How do we know when a war ends? Judah has a point when he calls for “a consensus on a good working definition of peace”:
That’s what will ultimately determine when we actually leave the wars we’re currently engaged in. So far, no one has really gotten around to identifying exactly how we’ll know there’s no more job left to be done. Depending on the criteria used, Mexico might not meet the definition. For that matter, a number of American cities during my lifetime might not have either.
Here’s the thing, though: The stated goal of the international coalition in Afghanistan, and of the U.S. in Iraq, is not peace but victory. Let’s not confuse one with the other. Victory is not a prerequisite for peace, nor does it necessarily lead to one. Wars have a tendency to produce victors yet go on for years after morphing into other conflicts. Sixty years of bloodshed in the Middle East have not brought peace despite glorious victories. And in Afghanistan, war has followed war even when one side has prevailed over another. Victory smells like napalm in the morning.
The American obsession with winning has caused nothing but trouble for us all. In Iraq, the U.S. has apparently settled for being able to say it won and skipping town before everything unravels. In Afghanistan, despite all the fancy talk of ending the conflict by non-military means, the aim still is first and foremost to beat the Taleban, while peace slips further away. In Pakistan, victory over al-Qaeda is so important it does not seem to matter that the whole country might go down as collateral damage.
Scoring a victory is easy compared to the herculean task of actually ending a war. In Iraq, for example, ultimately the question is “whether the civic culture required to sustain democracy has taken root in society”, David Smith writes in the New Atlanticist:
People must respect the outcome of elections, letting the government govern until the next constitutionally appointed election. During the interval, citizens have a right to express themselves, even to show their strength and ardor in orderly public demonstrations. Moreover, they should build the institutions of democracy—effective political parties, alternative programs, meaningful local elections and articulate non-governmental organizations. However, democratic culture must distinguish between freedom of expression and the political immaturity of street action purportedly in the country’s interest, but simply aimed at toppling the elected government.
In The Gamble, the dissident generals, desperate for a change in strategy, fret over and again how the U.S. is close to “losing”. Disappointingly, Ricks never challenges them to define defeat. What exactly was the U.S. losing in 2006 that it isn’t losing now? As long as victory, not peace, is the overriding concern, Iraq — and all the other countries where the West is waging war — will remain just as close to the abyss as they were when things were supposed to be worse.