“In the twenty-first century, wars are not won when the enemy army is defeated on the battlefield”

LTC. John Nagl had an article, not yet available online, in the prestigious RUSI journal where he used his review of The Echo of Battle: The Army’s Way of War by Brian McAllister Linn to drive home a geopolitical and grand strategic reality that I offer here with my subsequent comments( major hat tip to Lexington Green for the PDF):

In the twenty-first century, wars are  not won when the enemy army is defeated on the battlefield; in fact, there may not be a uniformed enemy to fight at all. Instead, a war is only won when the conditions that spawned armed conflict have been changed.

 Fielding first rate conventional militaries of local or regional “reach” are inordinately expensive propositions and only the United States maintains one with global power projection capabilities and a logistical tail that can fight wars that are both far away and of long duration.  Economics, nuclear weapons, asymmetrical disparities in conventional firepower, globalization and the revolution in information technology that permits open-source warfare have incentivized warfare on the cheap and stealthy at the expense of classic state on state warfare. The predictions of Martin van Creveld in The Transformation of War are coming to pass – war has ratcheted downward from armies to networks and blurs into crime and tribalism. In this scenario, kinetics can no longer be neatly divorced from politics – or economics, sociology, history and culture. “Legitimacy”, stemming from getting actions on the mental and moral levels of war right, matter tremendously.

‘Decisive results’ in the twenty-first century will come not when we wipe a piece of land clean of enemy forces, but when we protect its people and allow them to control their territory in a manner consistent with the norms of the civilised world.

 This is “Shrinking the Gap” to use Thomas P.M. Barnett’s phrase. The remediation of failing and failed states not to “utopia” but basic functionality that permits a responsible exercise of sovereignty and positive connectivity with the rest of the world.

Thus victory in Iraq and Afghanistan will come when those nations enjoy governments that meet the basic needs and garner the support of all of their peoples.

Taken literally, Nagl errs here with two polyglot regions, especially Afghanistan where the popular expectation of a “good” central government is one that eschews excessive meddling while providing – or rather presiding over – social stability and peace. Taken more broadly to mean a gruff acceptance by the people of the legitimacy of their state so they do not take up arms ( or put them down), then nagl is on target. Realism about our own interests vs. global needs and our own finite resources requires a ” good enough” standard be in place.

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