Snatching Defeat from the Jaws of Victory: Generational War and the Illusion of Winning

090219-A-6797M-101 U.S. Army 1st Lt. Larry Baca from Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 4th Infantry Regiment monitors the weather as a storm moves in outside of Forward Operating Base Lane, Afghanistan, on Feb. 19, 2009. DoD photo by Staff Sgt. Adam Mancini, U.S. Army. (Released)


Daniel R. Brunstetter, University of California, Irvine

In 2003, George W. Bush declared victory in the war to oust Saddam Hussein. “The battle of Iraq,” he claimed, “is one victory in a war on terror that began on September the 11th, 2001 and still goes on.” There had already been other such victories along the way.  “In the battle of Afghanistan, we destroyed the Taliban, many terrorists and the camps where they trained.” These wars against state actors were mere battles in a bigger war, with victory nevertheless looming on the horizon: “The war on terror is not over, yet it is not endless. We do not know the day of final victory, but we have seen the turning of the tide.” [1] Barack Obama has made similar claims about victory in his framing of the struggle against terrorist groups. One month prior to the 2012 elections, Obama made a speech at the Democratic National Convention to bolster the view that he was the best person to continue to lead the country. He claimed success in ending the war in Iraq, promised to end the war in Afghanistan by 2014 against a “blunted” Taliban, and made bold claims about the war on terror: “al Qaeda is on the path to defeat; and Osama bin Laden is dead”. As the next election looms Al Qaeda is, alas, once again resurgent, the U.S is waging war again in Iraq, and is still in Afghanistan.[2] In other words, the U.S. has repeatedly managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. There are many reasons why, for sure, but at the heart lies a flawed conception of victory.

Both Bush and Obama have linked winning the struggle against terrorism to the spread of democracy across the globe. This is a dangerous misconception of victory. IR research has challenged the view that the liberal peace, marked by the spread of democracy, will in the long run lead to international security. Rather, some scholars argue that transitions to democracy are violent and full of uncertainty as groups vie for power.[3] Nation building, others argue, is a craft that is said to take between 10-14 years, from the toppling of the regime to the formation of a stable government that controls its borders and is capable of smooth transitions after the election process cycles along.[4] There is something sobering, even troubling, that comes with reading these studies in retrospect.  This is because the in-between period of transition is one fraught with violence – as the new state apparatus struggles to gain control and popular support, as the occupier seeks to root out pockets of resistance, and as those who lost power struggle to redefine their identity. The instability in Iraq after the 2003 war is a prime example. As we approach the end of that magic 14-year period, are we really close to a successful transition in Iraq?

If a stable democracy in Iraq was the marker of winning that battle, then victory in Iraq was a long, long way off from Bush’s 2003 speech.  More troublesome still is the failure to see that the battle for Iraq was just beginning – and indeed that the continued struggle would fuel the flames of the war on terror instead of contributing to turning the tides. The enemy has a new name, but its origins emerge from the ashes of the U.S. ‘victory’ in the ‘battle’ of Iraq. The Islamic State (IS) was born in U.S. prisons in Iraq, the product of defeating the Baathist regime and the struggle to impose democracy during the transition period that began with the fall of the Hussein regime.[5]

Andrew Hom’s recent post on this blog makes a compelling case that if the war on terror is a war, then it is a war that can never be won.[6] But perhaps the error also lies in seeing the struggle as a war to begin with. We could, rather, frame it as a series of interrelated international issues, some of which are wars, with different conceptions (and phases) of victory possible; other parts are more issues of law enforcement, where the notion of victory is misplaced.

The struggle against IS, for example, is a conflict first and foremost about wresting back the territory over which it gained control. Providing military assistance to the Iraqi government to do so is part of that process, as is brokering a solution to the Syrian civil war. Victory in this instance could be measured by restoring territorial and constitutional integrity to Iraq and eventually Syria (though what this looks like could sew seeds for future conflict).

This would not result in ultimate victory – that is, the total destruction of IS or like-minded groups. IS would, if it wanted to survive, abandon its territorial ambitions, and follow the strategy of Al Qaeda or other groups by finding ways to export terror from other places where they can find safe havens. Such safe-havens could exist in failed states, or in places such as the deserts of northern Mali or the Afghanistan-Pakistan border regions where a government cannot assert its full authority. If this were to occur, containing IS could take a two-fold approach.

