How the notion of ‘victory’ has become very elastic in the ‘war on terror’

A few posts back, I unleashed one of my biennial rants on the topic of “war powers,” and how the constitutional scheme has been eviscerated to the point that our poor, dear nation is in a state of perpetual undeclared war, anywhere but not quite everywhere.

It’s a slightly technical argument, about which Constitution nerds like me may care more than most Americans do, notwithstanding the general desire of Americans to believe in various myths about the Constitution and how it elucidates what our government can and can’t do.

Now comes one of my heroes, especially in the area of analyzing issues of war and peace, Andrew Bacevich (writing for TomDispatch) to explain that the old idea of waging a war to win a war, and then being done with war until the next war comes along, has also gone away.

The agents of this disappearance of the old understanding of war were the appearance of a new war – the global war on terror — and a new weapon: unmanned drones that fire missiles that blow things up and kill people, including some people that were not meant to be killed.

Legally, morally, ethically, constitutionally drone warfare raises serious problems that perhaps can’t be resolved. But the main point of Bacevich’s essay is that drone warfare also represents a blow to the idea that U.S. wars are fought to be won.

The idea of a war that can be won relies, perhaps heavily, on war as a thing fought between countries, on battlefields, where territory is taken by military means and then held, that continues until one side loses all its territory or, more normally, surrenders.

In his campaign rhetoric, candidate Trump promised that under his leadership the United States was going to win so much that the country would get sick of winning. And he included military among the kinds of victories he would deliver. He specifically promised “victory” in Afghanistan. Team Trump recently told U.S. News and World Report that it had assembled “everything it needs to win the war in Afghanistan.”

Really? What will victory look like? It is defined, by the generals, as:

the defeat of the Taliban by Western-backed local forces, a negotiated peace and the establishment of a popularly supported government in Kabul capable of keeping the country from once again becoming a haven to any terrorist group.

Color Bacevich skeptical. He wrote (sarcastically):

Now if you buy this, you’ll believe that Harvey Weinstein has learned his lesson and can be trusted to interview young actresses while wearing his bathrobe.

A “war” against “terror” or “terrorism” doesn’t fit the historical notions of victory too well, Bacevich notes. As to the promise of a “new strategy” that will deliver imminent victory in Afghanistan, Bacevich, a retired colonel who served in Vietnam, replied:

For starters, there is no ‘new strategy.’ Trump’s generals, apparently with a nod from their putative boss, are merely modifying the old ‘strategy,’ which was itself an outgrowth of previous strategies tried, found wanting, and eventually discarded before being rebranded and eventually recycled.

Short of using nuclear weapons, U.S. forces fighting in Afghanistan over the past decade and a half have experimented with just about every approach imaginable: invasion, regime change, occupation, nation-building, pacification, decapitation, counterterrorism, and counterinsurgency, not to mention various surges, differing in scope and duration.

We have had a big troop presence and a smaller one, more bombing and less, restrictive rules of engagement and permissive ones. In the military equivalent of throwing in the kitchen sink, a U.S. Special Operations Command four-engine prop plane recently deposited the largest non-nuclear weapon in the American arsenal on a cave complex in eastern Afghanistan. Although that MOAB made a big boom, no offer of enemy surrender materialized. …

Should we be surprised that Trump’s generals, unconsciously imitating General William Westmoreland a half-century ago, claim once again to detect light at the end of the tunnel? Not at all. …

Indeed, with what can only be described as chutzpah, Nicholson himself recently announced that we have “turned the corner” in Afghanistan. In doing so, of course, he is counting on Americans not to recall the various war managers, military and civilian alike, who have made identical claims going back years now, among them Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta in 2012.

In truth, U.S. commanders have quietly shelved any expectations of achieving an actual victory — traditionally defined as “imposing your will on the enemy” — in favor of a more modest conception of success. In year XVII of America’s Afghanistan War, the hope is that training, equipping, advising, and motivating Afghans to assume responsibility for defending their country may someday allow American forces and their coalition partners to depart. By 2015, that project, building up the Afghan security forces, had already absorbed at least $65 billion in U.S. taxpayer dollars. And under the circumstances, consider that a mere down payment.

