CNN ran an article today regarding General Raymond Odierno’s pragmatism about the future of Iraq.
It isn't clear whether the United States will ever be able to declare victory in Iraq, [General Odierno] said Thursday.
"I'm not sure we will ever see anyone declare victory in Iraq, because first off, I'm not sure we'll know for 10 years or five years," Army Gen. Ray Odierno told reporters at the Pentagon.
This is an easy statement to take out of context, so it’s worth examining in full. For starters, General Odierno is, rightfully so, removing a lot of the rhetoric from his assessment of Iraq. Iraq, as a nation, is a deeply flawed institution; there is no doubt about that. With an economic downturn (which, in turn, affects the funding available to security forces, and can turn young men towards insurgency), and looming Arab-Kurd tensions, I have doubts that we will see a stable democracy in Iraq ten years from now. The threat of civil war and a regression to a non-democratic state will loom over Iraq for years to come. The removal of Iran’s long-time enemy probably won’t work out in our favor either.
It should be noted that Odierno, in the epilogue of Tom Ricks’ book, The Gamble, expresses a fair amount of skepticism about the future of the nation, although he does remark that, since the Surge of 2007, incredible progress has been made to repair sectarian differences.
But there’s something else about General Odierno’s remarks that should give us room to pause. Our conventional warfare paradigms tell us that there are usually clear winners and losers in any war. This zero-sum aspect of war has its roots in the Treaty of Westphalia in the 17th Century, when the European powers agreed to authorize only armed forces which were under the control of the then-recognized European nation-states—banning the mercenary groups, pirates, and private armies which had participated in war for centuries. Since that time, the nation-state has had a monopoly on violence, with the state deciding when to send an army into war, and, following hostilities, the negotiation of peace terms.
But in the modern era, in 4th Generation War and in counterinsurgency, the state does not have a clear monopoly on violence—politics and warfare are inextricably linked. As such, there’s no negotiation of peace terms over insurgents, no victory as we will typically envision it based on centuries of European military tradition. Rather, there’s merely varying degrees of success or failure. In the ever-ambiguous, complex wars of the future, we need to be prepared to experience combat with no guarantee of decisive victory—simply a quiet success.