What is "war"? Hard to tell anymore. Even harder to define these days is "peace." As for "victory" well, good luck.
Our common understanding of these terms is anchored in the era of the Westphalian nation state. That was a paradigm of defined national borders and sovereign nations that exercised a monopoly on violence usually through standing military forces. War was considered the use of military force by one nation against another to achieve the defeat of one of the combattants and compel its submission to the will of the other. War was also seen as intended to restore peace albeit on terms favourable to the victor. War was an interval between periods of peace. Today the top minds in military studies may call that "old war."
The post-war era saw the spread of "new war." The nation state's monopoly on violence weakened as new players entered the realm of conflict. State actors began to share the stage with a host of quasi-state forces and non-state actors ranging from regional militias formed on tribal or ethnic lines, usually under the control of warlords, to rebel forces, insurgents, guerillas and even criminal organizations, large and small, and run of the mill bandits. The weaker the nation state the more opportunity that weakness affords to these quasi- and non-state actors.
This multiplicity of warring parties injects chaos into the conflict. Afghanistan, for example, has long suffered under the dual scourge of tribalism and warlordism. The country is made up of a diverse ethnicity - Pashtun, Baloch, Tajik, Hazara, Uzbek, Turkmen, Nuristani, Arab and a few others. Tribalism in spades. And, over the years, those ethnic divides have led to warlordism and banditry.
In the wake of 9/11, America and her allies poured forces into Afghanistan to cleanse the place of al Qaeda forces, to drive out their notional hosts, the Pashtun Taliban, and to implant Western democracy and human rights for a people thought to crave such things even if they didn't know it. We arrived with Old War, Westphalian-style military forces, assuming their unrivalled military prowess would assure a quick victory.
Nobody, it seems, was interested in listening as a Senate Foreign Relations Committee expert testified that democracy had never taken hold in a country like Afghanistan unless warlordism and tribalism were first overcome. In one of the most self-defeating blunders of the modern era we actually abandoned our initial opposition to Afghan's warlords and instead allowed them to achieve high office within the new national government. And we wonder why our side is still fighting there today, a decade and a half later, with no end in sight.
Our adventure in Afghanistan begat the American adventure in Iraq that begat the rise of ISIS and its spread into the nascent civil war in neighbouring Syria that dragged in other regional players including Turkey, Saudi Arabia and its Gulf State foreign legion; Iraq and its patron, Iran; plus America and its foreign legion; and, of course, Russia. Oh yeah, I forgot, Israel. Add to that the various Kurds (Iraqi, Syrian and Turkish) plus the bad guys ISIS and al Nusra plus the original home team players - Syria and its Sunni Syrian rebel opponents and you've got a battlefield bouillabaisse. How many agendas are at play there? Who's after what? Who is waging a military war and who is also waging a political war? How, if ever, does this possibly end? When? By comparison, Afghanistan looks like child's play.
Lawrence Freedman is the venerable professor of war studies at King's College, London. In a recent essay in Foreign Policy, Dr. Freedman looks at whether America can ever achieve "peace with honour" in Afghanistan and concludes that won't happen unless America's definition of "peace" is watered down.
"Over the next few weeks, U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis is due to provide President Donald Trump with a new strategy for Afghanistan. This will be the latest in a long series, produced on a regular basis since 2001, all with the core objective of preventing the country reverting to a sanctuary for terrorism. Mattis cannot be accused of ramping up expectations for the new approach he is seeking to develop. He describes the current situation as a stalemate, but with the balance having swung to the Taliban. Reversing this, he argues, will require more troops to help develop Afghan capabilities. When asked what it would mean to win, he says violence must be brought down to a level where it could be managed by the Afghan government without it posing a mortal threat.
"There are several obstacles to even this modest definition of victory. First, it envisions an Afghan government able to competently deal with groups such as al Qaeda without outside assistance; it envisions, in other words, a government very different than the one Afghanistan has had for some time. Another obstacle is posed by the supporters of the former Taliban government, who are well embedded in Afghanistan and have sympathetic backers in Pakistan. Regardless of the strategy Mattis settles on, the war offers little prospect for a stable end-state in which the Afghan government will be able to think about issues other than security, or U.S. forces can withdraw without having to rush back to repair the damage as the Taliban surge once more.
"But Afghanistan is not unique in this regard. The situation in Iraq is similar, as are the wars in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Libya, Ukraine, and any number of other international conflicts. We have entered an era of wars that wax and wane in intensity, and at best become manageable, rather than end with ceremonies to conclude hostilities. The challenge posed to traditional notions of war by these endless conflicts has been the subject of much debate. What is long overdue is reflection on the challenge posed to our definition of peace."
Si vis pacem, para bellum. “If you want peace, prepare for war,” goes the Roman adage. But if you prepare for war then at least think about the peace you want."
It's hard to refute Dr. Freedman's insights and logic. It's harder to imagine our political caste embracing his wisdom.
It's easy to fault the United States for its martial ineptitude that has led to the creation of "forever" wars the live embers of which can spread from one region to another as if borne on the winds. But what of Canada living in the shadow of this "permanent warfare state"? Shall we ever be at peace with the world again or have we been sucked into this modern Maelstrom to be pulled down to the depths?
For years I've been arguing that Canada needs to be far more cautious when it comes to any situation that places Canadian lives at risk or promises to take the lives of foreign nationals, especially civilians. What possible justification can there be for engaging in wars that we commence lacking the means or the will to win?
I so clearly remember our then leader, Harper, rearing up on his hind legs to proclaim that Canada was in Afghanistan to win. We would not cut and run. No we were staying until the Taliban were driven out for good and Afghanistan was a true democracy with Western-style human rights. What a farce.