July 10, 2012

When to declare victory?

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

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

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.