Defining Victory to Win a War

After nearly a decade of war in Afghanistan, the United States has still not defined what it considers success. It needs to do so -- and here's how.

After nearly a decade at war in Afghanistan, the United States still has not defined the terms of the conflict. Seven months after President Barack Obama's administration released its wide-ranging strategic review of the war, basic questions remain. Who is the enemy? What are the objectives? Is counterinsurgency meant to achieve the goal of counterterrorism (beating al Qaeda), state-building (bringing stability and democracy to Afghanistan), or both? What would "victory" in Afghanistan even look like? And how will the war stay won, after the United States leaves?

Without knowing the answers to such questions, the United States has no way of determining whether it is succeeding. And as long as it continues to conflate military and state-building objectives, the United States will always appear to be losing. But by focusing on stamping out al Qaeda with a light military footprint and accepting an Islamist government in Afghanistan, the United States has an opportunity for unqualified success.

Indeed, by most military standards, the United States has already achieved numerous victories. In early October 2001, a small number of U.S. personnel working in tandem with sympathetic Afghans punished al Qaeda and the Taliban regime that harbored the terrorist group. Although it hasn't met its goal of capturing Osama bin Laden, the United States has still seriously degraded al Qaeda's global capabilities -- a major win.

But perceptions have lagged behind reality. Many U.S. policymakers, defense officials, and prominent opinion leaders still tend to lump al Qaeda (a loose, transnational jihadist network responsible for the Sept. 11 attacks) together with the Taliban (an indigenous Pashtun-dominated movement with no shadowy global mission). Because of this conflation, the suppression of al Qaeda is not seen as the victory it is -- and disproportionate focus is placed on suppressing the Taliban.

However, the Taliban and other parochial fighters, such as the Haqqani network, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar's Hezb-e-Islami group, and other indigenous Pashtun militants, pose little threat to the sovereignty or physical security of the United States. Therefore, waging a counterinsurgency campaign against these militants is not a pressing national security interest. In fact, the effect of prolonging the large-scale U.S. military presence and artificially expanding the number of enemies risks uniting these otherwise irrelevant guerrilla groups against the United States.

An Islamist regime such as the Taliban -- if it can be encouraged to moderate its more militant fringes -- can be an acceptable U.S. ally. Consider Somalia, a country where Washington once also conflated al Qaeda with a local nationalist regime. In 2006, Somalia's moderate Islamic Courts Union (ICU) expanded from its bases in the capital, Mogadishu, to command most of southern and central Somalia. Although the ICU's enforcement of sharia law made some Western observers uncomfortable, the regime's widespread public support and effective governance meant it was in fact the best chance for lasting stability that Somalia had had in decades.

But George W. Bush's administration didn't see things that way. A handful of al Qaeda operatives had sought refuge in remote Somali villages, and in response, the U.S. military launched several raids, killing at least two of the operatives. Under Bush, Washington seemed incapable of viewing the ICU separately from these al Qaeda refugees. Defeating terrorism in Somalia also meant destroying the ICU. In retrospect, it seems that the Bush administration sacrificed an opportunity for peace in Somalia on the altar of the war on terrorism. In December 2006, Washington provided key logistical, military, and diplomatic support to neighboring Ethiopia as that country launched a mechanized invasion of Somalia that briefly unseated the ICU and resulted in a bloody, two-year war -- a war that did nothing to boost anti-al Qaeda operations. In fact, the disastrous, U.S.-supported invasion only stoked anti-Western sentiment in Somalia and empowered the country's major insurgent group, al-Shabab.

In time, the ICU and other insurgent groups fought off the Ethiopians. The resurgent ICU subsequently subsumed a U.S.-backed secular "transitional government" this January. The ICU is now back in charge in Somalia, albeit under the transitional government's name, and has regained some of the momentum it had before the Ethiopian invasion.

The Obama administration has reversed Bush's policy and now embraces the ICU's moderate brand of non-democratic, Islamist government. It is, after all, what most Somalis want. And the relaxed relationship between the two countries has only made counterterrorism easier. In early September, a U.S. strike killed Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan, an al Qaeda agent suspected of orchestrating the 2002 bombing of a Kenyan hotel, who was hiding in Somalia at the time. The ICU was mute about the whole incident -- as close to an official approval as one can expect.

