Books discussed in this essay:

Paths to Peace: Domestic Coalition Shifts, War Termination and the Korean War, by Elizabeth A. Stanley;

How Wars End, by Dan Reiter;

How Wars End: Why We Always Fight the Last Battle, by Gideon Rose;

Lessons for a Long War: How America Can Win on New Battlefields, edited by Thomas Donnelly and Frederick W. Kagan;

In the Graveyard of Empires: America's War in Afghanistan, by Seth G. Jones;

Obama's Wars, by Bob Woodward;

Toughing It Out in Afghanistan, by Michael E. O'Hanlon and Hassina Sherjan; and

How Terrorism Ends: Understanding the Decline and Demise of Terrorist Campaigns, by Audrey Kurth Cronin


Last June, President Obama announced that "the tide of war is receding" in Afghanistan. Actually it is the tide of Americans that is receding, under Obama's own instructions. Public opinion within the United States is tiring of the Afghan conflict. The welcome demise of Osama bin Laden is taken as a further argument for winding up and coming home. Yet the war in Afghanistan is likely to go on. Obama normally refuses to speak of warfare in terms of victory or defeat, and in this he is a faithful representative of contemporary Western elite opinion. The fact is, however, that wars today usually end in the same way they always have: one side wins. Will the United States win the war in Afghanistan, and more broadly, the war against al-Qaeda? Or will it convince itself that conclusive victory is impossible, after a decade of tremendous effort?

The Bargaining Model

In contemporary political science, the leading approach to the study of war termination is known as the bargaining model. Drawn from rational-choice theory, this model posits that the main cause of war is poor or incomplete information. If potential belligerents understood perfectly their relative strengths and weaknesses, there would be no need for war in the first place. Instead, a political agreement would be reached beforehand based upon the true, existing, and known balance of power. In these assumptions, violent hostilities can only begin when the combatants disagree about their relative strengths or ability to achieve certain political goals. War itself then becomes the crucial testing ground for the relative power of the two sides. The battlefield reveals, in the most brutally honest way, the true capabilities of each belligerent. Once combat settles the question of who is stronger, a peace agreement is reached on that basis. Diplomatic negotiations are therefore not antithetical to warfare; they are the inevitable political expression of military facts on the ground. Warfare is a kind of tacit bargaining process in which combatants test their strength, precisely in order to determine a realistic basis for a reasonably durable peacetime settlement.

Such at least is the starting point for the bargaining model of war, which has been immensely influential in recent years. Yet in reality many factors prevent an easy resolution of hostilities between wartime belligerents. It is not as though combatants simply fight, gain better information about one another's capabilities, and then conclude peace agreements in a straightforward way. Three noteworthy new books on war termination draw attention to these complicating factors. Elizabeth Stanley's Paths to Peace (2009), Dan Reiter's How Wars End (2009), and Gideon Rose's How Wars End (2010) look at how actual wars have ended, from the American Civil War to the war in Iraq. Stanley's book is the best scholarly analysis and revision so far of the bargaining model of war termination. Rose's book is more accessible and less theoretical, explaining why U.S. officials have tended during wartime to plan inadequately for postwar arrangements. But the real point of comparison among them is their modifications to the bargaining model. Stanley, an assistant professor of security studies at Georgetown University, thinks that wartime leaders become overly invested politically and psychologically in the continuation of combat, requiring changes in one or more side's governing coalition before a peace agreement can be reached. For Dan Reiter, professor and chair of political science at Emory University, belligerents often look for total victory on the battlefield in order to eliminate fears that the other side will not keep the peace. Gideon Rose, editor of Foreign Affairs, argues that combatants work on assumptions drawn from the lessons of history that get in the way of a sensible postwar settlement. All three authors, in other words, build upon the bargaining model but introduce some type of complication that frequently impedes a timely and rational peace agreement.

Liberal Assumptions

As one can see, certain of the tacit assumptions and implications of the rational-choice model of war tend to align quietly but comfortably with a philosophically liberal view of the world. The first such assumption is that warfare is inherently irrational and explicable only by some sort of cognitive or institutional dysfunction. The second is that a timely peace agreement ending any given war is obviously to be desired. The third is that anything getting in the way of such an agreement is to be deplored. As is often the case in academic writings, these assumptions are not spelled out but simply taken for granted.

