Victory in War Is a Matter of Definition

In war, successful participants are usually those who know how to recognize victory or defeat. This is because such knowledge enables them to be able to devise the strategies necessary to insure victory.

Knowledge of the conditions of victory is particularly important in instances of so-called “asymmetric warfare.” In such conflicts, these conditions are often difficult to determine. The current ongoing debate in the media, congress and study groups about “winning” and “losing” in Iraq unfortunately has not included a clear picture about the conditions of victory. It may be possible to be a winner or a loser depending on the definition of each.

Shortly after 9/11, the President suggested preemptive war as a strategy in the war on terror. Preemptive wars are intended to deny the terrorists a base for training, for command and control as well as a locale for production of weapons of mass destruction. As a result, Iraq became a target.

Although difficult to pinpoint the exact time of occurrence, the administration added the goal of nation-building to the goals of preemptive war. Subsequently, and more damaging has been the eventual exclusion of preemptive war goals and the substitution of a stable democracy as the sole requirement for “victory.” Democracy is a fragile idea and difficult to achieve under the best of circumstances. In addition to this difficulty, democracy takes more time and cost more than the impatient American public is willing to support. Thus, by defining victory as a democratic Iraq, part of our current perception of “failure” in Iraq is of our own making. If this is true, perhaps a solution to our predicament might emerge if the conditions of “victory” were determined by a return to the original goal of preemptive war.

To date, nation-building has given us only two choices:  “cut and run” (multiple plans with differing withdrawal timetables) or “stay the course” (with high cost in money and personnel). Returning to a goal of preemptive war expands the options for winning and losing. If this were done, an immediate consequence is the realization that this goal has already been achieved, i.e. we have already won. This claim is justified because, with the exception of chaos created by our opponents, given the American presence, there is no chance that the terrorists can organize anything that would support command and control or serve as a point to develop or collect weapons of mass destruction. This victory is partial because it comes with a high financial and personnel cost. In addition, at this pint in time, this victory is not recognized as such. Therefore, we must do more to consolidate and extend this victory. This means that we must preserve the status quo but lower the cost.

First and foremost, we must continue to maintain a base of operation for a long period of time in the region to consolidate the gains achieved thus far and to continue to exert influence Iran, Syria and the future  Iraq. Indeed, the base in Iraq should be no different from the numerous bases overseas maintained by the U.S. in the Cold War.

However, this base of operation must be achieved and maintained with minimal expense and danger to our forces. As a result, we should restrict our presence in Iraq to be to several strategic locations (this will include the oil fields) that are easily defendable by fewer troops and logistically self sufficient (e.g. available airstrips). From these locales, we can strike where and whenever needed to prevent organized of terrorist activities. In other words, this is preemptive war on the cheap. It can be maintained indefinitely. The operation should include oil revenue to offset the cost. This posture will clearly reduce the daily attrition of our troops. Further, such troop reductions here will free up forces for other strategic needs. Finally, such a position will contribute to our homeland security.

It should be emphasized that in doing this, we do not have to abandon the cause of a democracy for Iraq. Indeed, this configuration does not preclude the training of the Iraqi army. It is this army (and perhaps the revamped police force) that will be responsible for counter insurgency in the population centers. The proposal involves unilateral action by the U.S. and does not include talking to Iran or Syria.

In conclusion, by knowing what we want to accomplish, what has been accomplished and what remains to be accomplished will lead to a successful conclusion to this war.