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What Victory Looks Like

March 17, 2009, 6:26 am

[Cross-posted at the Jamestown Project]

One of the many issues of counterinsurgency campaigns is that it’s never entirely clear when the war is over. There’s rarely a surrender, as such, or a ceremony that can be anointed as The Moment. There’s no V-E Day, V-J Day, or anything similar. The point of insurgencies is to delay or deny that moment; the goal of counterinsurgencies is less to win a grand decisive battle or campaign than to convince large number of insurgents to give up the effort or, better yet, come over to your side (cf. Anbar Awakening).

The result is that knowing when the war is over, when one side has won a military victory, is frequently deeply difficult. When Teddy Roosevelt declared victory in the Philippines on July 4, 1902, it had more to do with domestic politics than military realities. Ironically, winning can lead to a withdrawal (“bringing the soldiers home”), but withdrawal is also what nations waging counterinsurgencies often do when they’re losing. The potential for confusion is obvious. Nor does winning mean that the violence has ended. In fact, the violence can go on for decades after the moment the war has “ended.”

In fact, there is a continuum of time when a combatant like the United States might declare the war to have ended and bring the troops home. That could be when the war is going badly and the U.S. feels it no longer worth waging (as happened in Vietnam), it could be when the war has reached some form of stalemate that the U.S. does not feel can be broken (Malaysia, for the British), or it could be when the situation has reached a comparatively stable point that looks like as much of a victory as is possible (Greece in the late 1940s).

Having said that, this is pretty much as close as one gets to military victory in a counterinsurgency: Iraq, 2009. American fatalities have dropped massively since the start of the surge and remained low:

war deaths.png

Nor is this because U.S. forces are isolating themselves in fortified operating bases. Rather, they are more spread out and vulnerable at this point than they were during the height of the recession, parceled out in penny packets among the population.

And the Iraqi population is feeling secure:


Eighty-four percent of Iraqis now rate security in their own area positively, nearly double its August 2007 level. Seventy-eight percent say their protection from crime is good, more than double its low. Three-quarters say they can go where they want safely – triple what it’s been. Few credit the United States, still widely unpopular given the post-invasion violence, and eight in 10 favor its withdrawal on schedule by 2011 – or sooner. But at the same time a new high, 64 percent of Iraqis, now call democracy their preferred form of government.

There is a functioning, democratic government in place, albeit one with serious issues of corruption and patronage. The growing dominance of foreign elements in the insurgency (or at least that perception) has transferred some of the legitimacy of nationalism to the Iraqi government and its security forces. The inevitable problem with constructing a nationalist alternative to the insurgency is that that government stands as a reasonable alternative to the U.S., a sense that is reflected in continuing Iraqi distrust of America. The United States is an interloper in the political and military system it helped build. Perhaps, such a moment is the closest thing possible to victory in a counterinsurgency campaign: when there is a credible voice to tell you that it’s time to go home.

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