Why the United States is no longer winning the wars (2023)

A few days before the fall of Saigon in April 1975, an event that marked the end of the Vietnam War, Colonel Harry G. Summers Jr of the United States Army had a conversation in Hanoi with Colonel Tu of the North Vietnamese Army at peace negotiations. “You know you never defeated us on the battlefield,” said Summers. The North Vietnamese colonel reflected on this remark for a moment, then replied: “That may be so, but it is also irrelevant.” The exchange is captured in Summers’ 1982 book On Strategy: A Critical Analysis of the Vietnam War.

The dialogue illustrates the US paradox in most of the conflicts that would come later. After 1945 the US became a superpower; and the fall of the Soviet Union would later leave it as the only remaining world leader, but it basically stopped winning wars. The country has not had a clear, indisputable victory beyond the 1991 Gulf War. The nature of war has changed and most of them are civil conflicts, with the enemy taking the shape of terrorist groups and myriad small factions branching off in every direction – pure quagmires.

Summers, who became a writer and a scholar of the Vietnam War, concluded that his North Vietnamese counterpart was right: that regardless of action on the battlefield, the Americans had lost the 20-year-long war in such a terribly profound way that it became a symbol and a slogan: “We don’t want another Vietnam.”

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They didn’t want one in Afghanistan, they didn’t want on in Iraq, they didn’t want one in any of the wars that the US fought in the early 21st century and which quickly turned into dead ends – conflicts that are not lost but not won either, and which are very hard to abandon. In the case of Afghanistan, it will have taken two decades. The last US troops are set to leave on August 31, leaving the country at the mercy of Taliban guerrillas, which are growing stronger by the day. And in Iraq, site of the most unpopular war in recent US history, President Joe Biden on Monday agreed to conclude the combat mission by the end of 2021, after 18 years.

The lesson of the last few years is that the US should never have gotten involved in civil conflicts abroad, and I think we have seen the last US interventions of this kind for some time to come

Mark Perry, Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft

These are conflicts that end without surrender and without victory ceremonies, where the enemy is barely seen and does not wear a uniform. Biden has admitted that with Afghanistan, it is not possible to expect any different results than those already obtained. In an April speech, the president said that the time had come for US troops to withdraw.

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Dominic Tierney, a professor of political science at Swarthmore College, has analyzed the matter in-depth in The Right Way to Lose a War: America in an Age of Unwinnable Conflicts. “The US is very effective at winning wars between states, that’s why it won in the Gulf in 1991, but right now 90% of conflicts are civil, with guerrillas, terrorists and insurgents fighting within the same country, and it is having trouble because it does not understand local politics or internal dynamics. Afghanistan is a very clear case, because it is a war that the US entered in quite suddenly, with the 2001 attacks [on the World Trade Center in New York], and it barely understood anything about the country,” he explained in a telephone interview.

Then-president George W. Bush launched the offensive together with allies barely a month after 9/11, because the Taliban were sheltering Osama bin Laden and other Al Qaeda leaders with ties to the attack. The goal was to destroy this terrorist group and kick the Taliban out of Afghanistan. Tierney says this needs to be described as a failure. “The US hasn’t surrendered to the Taliban, but it has been a terribly costly 20-year campaign, both in terms of lives and dollars, and the end result is that the Taliban are surging again. If we could go back to 2001 and tell people that the Taliban would still be around two decades later, they’d be horrified.”

In the early days of the campaign there was a feeling of victory, adds Tierney, because a small number of soldiers were able to kick out the Taliban. This mirage emboldened Bush with a view to the Iraq war two years later. But with time, two underlying problems surfaced: one, that the Taliban enjoyed considerable support among the Pashtun population, and that Pakistan was a sanctuary where they could take refuge and recover before going back to the war. “The war is over for the United States, but not for the Afghans,” he underscores.

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Right now 90% of conflicts are civil, with guerrillas, terrorists and insurgents fighting within the same country, and it is having trouble because it does not understand local politics or internal dynamics

Dominic Tierney, Swarthmore College professor of political science

Mark Perry, a defense analyst at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft and author of a dozen books on foreign policy and war, partly disagrees. In his view, the death of Osama bin Laden and the breakup of Al Qaeda, which were the main goals, mean that Afghanistan should not be added to the list of US defeats, even if “it certainly isn’t a victory, either.” The problem, says Perry, is that the US tried to do too much. “We have never been good at nation-building and we have wasted lives and wealth attempting it. The same happened with Iraq and with Syria. Although Syria is a special case because we haven’t tried there.”

The US has around 200,000 troops deployed all over the world, although this figure varies permanently due to withdrawal and reinforcement decisions that get made almost on a daily basis, and which do not include special or secret operations. Biden and also Donald Trump – albeit with a diametrically opposed style – have sought to reduce the scope of US efforts and resources in the Middle East, and to focus instead on the challenges represented these days by China on both the economic and military fronts.

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Iraq, however, is different from Afghanistan. Rather than effect a drastic withdrawal of the remaining 2,500 troops, Washington has negotiated with Baghdad a redefined role as a purveyor of training and logistical support. The Barack Obama administration had already announced the end of the war back in 2011, when it barely left any troops in Iraq, but in 2014 US soldiers returned when the Iraqi government sought help to deal with terrorism by the Islamic State.

Perry feels that the Iraq war was the biggest mistake in US foreign policy in 40 years. The hawks in the Bush administration pushed for it on the basis of the alleged existence of weapons of mass destruction that were never found. “We shouldn’t have gone, and if we did, we should have reached our goal of deposing Saddam Hussein and left. Now we are leaving, but it’s 20 years later.”

According to this expert, “the war on terror has been fought and ended. The lesson of the last few years is that the US should never have gotten involved in civil conflicts abroad, and I think we have seen the last US interventions of this kind for some time to come.”

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The events of the last few weeks seem to be proving him right. Following the assassination of Haiti president Jovenel Moïse, the interim government anxiously requested US troops to stop instability in the country. A few days later, Biden replied that such a move was not on the US agenda.

English version by Susana Urra.


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