able to destroy the intended victim country.

In these “good old days,” planned aggressions without prior victory could never express anything more threatening than wishful thinking. Here, such aggressions were never more ominous than harmful intentions.

From the standpoint of ensuring any one country’s national survival, the usual goal of preventing a classical military defeat has become secondary or even irrelevant. For the United States, the planning implications of this transforming development are staggering, in part because of our now vastly damaged infrastructures of economic wealth and power.

For all countries in the cross hairs of a determined global jihad, and this includes the United States, Israel, and much of Europe, there is no real purpose to focusing on victory or defeat per se. There are also significant and ironic downsides to any such “freedom from worry.”

Preventing classical military defeat will no longer assure our safety from aggression or terrorism. In the end, especially because of our steadily-increasing sub-national adversaries, we may still have to face extraordinary, or even existential, harms.

A good general always puts himself in the shoes of the enemy. What does this new military reality mean for our current and widely dispersed adversaries – both states, and terrorist organizations? From their standpoint, it is no longer necessary to win any single military engagement, or even to prevail in any particular war or conflict.

No longer need our sovereign and sub-national enemies fashion complex land or naval warfare strategies. They don’t have to triumph in Kandahar or Mosul in order to bring death and chaos to New York or Washington. After all, the capability to destroy no longer requires any antecedent capability to win.

For our many national and sub-national enemies, there is generally no longer any compelling reason to figure out “force multipliers,” or to calculate a pertinent “correlation of forces.” These enemies, even without a coherent “order of battle,” could wreak sudden havoc upon us without first firing a shot.

None of this is because we have done something wrong. It is, rather, the natural consequence of constantly evolving military and terrorist technologies. This evolution cannot be stopped or reversed.

Our substantial current vulnerabilities represent an unambiguous and irreversible fact of strategic life, one that must first be acknowledged, and then, of course, effectively countered.

Strategic theory is a “net.”  Only those who cast can catch. This is most apparent when adapting current strategy and tactics to antiquated assumptions about “winning” and “losing” could yield otherwise avoidable military failure.

By holding out for an illusory doctrine of “victory,” in Iraq, Afghanistan or anywhere else, America can only lock itself into increasingly futile and intolerably costly military ventures. At the same time, assuming finite and diminishing operational resources, we would necessarily allocate fewer critical military assets to other regions where they might be desperately needed.

There is some corollary good news. What is now threatening to us, is similarly threatening to our enemies. These countries, and the terrorists to which they routinely offer sustenance and sanctuary, must also confront major homeland vulnerabilities in the absence of suffering prior military defeat.

We must suitably exploit these enemy vulnerabilities, not by seeking any traditional final “victory,” but by shaping realistic, precise, and specifically tailored ad hoc strategies.

America’s strategic engagement with a mutuality of weakness could force its multiple enemies to proceed with greater caution, but only if they, too, were primarily concerned with survival.  In the absence of  true enemy rationality, a disturbingly plausible situation that could soon have to be faced in Iran, North Korea, and/or Pakistan, we might reach a point where we have no reasonable security alternative to preemption. These indispensable defensive actions could be bilateral or multilateral, and might include an imaginative assortment of less traditional “strikes,” such as cyber-defense and cyber-war.

By its inherent demands for strictly limited warfare, the Nuclear Age forever changed traditional military doctrines of victory and defeat. Now, with the already-enlarged technologies of destruction augmented by a steadily growing number of religiously driven sub-state enemies, America must finally bring its strategic goals into an appropriate synchrony with its overriding national interests.

Louis René Beres was educated at Princeton (Ph.D., 1971) and is Professor of Political Science at Purdue University. He is author of many books and articles dealing with international relations and international law. Read his previous OUPblog posts here.

For further reading on a similar topic, we recommend The Afghan Way of War: How and Why They Fight .

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