A winnable war?

“There’s no such thing as a winnable war; It’s a lie that we don’t believe anymore”

Music is not my specialist subject but these lyrics have been popping into my head over the past couple of days. Sting, of course, was singing in the context of the Cold War, but after these comments made by the British Commander in Afghanistan there has been some debate on the Web about whether war is winnable in the 21st Century.
Of course, in order to really get to grips with the debate you need to first have a think about what war is, and also what constitutes victory. But it’s more complex than that because the definition of war and the goal of victory might be different for each of the combatants.
It may be helpful to think in terms of different levels of war – a tactical success does not always mean strategic success for example. And it’s worth considering the interplay between the military and the political.
The subject is being discussed on the BBC’s World Have Your Say blog. The original post was written by the Editor, Mark Sandell, and the other day, when I was visiting the team for some research I was doing, I wrote a follow up post.
The Kings of War blog has also been considering the issue. ‘The Faceless Bureaucrat’ attempts to abstract the problem.
While David Betz takes up the comments made by Mark Carleton-Smith, the aforementioned British Commander, and says his contribution represents a much needed reality-check:

“Of course it is unrealistic to expect a ‘decisive military victory’ in Afghanistan. For one thing, insurgencies are not defeated militarily independently of politics. This is old news. It’s explained right there on page 1 of Colonel Summers’ On Strategy: The Vietnam War in Context (1975) where he recounts a discussion with a NVA colonel after the war:
‘You know you never defeated us on the battlefield’ said the American colonel.
The North Vietnamese colonel pondered this remark a moment. ‘That may be so,’ he replied, ‘but it is also irrelevant.’
Insurgents are out-governed not outfought.”

I’ve also had a quick scout around my blog reader for other thoughts on the winnable war.
Op For, a US military blog, quotes Col. David B. Enyeart, Deputy Commander, Task Force Phoenix, in Afghanistan last year:

“This is a winnable war over here, and everyone is positive about that. It used to be that the US wanted the war to be over with, now it’s the Afghans who want the war to be over and to have their own country.”

And this is interesting too. Paddy Ashdown writing in the Guardian in July 2007:

‘In July 2006, Britain’s highly respected commander of international forces in Afghanistan, General David Richards, issued a stark warning: “Afghanistan is a good and winnable war but, at the pace we are proceeding, we need to realise that we could actually fail here.”‘