Abu Muqawama retains its autonomy and the views and beliefs expressed within the blog do not reflect those of CNAS. Abu Muqawama retains the right to delete comments that include words that incite violence; are predatory, hateful, or intended to intimidate or harass; or degrade people on the basis of gender, race, class, ethnicity, national origin, religion, sexual orientation, or disability. In summary, don't be a jerk.
Peter Bergen recently put out an interesting piece recommending the United States declare victory against al Qaeda. He starts off by making the comparison, as many do, with that ideal-type of American conventional warfare, World War II:
To end World War II, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Winston Churchill and Joseph Stalin demanded an unconditional surrender from the Nazis. But there will be no such surrender from al Qaeda. The group is not a state that is capable of entering into such an agreement, even if it wanted to do so, which seems highly unlikely.
So we are left with a choice: We can continue fighting al Qaeda indefinitely and remain in a permanent state of quasi-war, as has already been the case for more than a decade now.
This is somewhat true, but a misleading comparison. The Nazis did not
technically surrender - the High Command of the Wehrmacht (OKW) did, in order
to avoid a repeat of the World War I dolchtosslegende. Of course, some
German military units resisted (such as Army Group Center), before the Allies’
overwhelming military power promptly defeated them. The Nazi civilian
government, though it permitted military capitulation, was not part of the
surrender process. The Allies arrested and unilaterally dissolved Dönitz’s Flensburg government. World War II, like Iraq
in 2003, in fact ended in debellatio - with the destruction of the legal
authority which could have signed a political surrender document.
The historical minutiae aside, this highlights an important point: World War II was actually won the way wars against irreconcilable foes often are - through the destruction of the enemy’s will and ability to resist - the only way to impose one’s will against a foe that is truly beyond negotiation. However, policy determines the question of which enemies need to exit the battlefield, dead or alive - how much of our will must be imposed. It’s true, as Bergen says, that we didn’t need to “kill every Nazi,” but we did not leave any Nazi-led fighting capacity standing in the field, and conducted a systematic military, political, and legal dissolution of Nazi fighting power - and we did so long after destroying Germany’s ability to pose a threat to the United States. Had the Nazis been able to initiate “Werwolf,” our policy likely would have looked much more similar to “kill every Nazi” than it happened to at the time, despite the basic disappearance of the Nazi threat to American security.
Of course, al Qaeda is nothing like the Nazis in any useful sense, other than perhaps that the United States held both to be irreconcilable foes, as Bergen notes. But the differences don’t easily lend themselves to assertions that irregular groups can’t have their wills as thoroughly broken. Mary Habeck echoes some of my critiques of this analogy, and goes on to point out that insurgent groups are formally and decisively defeated:
For instance, from 1898-1954, the U.S. absolutely defeated three separate insurgencies in the Philippines, including a nationalist insurgency, an insurgency by local Muslims, and a communist insurgency. The British took on and repeatedly defeated insurgencies (the Boers, the Malay communists, and the Kenyan Mau-Mau, for instance), and it is actually difficult to find, beyond the Sandinistas and Castro's group, an insurgency that has succeeded in Latin America.
The stories here are all significantly more complex, but it is true that irregular groups are not immune to decisive, obvious defeats, even if one quibbles with the cases. However, she goes on to describe what victory against al Qaeda would look like:
The objective of irregular wars is rather different, however: to secure the population by clearing out the insurgents; then holding the territory through persistent presence; and finally creating the political conditions necessary to prevent any further appeal by the remaining insurgents. In this view, winning against al Qaeda does not depend on body counts, but rather would look very much like victories against other insurgents: the spreading of security for populations in Somalia, Yemen, the Sahel, and elsewhere; the prevention of a return of al-Qaeda to these cleared areas; and the empowerment of legitimate governments that can control and police their own territories.
