More thoughts on ‘unwinnable wars’

Hi there. I’m Dan. I’ve been watching how the WHYS team put together their programme today as part of some research I’m doing into how the BBC is using blogs to cover war and terrorism. It’s a joint project between the War Studies Department at King’s College, London and the BBC’s College of Journalism.

So for purely selfish research reasons, I was hoping the team might be picking up on one of Mark’s blog posts about ‘unwinnable wars’ for the programme today.

Mark asked me if I could find some extra bits and pieces for the blog on ‘unwinnable wars’, because he’s quite keen to see the topic on the programme too.

Even though I probably wasn’t supposed to, I ended up helping the rest of team find guests for the programme by mistake which rather distracted me from writing the blogpost. (This is what happens if you sit in a newsroom looking unoccupied – somebody will soon give you something to do!)

But this article by Max Hastings caught my eye and I thought it contributed to the debate about ‘unwinnable wars’.

Hastings says that for all NATO’s tactical successes against the Taliban, these ‘victories’ are strategically meaningless and the war in Afghanistan is no closer to being won.

Hastings says “controlled warlordism” is the “best we can hope for” and that democracy in Afghanistan is unrealistic.

Kelsie in Houston was one of a number of people on the blog who said we need to ask what victory means before we can answer whether modern wars are unwinnable.

So do you think “controlled warlordism” in Afghanistan would represent a defeat for NATO and victory for the Taliban?

And what about other conflicts? There has been a lot of debate in the United States about the prospect of troop withdrawals in Iraq. Would pulling American troops out of Iraq signal a job well done or a retreat?

Other commenters on the blog say ‘the unwinnable war’ is not a new problem. Bob in Queensland says “resistance fighters managed to tie up thousands of soldiers in previous conflicts.”

And Mark reckons that in Iraq “we are still dealing with the results of the fall of the Ottoman Empire, 100 years later, not to mention the remnants of the Iraq-Iran war of the 80s.”

So has warfare changed or are these age-old problems?

Here’s some interesting links you might want to take a look at:

  • The Kings of War blog tries to answer Mark’s original question.
  • A US military blogger discusses the war in Iraq.
  • The Radio Netherlands Defence Correspondent wonders whether the Taliban would be willing to negotiate to end the war in Afghanistan.

29 Responses to “More thoughts on ‘unwinnable wars’”

  1. October 13, 2008 at 21:04

    No, the idea of war is still the same. Kill enough of the other guys people that the remaining people submit to your rule. “Nobody ever won a war for dying for their country. You win by making the other guy die for his.”

    What has changed is the acceptable reason to go to war. In the past, there had to be an flat out genocide going on before Americans would get involved with soldiers. Now, just the irrational impossible thought of a Middle Eastern man caring a 600# nuclear bomb in a suit case is reason to send troops to battle the whole Middle East.

  2. October 13, 2008 at 21:06

    If you want to determine of your war is un-winnable. It is pretty simple. First, what political state has 15,000 of human history lead the region to be? Is what the objective of the goal to change that region to something different? Second, are there people there already fighting to make a change in the favor of the stated objective? “Freedom can never be given, it can only be taken by the people who want it.” Third, when the occupying force leaves, what is the chance that the people we were fighting against, or people just like them, will rise back into power? Last, (and the hardest one for people to answer.) Is the side you are on the good or the evil side. If you are on the side of evil, how many people will you have to kill to change that fact?

  3. 3 Tim
    October 13, 2008 at 21:14

    As an undergraduate War Studies student at King’s College (albeit currently on a placement year in France) I’m intrigued to discover there is a joint project between the department and the BBC. Any more information that could perhaps be provided?

  4. 4 Jessica in NYC
    October 13, 2008 at 21:18

    I agree with Kelsie. How can we win if we don’t agree how victory defined. I am against the US military servicing as the police men/woman for the world. There are definite instances where the super-powers of this world need to step in and AIDE countries in need. Perhaps when we stop aiding and start fighting wars for other counties is when they turns into “unwinnable wars”.