The president has promised Americans “victory.” But, concludes Bacevich:

I’m guessing that the commander-in-chief is oblivious to the fact that, in U.S. military circles, the term winning has acquired notable elasticity. Trump may think that it implies vanquishing the enemy — white flags and surrender ceremonies on the U.S.S. Missouri. General Nicholson knows better. “Winning,” the field commander says, “means delivering a negotiated settlement that reduces the level of violence and protecting the homeland.” (Take that definition at face value and we can belatedly move Vietnam into the win column!)

The full Bacevich piece for TomDispatch, available here, was titled “A Nation Addicted to War.”

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Comments (8)

  1. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 12/14/2017 - 10:49 am.

    “Winning” will come when a majority of Afghanistan want the Taliban and their beliefs gone AND believe in a credible, honest, representative national government AND have a viable economy not dependent on foreign aid, smuggling or the drug trade.

    So a “win” is a long way off.

    By the way, do you know what happened in the last few weeks, after our “win” over ISIS in Iraq?

    We threw the Kurds in Iraq under the bus again, siding with Iran….

    Struggle Over Kirkuk Puts the U.S. and Iran on the Same Side…

    ….Abandoning our Kurdish allies is a win for our Iranian enemies….

    And immediately after the Kurds are booted out of Kirkuk, Iraq starts trading the oil from the Kirkuk region to Iran…Iraq and Iran negotiating start date for Kirkuk oil exports: Luaibi

    Now that’s “winning” !!

    Are you tired of it yet ?

    • Submitted by Ilya Gutman on 12/14/2017 - 09:45 pm.

      It’s not often that you and I agree so I want to say that this time we do. It is extremely bad (both morally and politically) that we do not support Kurds’ independence thus effectively helping Iran and Syria. Of course, in this case this is a continuation of the same old bad policies that previous presidents supported…

  2. Submitted by Patrick Tice on 12/14/2017 - 12:03 pm.

    If there were a Star Wars movie about Afghanistan

    It would be “The Graveyard of Empires Strikes Back”. All of the approaches detailed above notwithstanding, Afghanistan remains pretty much the same. Every fix is met with resistance, mostly from the sheer inertia of a culture that is spectacularly change averse. In the end, invaders who would set things “right” simply give up, bled dry from the constant tribalism, kleptocracy, unforgiving terrain, and logistics. It’s high time the US get out – period. And unlike the movies, there should be no sequel.

  3. Submitted by Ilya Gutman on 12/14/2017 - 09:46 pm.

    That is why the wars shall be won quickly and America has all the means to do just that: Come, win, and leave. Why did we stay in Iraq after Saddam’s capture? Why didn’t we finish Osama in Tora-Bora?

    • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 12/15/2017 - 03:11 pm.

      Victory is not that simple

      in asymmetrical warfare.
      We never controlled most of Iraq; nor Afghanistan outside of Kabul. Carpet bombnig is not effect against hundreds of small scattered villages. All it does is unite the country against you.

      • Submitted by Ilya Gutman on 12/15/2017 - 09:05 pm.

        Victory is simple: You destroy enemy’s military and kill its leaders. And leave. The next leaders will know the fate of the previous ones… and will behave accordingly towards America and its allies… or will also be killed.

        • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 12/16/2017 - 05:27 pm.

          This works on the battlefield

          In guerilla warfare there is no battlefield, and leaders are easily replaceable. That’s why the drone campaign has been a failure. ISIS sim[ply found new leaders and battlefields.
          And religious fanatics have never been deterred by death — they often welcome martyrdom.
          You’re still fighting WWII.

          • Submitted by Ilya Gutman on 12/17/2017 - 09:50 pm.

            Countries still have central governments. Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan…Guerilla warfare only happens when we stay after victory..

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