What is Victory?

David Tucker

April 1, 2003

Newt Gingrich, the former Speaker of the House of Representatives, gave a speech at the American Enterprise Institute on Tuesday April 22, in which he harshly criticized the State Department. The quality of his criticism need not detain us long. It suffices to point out that Gingrich faults the State Department for a bad communications policy because lots of people around the world disagreed with our policy towards Iraq. It is apparently inconceivable to Gingrich that people disagreed with the policy not because it was badly communicated (President Bush gave a series of well publicized speeches making plain what he intended to do and why) but because, understanding the policy, they thought it wrong.

What is most important about the speech is not the criticism of the State Department but the praise of the Defense Department and its Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, for transforming the way the US military fights. Gingrich says that Defense gave us “a stunning victory” in Iraq and contrasts the multiple failures of State with the success of Defense in Afghanistan and Iraq. Judging by the flow of commentary, Gingrich’s opinion is a common one. It is flawed, however, perhaps fatally.

Consider Afghanistan. Consistent reports from a variety of sources indicate that at best we have ceased to make progress there. It is more likely that the situation is actually deteriorating. Ambushes and attacks on US and international forces are increasing. Rival factions are fighting in the provinces. Last weekend, the United States reportedly had to fly helicopters over one such battle in an effort to intimidate the participants into behaving. Taliban remnants have reportedly reorganized and are operating in southern Afghanistan where the movement began.

Why does any of this still matter? The growing success of our enemies in Afghanistan encourages our enemies everywhere.

In his speech, Gingrich tries to blame State for the problems in Afghanistan because an organization subsidiary to the State Department has not rebuilt enough infrastructure [is this AID?]. But it is absurd to think that paved roads will fix Afghanistan’s problems. The true cause of the continuing problems there is the flawed strategy that Defense has used. Instead of focusing on building support for the government in the countryside, Defense has focused on killing or catching the bad guys. But you can only do this effectively if the people among whom the bad guys must live and operate are willing to give you information about where they are, information they will provide only if they support the government. Not only has Defense not worked to build this support, it has undermined it by working, with the CIA, through provincial warlords to catch Taliban and al Qaeda personnel. This subtracts support from the central government, which is what we are supposed to be building.

But was not the original plan of attack in Afghanistan, American Special Forces on horseback in a cavalry charge with satellite phones and laser designators, a brilliant plan? It deserves all the praise it has received. Unfortunately for Gingrich’s argument, it was not the Defense Department’s plan. All the available evidence indicates that the CIA thought it up and did all the work to make it possible.

If Afghanistan is not the success that Gingrich claims, must we not agree that the campaign in Iraq was as stunning a victory as Gingrich says it was?

Again, the campaign deserves all the praise it has received, and this time it was the Defense Department’s plan. But Gingrich fails to understand what made the plan great and, indeed, in that failure to understand points to the larger failure of the Defense Department.

People praise the campaign in Iraq because instead of slogging it out tank to tank with the Iraqis, we maneuvered around military units and insignificant objectives and struck as quickly as possible at Baghdad. What lay behind this war of maneuver was a political judgment that the regime was weak and if its head were struck off, if we killed Saddam or captured Baghdad and Tikrit, Saddam’s home town, all those bypassed military units and cities would collapse. While the regime may not have been as weak as was thought, the political judgment was pretty close to the truth.

While all war should serve political ends, in the war in Iraq the political objectives suffused every aspect of the campaign, from the initial decision to strike at Saddam before the plan called for the war to start, to the armored forays into Baghdad for psychological effect as it neared its end. Paramount in this completely political war was limiting civilian casualties. Throughout all this, the US military showed astounding flexibility, not just the firepower for which it is traditionally known.

The campaign in Iraq was a stunning success, and a departure for the US military, because of the degree to which political considerations dictated all aspects of the campaign. But it is precisely because the political is paramount that we cannot yet speak of victory, as Gingrich does. Will the campaign in Iraq be a victory if the political consequences are not to our advantage?

Consider an analogy. The true prototype for the campaign in Iraq was the campaign to rid Panama of Manuel Noriega. In each case, the principal object was to get the dictator and destroy the military force (Republican Guard in Iraq, National Guard in Panama) that supported him, while killing as few civilians and destroying as little infrastructure as possible. The US military conducted similar campaigns in each case. Interestingly, success came relatively quickly in each case, with relatively few US casualties. Also interestingly, in each case, the capital city was devastated by looting after US forces took control, to the detriment of the political objectives that the US sought to achieve. When the first President Bush visited Panama after the war, his motorcade was attacked by angry Panamanians.

It may seem petty to criticize the military for not stopping looting after its successful campaigns. Why do we think the military can do everything? But, to reiterate, war is not just about destroying or outmaneuvering enemy forces, as Gingrich seems to think. War is really about the political consequences of the fighting. The looting in Panama and Iraq is a small indication of the failure on the part of the US military, and those who run it, to look beyond the military campaign. The same failure is evident in Afghanistan, where killing or capturing the bad guys is all that the military can see. This is the short-sightedness evident in Gingrich’s proclamation of victory in Iraq. It is too narrow a conception of victory. The political consequences of the fighting, which depend on whether we find weapons of mass destruction and whether Iraq becomes something like a normal, if not a liberal democratic country, will take time to emerge.

To its credit, the Defense Department understands better than Gingrich what constitutes victory. Political purpose permeated the campaign in Iraq, evidencing a real transformation of the US military, and the Department has not yet declared victory. We must hope that the Department’s transformation continues and that it sees all phases of its work as part of a larger political effort. If Gingrich’s narrow conception of victory prevails, then we will be less likely than ever to achieve real victory.

David Tucker is a Member of the Board of Advisors at the Ashbrook Center for Public Affairs at Ashland University and an Associate Professor of Defense Analysis at the Naval Postgraduate School. He is the author of Skirmishes at the Edge of Empire: The United States and International Terrorism. The views expressed here are his own and do not reflect the position of the Naval Postgraduate School, Navy Department, or Department of Defense.