  5. 5 Syed Hasan Turab
    October 13, 2008 at 21:31

    In my openion winning a war mean winning the hearts & mind of the people, without detailed analysis & ground realities war against Alquida & Talaban may not win. No one including BBC want to discuss facts & major outcome of war, no doubt Bin ladin is still alive if USA & NATO have doubts of Winning Afghan War obiously Alquida & Talaban are in win win position.
    No doubt truth is real hard to read & swallow but truth is truth. At least BBC translate Bin Ladin speeches for public debate specially economy related where he said US & EU economies are without pillers & foundation’s.
    Infact this war is damaging our economies real bad inspite of having world class financial experts we are unable to overcome the crises.
    Its time to quet from educated criminals & learn from Pakistan, India & China those who suceed to builtup safe Fire Wall around there economy.
    EU & USA bailout sound like a fraud with public as this bail out is not a guarantee to the public unless we have solid pillers & foundation for our economic future. Our Economic failour is one of the symptom of defeate which we are not ready to admit.
    God bless America.

  6. 6 Bert
    October 13, 2008 at 22:01

    Of course, if the definition of “win” is ambiguous, a war becomes unwinnable.

    The Gulf War was clear. Iraq invaded Kuwait. The US and some allies found this unacceptable. The US and allies stepped in. Iraqi forces were removed from Kuwait. Case closed.

    WWII was similarly straightforward. It was Germany’s blitzkrieg, invading all their neighbors, and ultimately the attack on Pearl Harbor on the other side, that got the US involved.

    This idea that “genocide” had anything to do with anything, either then or now, is clearly revisionism. It might appeal to the die-hard lefties, but it would be disasterous foreign policy. Imagine inventing a “genocide” excuse every time some lunatic wants to invade another country. Somalia, Rwanda, Cambodia (under Pol Pot), we could make a case for Zimbabwe, perhaps Turkey, at what point will these “virtuous war” afficionados finally realize that their criteria do not hold water?

    Goals should be obvious. Mostly, to stop cross border aggression from a bad guy. Not just because we don’t like their superstitious beliefs, or we think maybe they will do something bad in the future, or we don’t like the food they eat. I don’t think this Iraq war meets the criteria.

    Clinton probably got it right, when he was careful to get a solid coalition before adventuring into Bosnia. If you’re going to go the virtue route, better be positive you don’t do it on your own.

  7. 7 Syed Hasan Turab
    October 13, 2008 at 22:35

    If Mr. Bill Clinton removed this Alquida Cancer at initial stage we dont have to face the worst.

  8. October 13, 2008 at 23:17

    Firstly – please define ‘War’.

    If you mean any conflict – that kinda gets pretty hard to do. If you mean a conflict between two nations, then you are getting to a more acceptable grounding. If you mean war between alliances then ‘war’ can be discussed and you can come to a conclusion as to if it can be won or not.

    So could you please redefine the question.


  9. 9 Bert
    October 14, 2008 at 00:13

    Syed, you have a point. Once attacked, e.g. bombing of embassies, the US probably had grounds to take some action against Al Qaeda. But that doesn’t mean wholesale invasion of countries just because we don’t like their regimes.

    However, whatever a country does, it has to be careful not to create an even bigger problem. That’s why the current Iraq policy was, I believe, misguided from the start. Al Qaeda in Iraq was not an issue until this administration allowed it to become an issue. Had they stuck with Afghanistan, I would not object.

    I had to laugh when I read today that the Iaqi markets are not suffering in this economic crisis. You think? Could it be the the infusion of billions of US taxpayers’ dollars into their economy every few weeks could have something to do with that?

  10. October 14, 2008 at 02:02

    you wrote
    “The Gulf War was clear. Iraq invaded Kuwait. The US and some allies found this unacceptable. The
    US and allies stepped in. Iraqi forces were removed from Kuwait. Case closed.”

    Why were we still bombing Iraq all during the Clinton years?
    Why was all of the Coalition making deals under the table?
    Why did sailors on the Cole allow a small boat approach when they had been given orders not to ?
    Why did Clinton try to kill the Somalia war lord when we were on a peace mission?
    Why didn’t we take the guns the Somalis offered to trade for food?
    Why were we willing to go into old Serbia to stop genocide ?
    Why don’t we go into Darfur to stop genocide?
    Why don’t we go into Rwanda to stop genocide?
    How could Libya arm it self with missiles and Hans Blix not see it?
    Why couldn’t Hans Blix find all the chemicals logged in under the first inspectors?