Somalia's lesson for Afghanistan is that regime change, and democracy, are not necessary for counterterrorism. Propping up President Hamid Karzai's Western-style government in Kabul does not make operations against al Qaeda any easier or more successful. If anything, it distracts from the conceptually simpler task of finding and killing terrorists.

Without U.S. and NATO protection, Karzai's regime would, sooner or later, probably fall to the Taliban. But U.S. observers should not equate that eventuality with "losing" the war. The war is against terrorists, not Islamist governments. The United States should be prepared to make peace, and amends, with a resurgent Taliban -- and to encourage the group to excise its more extreme elements. As Somalia demonstrates, Islamist governments can be greatly encouraged to reform their extremist fringes, rendering these regimes no more amenable to terrorist groups than any other country.

U.S. military operations against al Qaeda, still clinging to life in Afghanistan, could continue. In fact, the blueprints for an effective counterterrorism approach have already been drafted from the initial U.S. invasion in 2001. Small Special Forces teams working in conjunction with local militias can assemble quickly, move with ease through the difficult terrain, and strike effectively and cheaply at "real" enemies whenever they raise their profile.

Such small-scale operations, making use of Special Forces and other covert means, as well as the CIA and FBI's close cooperation with foreign law enforcement and intelligence agencies, have lead to the greatest successes scored against al Qaeda since 9/11 -- the snatch-and-grab operations that netted Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the principal architect of 9/11, and Ramzi bin al-Shibh, the support interface between the 9/11 operatives and al Qaeda.

Instead of increasing troops, then, the United States should scale back its military presence and adopt more limited objectives. Rather than trying to protect Afghan villages from the Taliban, the United States should concentrate on dismantling al Qaeda cells in Pakistan through discrete operations, promoting intelligence sharing and collection, and committing to surgical missile strikes when necessary.

Over the past eight years, the United States has confused an operational doctrine -- population-centric counterinsurgency -- with the strategic goal of keeping the country safe. But the strategic objective of protecting the United States from terrorism should define its operational methods, not the reverse.



How War Will End in Afghanistan -- Even if Conflict Does Not

If war has not addressed threats in Afghanistan, then the United States needs to address threats without war.

Here's the problem. How do you deal with an untrustworthy dictatorship threatening U.S. national interests?

The 20th-century solution was security through total victory: destroy the enemy's military and replace the dictator with democracy. When the defeat of Germany in World War I failed to prevent World War II, American leadership learned that lasting peace required both military victory and political transformation. As U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt's aide Breckinridge Long put it in 1942, "We are fighting this war because we did not have an unconditional surrender at the end of the last one." The failure of 1919 -- embodied in the looming White House portrait of President Woodrow Wilson, an architect of the Treaty of Versailles -- shadowed FDR. This time, Roosevelt declared, allied forces "must not allow the seeds of the evils we shall have crushed to germinate and reproduce themselves in the future."

It worked. Total victory over Germany, Italy, and Japan in 1945 transformed them into peaceful, prosperous, democratic allies of the United States, in what was the greatest foreign-policy accomplishment in U.S. history. Winning war went hand in hand with eliminating threats.

Fast-forward to 2001. As in 1941, the United States faced an untrustworthy, threatening dictatorship, this time a Taliban-ruled Afghanistan. The only solution seemed to be total military victory, an overthrow of the Taliban, and the installation of a democratic government. Two years later, the same approach was employed against Saddam Hussein's Iraq.

Now, to the present. What happened to the formula? Defeat of military forces, check. Attempted installation of democratic institutions, check. Achievement of peace, prosperity, and democratic maturity -- hold on. Eight years later, Afghanistan has neither stability nor democracy, much less prosperity. The Barack Obama administration is in the throes of a major debate about how to right the sinking ship of its Afghanistan strategy, with no clearly attractive options. Six years later, Iraqi violence is finally down to a dull roar, allowing U.S. forces to begin withdrawal. But Iraq still faces major hurdles, including designing institutions for provincial elections and allocating oil resources. Iraq in 2009 does not look much like Germany or Japan in 1951, six years after military defeat. Clearly, the United States took a wrong turn somewhere.

What lessons should Washington policymakers draw from the Afghanistan and Iraq experiences? An obvious lesson is that winning the war is the easy part, and the hard part comes after. The United States has become very, very good at dominating conventional army-against-army battles. But it's not so good at successfully installing democracy and defeating an insurgency when it erupts.