First, helping legitimate local governments to restore constitutional and territorial integrity in these states, perhaps by providing military assistance if asked to do so. Here, victory could be measured by a state regaining control over its territory. There are threads of this view in the new U.S. National Security Strategy (NSS) published in 2015: “In Afghanistan, we have ended our combat mission and transitioned to a dramatically smaller force focused on the goal of a sovereign and stable partner in Afghanistan that is not a safe haven for international terrorists.” And with regards to Iraq: “We will continue to support Iraq as it seeks to free itself from sectarian conflict and the scourge of extremists. Our support is tied to the government’s willingness to govern effectively and inclusively and to ensure ISIL cannot sustain a safe haven on Iraqi territory.”[7]

But let’s not beat around the bush and misuse the term victory in this context by linking it to democratization.  Restoring territorial integrity is not an easy task to begin with, and even less so if we associate it with creating a thriving democracy in the wake of war. Afghanistan and Iraq have been in the throws of internal struggles that predate the war on terror. The belief that uniting to fight a common enemy – e.g. extremist terrorist groups such as IS – would resolve pre-existing quarrels would once again lead us to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. Tensions among diverse groups fighting IS in Iraq – e.g. between Shia and Kurdish factions who have taken over territory in the push to quash IS – are a blueprint for another conflict. Anticipating – and assuaging – the competing views of what the post-IS world in Iraq should look like will be a major element of achieving any semblance of victory measured by long-term stability.

Second, states such as the U.S. can use all the law enforcement mechanisms at their disposal to contain and pursue terrorist cells. In a law enforcement setting, total victory is not possible. One cannot be fully free from the risk of criminal violence, even of the terrorist kind. To imagine that one can win by eliminating altogether the threat is to set the stage for a generational conflict, maybe even a millennial conflict. This is not just a semantic point, because such framing is important insofar as it legitimates how resources are distributed to counter the very real threat posed by terrorism.

Take the current U.S. strategy as an example. Obama’s 2015 NSS places emphasis on law enforcement: “Outside of areas of active hostilities, we endeavor to detain, interrogate, and prosecute terrorists through law enforcement.” However, Obama seems to recognize limits on the efficacy of law enforcement mechanisms:

… when there is a continuing, imminent threat, and when capture or other actions to disrupt the threat are not feasible, we will not hesitate to take decisive action. We will always do so legally, discriminately, proportionally, and bound by strict accountability and strong oversight.[8]

Without saying so directly, Obama is tipping his hat to the drone program to act decisively to take out terrorist threats, whether they be from Al Qaeda, IS, or any other like-minded group that finds save haven beyond the grasp of law enforcement mechanisms.

The strategy of the drone campaign is to take out terrorist leadership, to disrupt the planning and carrying out of acts of terror, and to deny safe havens by patrolling areas that law enforcement mechanisms cannot reach but where terrorist operate. The hope is that this strategy will lead to a “tipping point” at which terrorist groups cease to be able to project any serious threat, meaning they are, for all intents and purposes, defeated. But this is far from being the case, despite the claims that Al Qaeda was severely degraded and on the road to defeat.

Drones, as I have argued, are not the ultimate solution to defeating terrorist groups.[9] While I laud Obama for integrating the drone program into the NSS and holding it up to the standards of proportionality and discrimination, the legality of drone strikes remains a highly contested claim. If we are not at war, then these are not the standards by which drones should be judged. And even if they were, drones may serve to deter and diminish the threat to U.S. security interests, but this often comes at the price of such groups carrying out more localized attacks.

The resurgence of Al Qaeda (assuming it was ever really significantly degraded) is a case in point.  While there have been no major attacks on U.S. soil since 2001, there have been hundreds of localized attacks in Pakistan and especially Afghanistan, even after the drone campaign came into full swing.  Drones may forestall attacks on “us”, but they have not defeated Al Qaeda, and leave others to bear the brunt of Al Qaeda’s ideology. Let’s call a spade a spade; believing otherwise promotes a rather hollow sense of victory. Or, one might say, our limited victory outsources the suffering to other populations.