  11. 11 DENNIS@OCC
    October 14, 2008 at 03:49

    Thanks Daniel Bennett for the time and your interest in writing this blog…
    And doing us the favour about writing the “more thoughts on ‘unwinnable wars’—it is true that the bbc is doing a good job on the investigative job on the wars coverage…on the bbc websites and news bulletins…


  12. October 14, 2008 at 05:02

    Hi Daniel Bennett
    There are so many facets to your question of wars, although people are far more relevant than ten or twenty years ago.
    Was the Iraq war a good thing? Iran had a perfectly satisfactory working understanding with Saddam Hossein! Should there have been a war with Iraq without the backing of Turkey?
    Germany didn’t exist in the eighties, but it is a very active player on the world stage today. The German, Russian alliance is becoming increasingly important in the context of energy, industry and finance.
    British Labour invented foreign policy in the third millenium, it is true, but what of the backlashes? The formidable troika of Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and Jack Straw have achieved great things for Europe, but they have since split and the world has changed.
    If things turn out well in Iraq, it will have been worth it, but major problems are looming on the horizon.

  13. 13 Syed Hasan Turab
    October 14, 2008 at 06:18

    The way we are attempting over Afghanistan is totally wrong, same way Birtish army attempted in 18th century & never suceeded, even Persion speaking QASALBASH tribe been forced to leave Afghanistan being a supporter of Birtish Invasion by that time.
    The concept of foreign Occupation & Invasion dosent exist in Afghan Dictionery, beside Alexander of Greek being a friend & organiser of this nation.
    Infact Afghanistan got a dominating PHASHTOON majority, which is divided almost half & half between Pakistan & Afghanistan. As far as Karzai Govt is concerned sound like failour because of unpopularity among Afghan Phashtoon nation. Pakistan side Phashtoon nation have some education because of Pakistani Father of Nation’s personal intrest & wealth.
    If USA & EU really want to win the war just leave them alone as Rocket fire & intellangance reports are Marshall Jokes for them like wild west..
    Instead of US & EU rockets we open up schools, collages, universities & small Industries they will win the hearts & mind of the Afghan nation this is how Pakistan controll this nation & it works.
    As soon as this nation get busy ALQUIDA & Talaban will be unpopular even then we may not expect that this nation will hand over Bin Ladin to USA or EU, as these people have tradtional & respectfull with GUESTS.
    Any way after unpopularity job will be lot easier for us, without resistance & may be resolved with in one term of US election.
    Karzai Govt need to be replaced with real Democracy.

  14. October 14, 2008 at 09:06

    @ Will Rhodes

    Here’s a simple dictionary definition for the sake of argument.

    “A state of open, armed, often prolonged conflict carried on between nations, states, or parties.”

    Though you clearly have your own views on how to define ‘war’ 🙂


    If you click on my name it should go to my website where you can find out more about the stuff I do. I also have a blog at the Frontline Club if you are especially interested!

  15. October 14, 2008 at 12:30

    Hi Syed Hasan Turab
    I agree with much of what you say. What is the general sentiment towards Iran in Afghanistan?
    I have enormous respect for Afghans and strongly object to the discrimination against them in the region, but what is to become of the enldess flow of economic migrants to Iran? Day after day I see them huddled together, looking for work in the morning. But the queues are infinite and the construction boom has faded. What is to become of them? It may be them or us, what then? Can we afford them? We can’t because we fill the pinch of shortages in the commodity market.
    The majority of Afghan opium is consumed in Iran. Everyone is on the take, including the military and the police. Are we to become another Mexico?

  16. October 14, 2008 at 16:06

    Hi Daniel

    Thanks, yet I know the dictionary definition, and I may be being pedantic – but you opened with the question about unwinnable wars – in the dictionary description you gave, one of the words used is ‘open’.

    The problem we have here is that both the ‘major’ conflicts we have are not open. They are insurgencies or guerilla combat zones.

    If you think back to the Iran – Iraq war, open conflict between two nations that was unwinnable because the two sides were so evenly matched.

