Why military might does not always win
A new study suggests that involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan might be doomed from the outset


Jul 08, 2007 04:30 AM
Andrew Chung
Staff Reporter

Does this sound familiar? "A war with no visible payoff against an opponent who poses no direct threat will come under increasing criticism as battle casualties rise and economic costs escalate . . . "

It was written more than 30 years ago, after the end of the ill-fated Vietnam War, in one of the first analyses of battles between states and insurgents or guerrillas who are weak in military might but pumped up on resolve. Experts call them asymmetrical wars.

But, of course, it could very well have been written today, about Iraq – or about Afghanistan, where Canadian soldiers keep dying along dusty roadsides, blown up in their armoured vehicles by improvised yet powerful bombs. Six on Easter Sunday. Three more on June 20. Another six last Wednesday.

The total number of casualties since Canada joined the Afghan mission in 2001: 66 soldiers, plus one diplomat.

Criticism is increasing. Public sentiment about the war is primarily negative, polls show. Politicians are ratcheting up their opposition. "It's the wrong mission," NDP Leader Jack Layton argued last week, insisting troops leave the war-ravaged country now. "It's not working; it's not going to accomplish the goals."

What's happening in this country is familiar among nations that carry out military interventions – and, new research shows, a prime factor in why they fail.

Since World War II, the world's most powerful nations have failed 39 per cent of the time, according to a study by Patricia Sullivan, a professor of international affairs at the University of Georgia. Despite overwhelming military superiority, mounting human and material costs compel them to pull out their troops without achieving their political aims.

Since Vietnam, researchers in the complex field of conflict studies have focused on the outcome of wars, and have looked at how even low-budget insurgents can defeat the world's greatest powers by taxing their political will to fight.

Now, Sullivan's research, which appeared in the June issue of The Journal of Conflict Resolution, tells us why this happens in the first place, and appears to give policymakers a gauge for how well a military intervention will fare. It could have important implications for Canada's foray into Afghanistan.

It turns out that a major power is much more likely to fail when its war aim requires some sort of co-operation on the part of the adversary or the citizens on the ground, in order to change a despised foreign or domestic policy, for example, or quell sectarian violence, or prop up a regime that's on shaky ground.

Objectives that simply require sheer physical force – the purging of former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein's army from Kuwait in 1991, or the toppling of the Taliban in Afghanistan in 2001 – have a high probability of success because no co-operation is necessary.

"The key factor," says Sullivan, "is the nature of the objective that the state is trying to achieve."

In other words, brute force works until you need the support of the people or the enemy to toe the line, she explains. "You can use brute force to kill terrorists or insurgents, but at some time you need acquiescence and compliance from the population, or every time you kill an insurgent or terrorist, he will be replaced."

The study's war model claims to be accurate in 80 per cent of the conflicts. Ominously, and despite some gains in Anbar province, the current U.S. mission in Iraq has a probability of success of just 20 per cent. (Vietnam, by comparison, had a 22 per cent chance of success.)

There are obvious similarities between Iraq and Afghanistan – an enduring insurgency, an unstable "democratic" government.

One Canadian expert in conflict studies, Patrick James, says Afghanistan is a good example of Sullivan's analysis in that regime change, including the success of a replacement government, is "very likely to fail.

"The good news was that the Taliban was annihilated in a military sense," he reasons, "but when you look at the wider war aim, replacing the Taliban with some kind of respectable, more mainstream government, that's very shaky. You'd put an X rather than a check mark there."

Sullivan's model is quite "intuitive," says James, director of the Center for International Studies at the University of Southern California. "Bigger, wider war aims are way harder to pull off. You can't just invade somebody, get rid of a nasty dictator and get rid of everything else that went along with him."

Others are more skeptical about Sullivan's study. "I look at this and see it has a formula, and I'm immediately turned off," says Lt.-Col. Doug Delaney, chair of the war studies program at the Royal Military College in Kingston. "Every situation is different, and you can't reduce it to a series of equations."

Delaney, a historian, says one must account for culture, context, technology, even the weather. "There are so many variables, you can't predict how something is going to turn out.

"Models generate good questions but lousy answers."

SINCE VIETNAM, experts have tried to figure out why powerful militaries often cannot defeat weak opponents or guerrilla insurgencies. The thinking has gone from the size of the military deployments and the strategies involved to the idea of resolve. Insurgent forces tend to have a high tolerance for death; in effect, they have a higher resolve than the democratic state, which may well have to answer to a skeptical public wondering why there is so much carnage.

Former U.S. secretary of state Henry Kissinger famously wrote of the Vietnam debacle that "the guerrilla wins if he does not lose. The conventional army loses if it does not win."

One of the first researchers to examine the reasons why the political calculus changes and missions fail is Andrew Mack, who currently leads the Human Security Report Project at the School for International Studies at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, B.C.

He wrote one of the first papers on asymmetric warfare back in 1975. It suggested that because powerful states are fighting a weaker enemy, it's a "limited" intervention, which diminishes the sense of national sacrifice. When the home nation is at no risk of invasion, there is more scrutiny of war tactics – torture, for example – and more of the "moral outrage" that can come with them. And as a war drags on, internal divisions themselves become political costs of war.

Together, these factors destroy "the external power's political capability to wage war."

That's becoming evident in Canada as the political landscape is ignited by more soldier deaths.

Sullivan says the problem lies in states' habitual underestimation of the costs of achieving their political aims, in both human and material terms.

Her model takes the argument one step further, by showing what diminishes resolve in the first place.

The researcher studied all 122 military interventions by the five major powers on the United Nations Security Council from World War II to 2003. A war aim that involved brute force alone, for instance, to defend territory or remove a regime, prevailed 75 to 80 per cent of the time.

A war aim that requires support of the people or cooperation by an adversary is called "coercive." In such a scenario – having Saddam Hussein co-operate with weapons inspectors, for example – the success rate was only 17 per cent. If the war aim is moderately coercive, such as propping up a government that replaced the one that just toppled, the rate was 40 per cent.

SOME RESEARCHERS suggest the issues over which nations fight are no longer being settled by conflict. Take the ongoing problems in Israel despite the decisive victory over Arab states in 1967, or the fact that India and Pakistan's intermittent war over Kashmir still has no solution.

Columbia University scholar Page Fortna says this may have to do with how warfare has changed. It's no longer acceptable to invade and kill indiscriminately or to grab territory, she says. Wars are now more about regime change.

"This shift I've noticed may be caused by the kinds of things that states are trying to get other governments or rebel entities to do," says Fortna, adding that missions are thus less likely to be accomplished.

Does this mean that we should think twice about doing anything that requires more than sheer force?

Does it mean a mission like Afghanistan has so little chance of success in the first place that we shouldn't try?

"There's nothing in a study like this that says: `Oh, well, we shouldn't engage in these things,'" says military historian Delaney. "It's: `How important is it to you? How much does it contribute to your security?'"

A military intervention is just one tool of government. There are also economic sanctions and diplomacy, for which Sullivan's model doesn't account.

The challenge for the government is maintaining support for a conflict when people don't perceive a threat – of a failed state falling into the hands of extremists, for instance – particularly as Canadian deaths are rising, says Delaney.

It may well be that the key to bolstering Western resolve is another terrorist attack like 9/11 or the London transit bombings of two years ago, he says.

"If nothing happens, it will be harder still to say this is necessary."