Among the more interesting aspects of the debates over victory in war is that most scholars, when discussing the topic, assert that it stands amongst the most “misunderstood” aspects of modern war and warfare. They will contend that “little attention” has been paid to it, or that there has been a “paucity” of efforts to understand it or a specific element of it, and so on. In fact, the most common element of the study of victory might be that no one knows what it means, let alone how to achieve it. Considering the lack of victory parades of the last decades, it is a point worth considering.
While reading former U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates’ new book, Exercise in Power: American Failures, Successes, and a New Path Forward in the Post-Cold War World, one paragraph immediately jumps out to the reader. This paragraph, not long into the first chapter, perfectly encapsulates the victory problem we find ourselves in presently. Gates is writing on the problems of war and victory in the wars of Afghanistan and Iraq, with obvious allusions to other conflicts engaged in by the US and other Western powers such the Libyan intervention, the war in Yemen, and numerous other conflicts around the world. Namely, the problem Gates is concerned with is the tactical prowess, but strategic failure common to Western security establishments, and the confused signals, rhetoric, and declarations of victory.
In both Afghanistan and Iraq overwhelming initial military victories were followed by political decisions that expanded the mission beyond purely military objectives to ambitious, and I believe, unrealistic nation-building. We failed to provide the much larger military forces and non-military forms of power required to achieve those objectives—if they were achievable at all. With politically imposed limits on the size and duration of our deployed military forces, the obvious shortcomings (as in Vietnam) of our indigenous allies in both countries, and mounting costs in blood and treasure, once again domestic support for continuing these conflicts—especially in Iraq—plummeted. American casualties in the two wars included more than 5,000 killed and 50,000 wounded for, at best, inconclusive outcomes. In both conflicts, the United States ignored Machiavelli’s warning that wise leaders should be content with victory.
In order, what Gates’ has written is that: (1) We won the wars; (2) We lost the wars; (3) State-building does not work; (4) We never had the people, expertise, or resources to do effective state-building; (5) The host nation could not hold itself up because of our state-building failures, and so we lost the war; (6) Because we never planned for state-building, the American people lost the will to continue, and so we lost the wars; (7) The outcomes are inconclusive; (8) We won the wars.
The contradictions are actually impressive if they were not also simultaneously self-evident. Much of Gates’ confusion is an expression of the generalized confusion between military victory and strategic victory: whether they are disconnected elements, whether they are wholly different, or whether they are different elements of the same whole. But he is also conflating them, knowing they must engage directly with one another for any victory to occur at all. Nonetheless, because military victory was constantly achieved, he declares the Wars of 9/11 “inconclusive,” rather than defeats. Thus, his recommendation is to achieve military victory and then walk away claiming strategic victory, even though few, if any, will recognize it as such. And scholars wonder why everyone is so confused about the meaning of victory.
There is a larger problem with the narrative presented, moreover. Gates’, like many others, argues that the decision to engage in state-building in the first place as the cause of strategic failure, one that doomed the wars from the start. But the decision to engage in state-building is presented as an afterthought. For Afghanistan, there is some truth to it, but only because of how quickly the Taliban fell once US forces were engaged. Once the country was essentially diluted of any organized opposing forces, the question ‘what next’ came quickly; too quickly for political and military leaders to think about it ahead of time. As the Northern Alliance was fractious, small, and ill equipped, the necessity of externally-driven state-building, both tactical and politically, became obvious and a strategic and moral imperative. And it was explicitly stated so. Of course, as well known and documented, that strategic imperative was poorly populated, without the necessary experts, and radically under-resourced for the intended job. And so it failed.
For Iraq, state-building was one of the stated goals. As Gates’ predecessor Donald Rumsfeld said on March 22, 2003, the war effort is “to help the Iraqi people create the conditions for a rapid transition to a representative self-government that is not a threat to its neighbours and is committed to ensuring the territorial integrity of that country.” Of course, as is also so well-known and documented, and by Gates’ own admission, the people, expertise, and resources to achieve this goal were never deployed. Intentionally so. Even the Surge into Iraq in 2006, which Gates oversaw, suffered from the same problems. And since the Surge’s purpose was to provide space for effective governance and political reconciliation, neither of which happened, it was a failure.
What is left unacknowledged by Gates is that for those who declare Iran the winner of the Iraq War, and the Taliban the likely winner of the Afghan War, like many of the West’s opponents of the past they made state-building the center of their strategic plans. Military engagement was designed to help that state-building project, not the other way around. They approach war as if state-building is the functional necessity for strategic victory to be achieved. That is the core of the problem with Gates’ words and narrative. As Nadia Schadlow’s own book, War and the Art of Governance, made clear, it is the most effective state-builder that inevitably becomes the real victor. It is long past time for our theory to catch up to this fact.