There is a similar risk in seeking what amounts to a hollow victory against IS. Obama has promised to “degrade and ultimately defeat” IS. The coupling of “degrade” with “defeat” occurs four times in the 2015 NSS, as if diminishing the ability of IS to strike U.S. interests is a step along the way to ultimately vanquishing the group from the earth. But the struggle against IS is not a conventional war that can be won. IS can be defeated in Iraq if the Iraqi government wrests its territory back. IS can be defeated in Syria if a peace is brokered and its constituents are not given a seat at the negotiating table. IS could then be pursued across the globe under the auspices of the war on terror, with drones leading the way. Then maybe some future U.S. president would fail to learn from history and try the strategy of invasion, military victory over a weak regime, and occupation to once again snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.

The struggle against IS has the makings of a generational war that ultimately cannot be won. Obama stated in the 2015 NSS that “the United States—not our adversaries—will define the nature and scope of this struggle, lest it define us.”[10] However, in choosing to designate it as a war, we have chosen to play by the rules of war. And war is a place where our values rarely shine, even if the so-called rules of war are followed. If the cycle described above has any purchase, then this choice means we are set up never to win.

Is ‘not winning’ the same as ‘defeat’? One might say that as long as the fight is ongoing, then defeat is kept at bay, even if victory is ever looming. But another way of answering the question lies in placing emphasis on a different sense of defeat that comes to the fore when waging a war without a clear picture of victory. There is something of defeat in living perpetually in a condition in which we fail to live up to our values or fully live according to our hopes and dreams because the enemy imposes the specter of its will upon us. Defeat lies in the uneasy sentiment that the enemy, by prompting us to fight, is somehow getting the better of us by thwarting our ability to live and constructively invest our energies in our society. Being in a generational war lends fear – and its twin sibling – nationalism – an over-stated place in society. This affects the way we treat fellow citizens, and the freedoms and liberties we ought to enjoy in times of peace. When this occurs, then something of the core of our identity has been defeated by imposing a way of life that diminishes who we are or aspire to be. Such a conflict also poses a big challenge for the military itself, imposing seemingly unending demands to keep the nation safe. This can create tension between civil-military relations, especially given the amount of resources that need to be diverted to the running a generational war.[11]

So where does this leave us? If we cannot call this struggle a war, what do we call it? And what could victory possibly mean? To take the example of combatting IS, I think that it is important to separate out the various layers of the struggle. We can call it a war when the stakes are taking back the territory IS has gained control over. Binding war to control (not necessarily democratic!) over territory, places victory easily into the state-centric view of the international system, making it a measurable achievement.

But let’s not call it a war when the struggle is aimed at an ideology. Victory against a de-territorialized IS would be elusive for the reasons discussed above. Rather, the struggle, viewed in terms of law enforcement, becomes a perennial act of trying to uphold rule and order. This is not an easy task, and it is not a task that will ensure total security. Nor it is a task in which the values of democracy will necessarily shine. Rather, democratic societies – the U.S. and France are cases in point – will need to balance the rights and freedoms of its citizens with the pursuit of the security of society, which means weighing the temptation to take more invasive powers with the necessity of preserving individual privacy. They will need to expand cooperation with other states, striking a balance between upholding democratic ideals and working together with non-democratic allies. Focusing on ways to do this better – i.e. in ways that diminishes the power and lure of the ideologies expressed by groups like Al Qaeda and IS by expanding the reach of global law enforcement mechanisms – is a remedy against the temptation to engage in future battles in the unending war on terror, and thus avoid our unnerving tendency to snatch defeat from the jaws of a rather more modest goal, simply getting on with life without yielding to fear.



[3] Jack Snyder, From Voting to Violence: Democratization and Nationalist Conflict (Norton, 2000).

[4] J. Dobbins, et al, The Beginner’s Guide to Nation-Building (Santa Monica, CA; RAND, 2009).





[9] Daniel Brunstetter and Arturo Jiménez Bacardi, “Clashing over Drones: The Legal and Normative Gap between the U.S. and the Human Rights Community” International Journal of Human Rights,19,2 (2015), pp. 176-98.




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