    What we see in Iraq and Afghanistan is quite the opposite. These insurgencies can be won by the bigger, stronger nations – it is a matter of how much civilian loss of life you are willing to accept.

    They are winnable.

  17. 17 Daniel Bennett
    October 14, 2008 at 19:15

    @ Will

    (I interpret ‘open’ rather differently but anyway I don’t think there’s much point getting into it!)

    It’s clear your point – that the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are different from say the Iraq-Iran war – stands.

    I agree with you.

    And there is an issue of how much loss of civilian life you are willing to accept. Is an unwillingness to accept disproportionate loss of life not a good thing though?

    I would be concerned with British, American and NATO troops in Iraq and Afghanistan were not mindful of civilian casualties and (delving into just war theory for a moment) I’d say the force used in a war should be proportionate to the threat faced. (Obviously here there is a long aside on the much-debated nature of the threats faced).

    Judging what constitutes proportionate force in an insurgency campaign is extremely difficult. Over-doing it can be counter-productive. For too long in Iraq, the US military delivered small-scale tactical successes that undermined the broader strategy. For example, occasionally brutal, often unpleasant, house-to-house raids delivered up insurgents but also created new ones.

    But not having enough troops on the ground was also a problem in Iraq. In short the US Army didn’t have the military capacity to enforce a new political future for Iraq. The Americans promised democracy, stability, security, water, electricity, but couldn’t deliver them because there weren’t enough troops to guard power stations and the like.

    So it’s not easy. But I don’t think it’s strategically sound in a truly interconnected media world, let alone morally acceptable to kill a disproportionate number of civilians in a conflict.

    The armies of the US, Britain and NATO will have to find a way to win the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq that doesn’t involve annihilating the civilian population, and which instead uses proportional force and a joined up strategy that integrates the military and the political. I don’t see why these wars aren’t potentially winnable but so far they’ve found it difficult. They’re learning but will they succeed?

  18. October 14, 2008 at 19:35

    Daniel –

    I take on your points, but where I have to disagree is, as an analogy, you are talking in the same way as those who advocate a ‘limited’ nuclear strike.

    Take away the rhetoric and it is a nuclear attack. That is where war has been rolled up in cotton wool, war, whether insurgency or guerilla or open warfare – is war. One of the many reasons I am anti-war.

    If you are going to commit to war – then war it is – and that means the loss of civilian life. If you are going to go in and police a State, that isn’t war – it is a mere policing action that has the rules of policing and not combat.

    The war in Iraq and Afghanistan are winnable – they could be won in a matter of months, but to do that you have to change the whole mindset of the people in NATO. And that is where a war becomes unwinnable.

    The civilians of NATO will not allow a military carpet bombing Tora Bora. I am sure that you understand this as well. We all know that war is evil – and we do not want to allow that evil out. With that being the case – there is only one recourse we can take – and that is through diplomacy – as it should have been done in the first place with Iraq and Afghanistan. 5/7 years of ‘war’ – if there had been that many years of diplomacy what would these places look like now and how many of the innocents would still be alive?

    My apologies for the long(ish) post.

  19. 19 Syed Hasan Turab
    October 14, 2008 at 21:53

    Wiii Rhodes & Daniel,
    Even we lease the mountain’s from Afghan Govt & establish a Army Training School we dont have ability to fight back with unpaid soldier’s.
    We need fully motivated & devotional attitute in our soldiers to fight back with devotional & motivated fighter’s of ALQUIDA, as these people have no choice beside Do & Die, this is what we are unable to develop in our forces & is not worth while.
    We need peace at our own terms, we want to bring them to justice in our courts,
    we want to punish them according to our rule of law & we are unable to reach them.
    Infact they were not warrier’s we made them as long as they were fighting with former USSR they were respectfully quoted as MOJAHIDEEN & as soon as they fight against us we classified them as TERRORISTS.
    We have to understand that we are not fighting with a country, we are not fighting with an army, we are not fighting with a nation, even Afghani’s have doubts about our sincearity with this war.
    We are just wasteing our lifes,our time, our wealth & reputation to chase our one time loyal dogs as they are not ready to listen us any more.
    We have ability to achieve our goals, we need stratigic plan, partner’s & sinceraty with object. Just playing games with 40,000 foreign soldiers will not change the war results unless we make our place in the heart’s & minds of local people or hostes.

