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Never-Ending Wars of 21st Century
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A Royal Navy Counter IED Expert conducts a training exercise in Afghanistan. (Photographer: Lt Nick Southall RN,

Easy Entry, Turbulent Exit

Conflicts of the 21st Century have once again proved that big powers intervention has failed to end violence and create regional and global stability. These are “never-ending wars”, wherein the entry is a show of power and the exit of an unresolved dilemma. This is because the attrition strategy of intervention conflicts often ignore the root cause of violence, the ideology cum indoctrination of the extremist and repulsion of the people to military occupation. They target the effect not the root cause for the furtherance of their short-sighted political self-interest. Thus occupation results in greater turbulence and instability in the nation at exit than that existed at the time of entry. The less powerful and poorly equipped opposition often win this manoeuvre mind game through motivation to defend their culture, religion and dissent to enforcing a model ignoring the local dynamics. The end state is often greater turbulence and misery for the innocent populace of that country.

The Notion of Victory in Never-Ending Wars

Wars have a psychological domain that is more powerful than the capability domain. Wars are lost or won in this cognitive domain of the mind.  Such interventionist wars are unwinnable because the strategy of entry is often short-sighted and misaligned to the geopolitics of the region and the exit more of abandonment in frustration of the cost-benefit reality. Defeating an opponent militarily is not synonymous to achieving the desired end state. Even in circumstances where the victor has supposedly achieved tactical and operational military success, bringing the conflict to a successful end is more often than not a strategic failure.

The present-day expeditionary forces waging supposedly, “Jus ad Bellum” intervention wars, presents another perspective that looks beyond war, to examine whether outcomes in these events are consistent with victory.  The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan began as regime-change operations and then transformed into a more open-ended phase with the US-led coalition forces stalemated, at best. The truth is exiting and ending those wars has proven far more elusive and consequences more disastrous,  than initiating them and the battles fought themselves. Apparently, the perceived defeated adversary and population may not accept their ‘defeat’ and the peace on victor’s terms; thus, perceived victory may not end violence but can mark a transition to yet greater turbulence. The continuums of these endless wars make one ponder, whether the notion of “victory” has any meaning in respect of contemporary warfare or is it nothing more than an enduringly dangerous myth. Welcome to an era where wars never end.

Operation Desert Storm (1991)

Operation Desert Storm or Gulf War 1 (1991), was another example of failed interventionist strategy. The outcome of the war illustrated the gap that separates battlefield success from victory. The US-led coalition forces were successful at forcing Iraq out of Kuwait but the end of the war saw Saddam still alive, in power, and U.S. forces stopped short of entering Iraq and threatening his regime. In ending the war unilaterally before Saddam had been chastened, the Bush Administration condemned the USA to a long-term presence in the Gulf to contain Iraq. The victory was incomplete and indecisive. Subsequently, the coalition presence and the sanctions served as a rallying cry of Islam under threat for jihadists such as Osama Bin Laden against the USA and others. The 9/11 catastrophe financed by the Al Qaeda terrorist organization of Saudi fugitive Osama bin Laden was possible retaliation for America’s involvement in the Persian Gulf War and its continued military presence in the Middle East. Victory in any shade remained elusive to the interventionists.

Operation Iraqi Freedom(2003)

The Iraq War Operation Iraqi Freedom(2003), was waged by the US and several coalition allies, to rid Iraq of its weapons of mass destruction, as well as to topple Saddam Hussein’s regime and replace it with a democracy. It was a war for oil, not Iraq. The coalition achieved a military victory against Iraqi forces, which led to the collapse of Saddam’s regime, but it failed to secure peace.  The outcome led to widespread civil war between Shias and Sunnis, as well as a lengthy insurgency against coalition forces. Many of the violent insurgent groups were supported by Al-Qaeda. Ironically, the invasion was far less perilous and costly to U.S. forces than the subsequent occupation. Moreover, the majority of the Iraqi public by then had come to view the U.S. military as occupational forces rather than liberators. A comprehensive study, commissioned by former Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno in 2013, spans the strategic consequences of this invasion through the U.S. withdrawal, the rise of ISIS, and the influence of Syria and Iran. The key issue of defining victory as in the Gulf War 1 remained – “Tactical Victory, Operational Success but Strategic Failure.

Operation Enduring Freedom (Afghanistan 2001)