Here, we come to the problem with the current conception of what victory in our
conflict against al Qaeda means. If the definition of defeating an insurgent
group is clearing, holding, and then politically precluding the appeal of
insurgency, then it’s hard to say that, by Habeck’s standards, some of the
other insurgencies Habeck mentions have truly been defeated. After all, the
Philippines were not able to “spread security” and preclude the continuation of
Moro insurgency in Mindanao until, today, where the counterinsurgency campaign
against the Moro Islamic Liberation Front continues. While few Latin American
insurgencies succeed, few Colombians would consider the conflict against FARC
As Colin S. Gray noted in his 2002 monograph on decisive victory, starkly delineating decisive victory - especially a politically permanent one - as a simple alternative to failure is grossly misleading. As Gray notes:
… decisive victory is probably best viewed as a range of possibilities, rather than as a stark alternative to the failure to achieve such a success. The enemy can be understood to have continuing powers of resistance on a sliding scale. Decisive victories come in many guises and sometimes mislead the winner. Cannae was the tactically decisive victory straight from the textbook, but its operational, strategic, and political consequences were trivial.
If one retains the normal political concept of victory - imposing our will on
the enemy - then irregular warfare does not require anything so radical to
produce meaningful political outcomes - but it should similarly make us wary of
hasty attempts to derive political victories from tactical, operational, or
even strategic ones.
Frustration with the inability of seemingly obvious tactical successes to translate into the total debellation of an irregular group has misleadingly brought some to believe that there is some fundamental break between regularity and irregularity as modes of war. This is mistaken. The objective of irregular wars isn’t different, we’ve simply naturalized a version of them which considers governing our enemies inseparable from the idea of defeating them - for a country waging a war against an insurgency in its own territory, this may be critical, but for one trying to defang a transnational threat, it may not be. Though Habeck tries to draw a dichotomy between World War II and irregular war, in terms of political goals, the total defeat and preclusion of an ideology’s appeal was at the heart of the American approach to Nazi Germany - moderated only when post-war planning glimpsed the potentially destabilizing effects of such an approach.
It was the embarrassment of Germany’s upturning of the post-WWI international order that made such a total defeat of Germany - including the preclusion of ideological resurgence and the “empowerment of legitimate government” - so critical. It’s an important reminder of the point of declaring victory - to advance policy goals. Bergen notes it is politically unfeasible to declare victory al Qaeda. This is true: unlike Nazi Germany, al Qaeda is not reliant on mass mobilization to launch politically damaging operations against the United States.
But then what purpose does declaring a political victory over al Qaeda achieve? If one has won a war tactically and operationally but lost politically, one has still lost the war. It is undoubtable that at the very least, tactically and operationally (and many would argue strategically) that the U.S. has inflicted grievous blows on al Qaeda. But the persistent capability and possibility of al Qaeda’s thus-far unbroken will translating itself into coercive power make a political declaration a liability. Indeed, were an attack to occur after such a declaration, the response would likely severely undermine the wartime credibility of civilian leadership and inaugurate an even more costly and ambitious conception of retaliation and counterterrorism, which is particularly problematic since Bergen’s goal is to redirect resources away from the war on terror.
Despite the fact that al Qaeda’s operational capability to conduct attacks on the continental United States is undoubtedly weaker than during 9/11, it retains strategic options to imperil US interests. Al Qaeda retains the ability to expand the battlefield against the U.S. and threaten Western assets outside of American soil. Bergen argues that our extensive defense establishment is part of the logic behind declaring victory, but if the goal of declaring victory is to refocus assets from that establishment, and deploying overwhelmingly superior resources is our defense, the benefits of declaring victory remain slim and potentially counterproductive. Because the U.S. hasn’t decisively stemmed the growth of local affiliates - which can still kill U.S. citizens and personnel or target critical assets abroad - the potential remains for the al Qaeda threat, however operationally reduced, to exact politically significant costs. By the logic of Bergen’s argument, the massive defense establishment will again have to ensure that none of al Qaeda’s dispersed affiliates reconstitute some sort of transnational threat, which could make preserving our victory against al Qaeda costly, and a declaration of victory politically disastrous.
It’s a mistake to assert, as Habeck does, that governing away al Qaeda is a necessary victory condition of an irregular conflict against it. If a lesser exertion of state power with more modest political aims produces major gains in security at a much lower cost, then there’s little merit in perpetually maintaining or increasing the nation’s resources. It is not contradictory to say that a decisive - and politically satisfactory - victory against al Qaeda may not yet be won, without taking a maximalist operational approach to achieving that end. Bergen was correct to note, in his “kill every Nazi” comment, that utter tactical and operational annihilation is not a requirement for a decisive victory in terms of political aims and policy - but nor do seemingly overwhelming tactical and operational victories, as Bergen seems to sense, translate into a decisive success.