  20. 20 Bert
    October 14, 2008 at 21:54


    “Why were we still bombing Iraq all during the Clinton years?”

    During the Clinton years, the US was enforcing no-fly zones, right? The attacks were only attacks on AA batteries firing on US warplanes.

    “Why was all of the Coalition making deals under the table?”


    “Why did sailors on the Cole allow a small boat approach when they had been given orders not to ?”

    They never should have gone into Yemen to be refueled in the first place. It was the US government pandering to the Arab states. It’s not so easy, during a refueling operation, to know who is there legitmiately and who is going to turn into some lunatic suicidal maniac. We were not so accustomed to suicidal lunatics back then.

    “Why did Clinton try to kill the Somalia war lord when we were on a peace mission?”

    Because the war lords were killing people left and right, and were the causes of the famine. We learned our lesson, though. Stay out of places where you don’t belong, including Rwanda, including Darfur.

    “Why didn’t we take the guns the Somalis offered to trade for food?”


    “Why were we willing to go into old Serbia to stop genocide ?”

    That was a very, very careful operation, done in full cooperation, and full participation of European countries. In fact at the time, the French Foreign Minister stated flatly that this was a European operation, with US assistance. Not a US operation.

    “Why don’t we go into Darfur to stop genocide?”

    At the most, the US should do in Darfur what the US did in Bosnia. Which means, get the FULL participation of African neighbors, and only if absolutely necessary, give assistance. The US is not the big daddy, sorry. You saw what happened in Somalia during the Clinton administration.

    “Why don’t we go into Rwanda to stop genocide?”

    Same answer as Darfur.

    “How could Libya arm it self with missiles and Hans Blix not see it?”

    Ask him.

    “Why couldn’t Hans Blix find all the chemicals logged in under the first inspectors?”

    Probably because Iraq got rid of them. It would not be at all surprising if Saddam Hussein had only PRETENDED to still have all those stockpiles, only to bolster his influence in the region.

  21. 21 Bert
    October 14, 2008 at 22:08


    “The way we are attempting over Afghanistan is totally wrong, same way Birtish army attempted in 18th century & never suceeded, even Persion speaking QASALBASH tribe been forced to leave Afghanistan being a supporter of Birtish Invasion by that time. The concept of foreign Occupation & Invasion dosent exist in Afghan Dictionery, beside Alexander of Greek being a friend & organiser of this nation.”

    What made the Afghanistan operation “correct,” in my view, and the Iraq one wrong, is that we did not invade Afghanistan as we did Iraq. The US went in alongside the Northern Alliance. It was not an invasion. Contrast this with Iraq.
    And also importantly, the Afghan government of the time had been supporting the terrorists that attacked the US. To me, that made this a legitimate operation. Striking back when attacked by a foreign government, or by forces clearly supported by that foreign government, is legitimate.

    For example, we did not attack Yemen after the Cole incident, right? Because the Yemeni government was not supporting Al Qaeda. It was simply unable to control them.

    Of course, having allowed it to drag on and on, the situation has devolved. And the reason for this dragging on is the nonsense we got into in Iraq.

  22. 22 Syed Hasan Turab
    October 15, 2008 at 00:12

    According to my believe & knowledge this was in the intrest of USA, Iran & Pakistan to maintain a buffer zone/ state around Commmunist world specially former USSR, this is why all three maintain Afghanistan.
    Histry proved it that all three were correct after USSR invasion infact USSR was dreeming Hot Water of Pakitani sea shore of Balouchistan, this is why Pakistan plays a master role in war against former USSR.
    Since USSR collapsed & central Asia been open, entire histry, Geography & strategy of the region been changed.
    Pakistan & China are building up a largest tunnel for easy access to Central Asia & Eastern Europe, on the other hand old time friend & allies of former USSR that is India, opening up his consulate’s along with border line of Pakistan, no doubt during Monorch & Dawood Khan time Afghanistan was one of the allies of USSR.
    We notice few kidnaps & killing’s of Chinese workers in Pakistan area, obiously US & Pakistan will not appreciate the delay in Central Asia opening project.
    Ignorant behaviour of Afghanistan by way of cultivating Opemiom, Hash & Terrorisam is an alarming sitution for the world & may not be stopped in a decent manner,
    Infact we dont need any buffer state as communist thread been gone, more then there worth we are spending every day on this Nation.