Afghanistan has been a nation of “graveyard of empires” who saw it from their prisms of selfish interest; devoid of the geopolitics of the region and the internal dynamics of people. The history of military conflict in Afghanistan has been one of initial success, followed by long years of floundering and ultimate failure with hasty abandonment of the nation and its people. Operation Enduring Freedom (Afghanistan 1991), was no different and remains the United States’ longest and most disastrous never-ending war fought for 20 years. Winning in Afghanistan was always difficult but the connived abandonment and shameful sudden betrayal of its allies were even more disgraceful. This led to a dramatic collapse. Lessons from experience in Vietnam and Iraq were forgotten in the euphoria of the false narrative of success. The success of eliminating Osama bin Laden and curtailing attacks on America did not end the violence or prevail to ensure stability. It was a classic case of the wrong strategy driven by US electoral politics, neglected opportunities, ignoring Pakistan’s meddling, receding status quo and shameful abandonment to the same terrorist that they were hunting. The Taliban brought about the defeat of the Afghan government, its army and ISAF through psychological paralysis without fighting and winning battles. Afghanistan is today a global tragedy characterized by human rights violations and religious fanaticism devoid of humanity, ruled by an Islamist terrorist organisation with a devious agenda beyond national boundaries.  This hasty abandonment is not only a blow to their global image of Super Power but the greater threat is its psychological impact to embolden extremist Wahhabism and Islamist terrorism and its sponsor states like Pakistan. Thousands of lives have been lost in this forever war, nearly $2 trillion lost and over $85 billion worth of high tech military equipment gifted away to terrorists which even if without spares backup and expertise would be prone to cannibalisation, proliferation and reverse engineering by external agencies. The cost of high headed entry and fighting has been many times higher than 9/11 and the shameful exit has only brightened the possibility of a repeat sooner or later to threaten US security interests at home and abroad. The war remained an unresolved dilemma with elusive victory and the Taliban viewing it as a victory through the lens of the status quo. The predicament in Afghanistan and the hasty pullout of US diplomatic members from the Kabul embassy have rekindled the memories of the American withdrawal from South Vietnam in 1975. The betrayal by US of its allies has been similar to the abandonment of its Kurdish allies in northern Syria in 2019. The US attacks on IS-KP locations as a response to the deadly bomb attacks at the airports, is a show of its vulnerability and reflection of hurt national pride generating even greater hate. The might of another superpower and its global image has not only been dented in these never-ending wars but in fact, created greater vulnerabilities. Ironically Taliban in the garb of Taliban 2.0 seeks to gain international legitimacy in the short term, yet the deep-rooted radicalization and extremist ideology remain. The panic of the general public to leave the country was indicative of the mood and trust in the Taliban. Endless wars, endless misery and unattained mission mark the character of such interventions. Taliban with its celebrated victory over the US will view itself as the leader of the Islamic Umma and the temptation will be very strong to spread its radical ideology and provide sanctuary to all other terrorist organizations under the Taliban’s emirate.  Yet again the greatest sufferers remain the people of the country.

Syrian Conflict (2011)

Syrian Conflict was declared by the United Nations as the “worst humanitarian disaster since the Cold War,”. A peaceful uprising against the president of Syria ten years ago turned into a full-scale civil war that continues to endure unimaginable levels of suffering for the Syrian people. The conflict has left more than 380,000 people dead, devastated cities and drawn in other countries. The revolution which snowballed around issues of social inequality and repression ended up in a zero-sum game. The Syrian civil war was never just about Syria with its complexities of players and proxies and an open-ended turbulent future. Tragically, despite all the loss of life and destruction, the conflict is no closer to a resolution than it was when the revolution began in the spring of 2011.  No single warring party or proxies have the military strength to declare military victory.  The 2020 cease-fire has stemmed violence in the Turkey-controlled northwest, while the regime controls most of the rest of the country with help from Russia and Iran. At the same time, Israel has increasingly bombed targets in Syria said to belong to Iran-linked militias, including Hezbollah. A U.S. airstrike targeted an Iraq-based militia in Syria just weeks after the inauguration of President Joe Biden in 2021. Victories have also been proclaimed, only for violence to continue unabated. Syria is still remains mired in low-level conflict, political instability, and economic turmoil. It’s a playground of global proxies with the misery of the local people being turned a blind eye.

Five Big Lessons for the Future

Firstly, unless the cause is addressed and its perpetrators punished, the effects and actors can only be temporarily curbed. The seeds for extremist Wahhabism and Islamist terrorism are sown in the Deeni Madaris which are multiplying each day acting as jihad factories. Most of them are state-sponsored and funded by states like Pakistan. The metrics to know if one is winning or losing the global war on terror are missing, as the production rate in these factories is higher than the elimination rate of their products. These factories and their placement managers continue to flourish. The winner of all these interventionist debacles is inevitably the terrorist organizations of all stripes and their mentors, regardless of borders or boundaries. Finally, “birds of a feather flock together”, the agenda of all Islamist terrorist organisations and their mentors have convergence.

Secondly, the ease of initial entry distorts perception, blinds ground realities and promotes a skewed strategy with missed opportunities, which often results in an unresolved dilemma and hasty exit. It’s always easier to pervade but difficult to prevail. More often than not the interventionist nations struggle to develop and implement a coherent strategy that is sustainable and time realistic. The country’s social, economic, and political dynamics need to be dovetailed in any intervention strategy along with mid-course correction based on a pragmatic monitoring mechanism. Geography and regional geopolitics play an important role in the evolution of this strategy which must not be ignored. More often than not intervention strategy viewed from the myopic prism of a self-centric national interest has resulted in a disaster.

Thirdly, wars are won and lost in the mind not just by the might. Technology kills but also creates vulnerabilities if the human element is not complementary. Finally, it’s the moral dislocation and functional circumvention that leads to psychological paralysis and lack of will to fight which defines a defeat mechanism. Information warfare also plays an important role in the outcome of any conflict. The strategy in anti-terrorism and counter-insurgency operations thus has to be manoeuvre warfare, not attrition warfare, with people as the centre of gravity. A nation is defined by its people and culture; both inviolable.

Fourthly, Clausewitz’s famous line that “War is a mere continuation of politics by other means,” is sound. But when politics get related to electoral agendas it lacks the moral fibre, corruption sets in eroding governance and all instruments of national security collapse. This has been a classic case of what has manifested in Afghanistan. The pragmatic approach to counterinsurgency, local politics, national security and nation-building cannot be compromised. Politics of intervention mattered not the nation.

Fifthly, 21st-century intervention conflicts fundamentally question the role of military interference in today’s world. Intervention policies are no more winnable and act as mere proxies to pursue selfish national interests from a myopic prism to extend influence. There is no accountability for the mess that gets left after the exit. Their duplicity and hidden agendas lie exposed in today’s world. In the information age, the liberators are now perceived as invaders. These forever wars have turned into wars with forever defeat.


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