Less obvious, perhaps, is that failing to install democracy or avoid insurgency actually undermines the original goal: eliminating threats to U.S. national security. Military resources have been sucked into the two long conflicts. Counterinsurgency operations in Iraq have especially made the United States appear as a brutal occupier, fueling anti-Americanism and support for terrorist groups worldwide. And, the festering sore of Afghanistan has spilled over into Pakistan, threatening to destabilize a nuclear-armed state ruling a restive and increasingly radical Muslim population.

Where does that leave the United States? If war does not eliminate threats, then perhaps those threats need to be addressed without war.

Take, for example, two more states ruled by threatening, anti-American, nuclear-aspirant dictators: North Korea and Iran. Indisputably, the World War II option of invasion followed by imposed democratization is off the table. Iran is much larger and more difficult to conquer than Iraq or Afghanistan, and North Korea can defend itself with nuclear weapons it already possesses.

Some might suggest limited airstrikes against Iranian or North Korean nuclear facilities, echoing the 1981 Israeli attack on an Iraqi nuclear reactor. However, the success rate of such attacks, including the 1981 strike, is not encouraging. Future airstrikes are likely to be even less successful than past efforts, as new nuclear states now go to great lengths to disperse, conceal, and harden their nuclear facilities. The recent disclosure of Iran's Qom uranium enrichment facility probably does not provide a complete account of Iranian nuclear locations. Additional secret facilities likely exist, as Nima Gerami and James Acton recently argued on

If airstrikes are too risky, what's left? Everything other than war: diplomacy, negotiation, inspections, economic sanctions, and military deterrence. The bad news is that this cluster of approaches is unsatisfying for those who demand a rapid and decisive end to these threats. However, it does promise two advantages. First, these policies are low cost. Americans do not die in the course of diplomacy or inspections. The United States will not spend a trillion dollars executing economic sanctions. And, these approaches do not spur global anti-Americanism, and like it or not there is an important "popularity contest" element to the war on terror.

Second, this cluster of approaches does work. Nuclear deterrence has a perfect record in preventing the use of nuclear weapons by one state against another. As John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt argued in the pages of Foreign Policy just prior to the 2003 Iraq war, deterrence can work against states like Iraq, North Korea, and Iran. North Korea has not attacked another state in more than half a century, including during the 15 or so years in which it has possessed nuclear weapons. Iran has been ruled by Islamist mullahs for 30 years and during that time has not attacked any of its neighbors, and certainly not any U.S. allies. The Soviet Union and China, two other nuclear-armed anti-American dictatorships, were deterred from attacking U.S. allies for decades.

Even the much-maligned combination of diplomacy, inspections, and sanctions has worked in the past, preventing nuclear proliferation in some states (Iraq, Libya, Argentina, and Brazil), persuading some states to give up their nuclear arsenals (South Africa, Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan), and slowing the acquisition and expansion of nuclear arsenals in other states (North Korea and Pakistan). The United States seems to be making progress on the Iranian program, as the solidification of Western resolve and the rising threat of greater economic sanctions seems to be pushing Iran to make concessions, including most recently the decision to permit inspection of the Qom uranium facility and discuss sending its enriched uranium abroad to be reprocessed into reactor fuel.

Nuclear-armed states do additionally threaten to distribute nuclear weapons, materials, or know-how to other states and nonstate actors. The United States is concerned about, among other things, North Korean assistance to Burma and Iranian assistance to Venezuela. Fortunately, there are nonviolent tools that have been and can be used to deal with these problems, including international institutions such as the Proliferation Security Initiative, the International Atomic Energy Agency, the Nuclear Suppliers Group, and the Missile Technology Control Regime. And, states have appeared to be unwilling to give such aid to terrorist groups, perhaps out of fear of building a nuclear Frankenstein that might one day turn on its sponsor. Certainly this was one reason why Saddam stayed away from al Qaeda.

The existence of dictatorships aspiring to acquire nuclear weapons is something to abhor. But aside from instances when another country has directly attacked the United States or supported groups that have launched major attacks on U.S. interests, war is not always the best means of dealing with them. Total victory, in the sense of complete military success followed by the complete elimination of a threat, is not a viable U.S. policy option in the 21st century. War is unlikely to bring security. But security can be had without war.