  23. 23 Bert
    October 15, 2008 at 00:48

    Syed, what you theorize may even be true, but it was not why the US got involved in Afghanistan. Had planning and support for the attacks on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon not originated in Afghanistan, with the support of their government at that time, the US would NOT have made this deal with the Northern Alliance, and our troops would not be there now.

    You can’t stop all terrorism. But you sure can act when the terrorists that attack you are sponsored by a State. Before this administration, the US never responded to such acts of state-sponsored terrorism. Too bad this administration didn’t stick with JUST that policy, and not venture into other, fuzzy, nation building nonsense.

    The fact that the Afghanistan operation got bogged down, thanks in large measure to the Iraq war, has resulted in US and other western military in the region now being seen by many Afghans as “invaders.”

    That is most regrettable. Makes me think it’s time to get out. Cut our losses, and do a much better job of filtering out bad guys before they cross into US territory. Which, by the way, would have prevented the 9/11 attacks quite nicely.

  24. 24 parth guragain,nepal
    October 15, 2008 at 04:48

    modern wars are winnable but we have to use excessive force.this will lead to killing innocent civilian .here media comes into play so responsible nations have to explain their every actions.but this is not the case for the several organisation which is fighiting.they can use media to manipulate each and every move of war.they can abduct a innocent civilian and make a deal .they can make vedio of killings and show it on television.these things have a very great impact .these things have more impact than several days of war.so due to the interwinding of war a role of media modern war are gertting more and more complicated.if role of media ,human right activist are excluded modern wars are winnable otherwise not.

  25. 25 Luci Smith
    October 15, 2008 at 12:33

    Three Seperate Points to Consider from a Pacifist:

    Don’t forget the constant war that has been waged by Israel against the Palestinians and other neighbors since the creation of the Jewish State in 1948. Where did the money come from?

    As to definitions, an ex-military man said once that killing men and raping women was what war was about from the soldier’s point of view. Domination of the enemy.

    Some of us saw how the American “War on Poverty” a government program to eradicate poverty in America in the early 1960’s was metamorphosized like an Escher drawing into the Vietnam War. And on and on. Hence, Hurricane Katrine vs Iraq and Afghanistan 40-45 years later.

  26. October 15, 2008 at 15:22

    Invading Iraq in the first place was wrong.

    Any other action that follows a wrong action will definitely be wrong.

    It has turned to be one of the miscalculated decisions of the Bush’s administration.

  27. 27 Syed Hasan Turab
    October 15, 2008 at 16:53

    Immediately after Sept 11, we lost our controll, our sentiment’s start commanding our brain & we jump in the fire without any option, just Collan Powel visited the region have couple of dialogue’s with Musharaff & reach on the U turn decision without any consideration of political option as Talaban were ready to have dialogues with Pakistan & USA.
    By that time if we involve Talaban we may not face ALQUIDA & Talaban abolish Alquida for there own survival, by this way we suceed quickely with a nominal price.
    We (USA) choose lenthy procedure & expanded war circle, we did big time mistake now result’s are very clear.;
    May God bless USA.

  28. 28 Jack Hughes
    October 16, 2008 at 08:37

    And now we’ve got the so-called

    War on Carbon™

    Is this another un-winnable war ?

  29. 29 Tom D Ford
    October 19, 2008 at 06:33

    Well, someone said that there are no winners in a war, there are just people who lose less than the other.

    So, re-framing the question, are there “un-lose-able wars”.

    Dennis Kucinich advocates for a Dept of Peace.

    How foolish!

    He has my write in vote!

    (begin cheerful life-affirming laugh)

    The delightful tinkle of bells, …

    (/ don’t end cheerful life-affirming laugh)

    This one’s for you Lubna! From a anti-invading American who respects you!

    Tom D Ford

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