So, for example, in the case of the Korean War, Stanley, Reiter, and Rose all bemoan the inability of the various combatants to come to a peaceful settlement in 1951 or 1952 rather than 1953. American officials, in particular, are chastised for their insistence that prisoners of war from Communist countries be allowed to decide whether to defect or return home—a major sticking point in cease-fire negotiations during the latter half of the war. But none of the authors fully addresses the question of whether the American demand was right or wrong. It is not obvious that the forcible and unwilling return of prisoners of war to slavery, torture, or death at the hands of various totalitarian regimes was a trivial or unworthy matter. In any case, as all three scholars recognize, the crucial obstacle to an armistice in 1951-52 was Stalin's determination that the Korean conflict be used to tie down and bleed American forces far away from Europe. Only after Stalin died in March 1953 did Moscow countenance a Korean cease-fire.

The Korean case illustrates a general problem with the bargaining model, at least as it is commonly employed by political scientists today. It is not peace alone, or peace regardless of cost, but the precise terms of peace that ought to be our chief concern. Moreover, there are at least two ways of reaching a peace settlement: to concede whatever the other side wants, or to persevere and escalate until one forces concessions or surrender on the other side. The second path is historically common, and in many cases both morally admirable and operationally plausible. Yet academic writings on the subject tend with amazing frequency to dismiss this approach as necessarily futile, counter-productive, and war-mongering.

An alternative understanding might point out the following historical pattern. The U.S. Civil War determined whether slavery or the American Union would survive. The two world wars determined whether Europe would succumb to German domination. Cold War conflicts in Korea and Vietnam determined whether those countries would come under Communist totalitarian rule. And the first Gulf War determined whether Kuwait would fall to Saddam Hussein's tyranny. These were each strategically important, morally worthy questions that in the end could only be settled by war. None of these questions would have been settled satisfactorily by having the great Western democracies simply concede the issue. The Union persevered and escalated its military efforts under Abraham Lincoln until it wore out the Confederacy. The Western allies persevered and escalated their efforts in 1917-18 until the German army collapsed. The U.S. persevered in Korea, and threatened escalation under Eisenhower, until it secured both Communist concessions on the POW issue and the freedom of South Korea. President George H.W. Bush persevered and escalated an American response to Saddam Hussein in 1990-91 that resulted in the liberation of Kuwait. And in the one case mentioned where the U.S. effectively conceded, the outcome was hardly satisfactory: namely, the total submission of Vietnam to Communist and Soviet-allied one-party rule. The most obvious lesson from all of these cases is not that warfare is inherently senseless, or that military escalation cannot work, but that war sometimes settles morally significant questions by force and tenacity.

Our War

Today, the United States is engaged in a worldwide struggle with militant Islamist terrorists and insurgents—a true war and one that has already lasted decades, as Thomas Donnelly and Frederick Kagan of the American Enterprise Institute point out in their Lessons for a Long War (2010). Many Westerners would like to think that the stakes of this war are not vital; that it is all the result of some terrible misunderstanding; that the United States itself may be primarily to blame; and that in any case we can and should disengage ourselves at little cost. Similar arguments were made in every one of the historical cases mentioned earlier. But the jihadists understand the nature of this struggle better than we do. All we have to do is listen to them, since they are happy to state their claim. They say very clearly and with obvious conviction that they aim at the restoration of a trans-national Islamic caliphate; the overthrow of secular governments within the Arab world and beyond; the complete ejection of Western influence from the non-Western world; the restoration of Islamic rule in historically Muslim territories; the destruction of Israel; and the death of millions of Americans. They declare not only that they are at war with the United States, but that this war can have no ending short of utter defeat for one side or the other. And they pursue this war primarily through the deliberate killing of innocent civilians—a barbaric policy not adopted even by Nazi Germany. One would think that the moral and geopolitical stakes could hardly be clearer. Yet somehow respectable mainstream thinking in Western intellectual circles has come to the conclusion that this is a morally troubled and overhyped struggle. Indeed, Barack Obama said as much when running for president.

A crucial front right now in the long war with jihadist terrorists is along the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan. The death of Osama bin Laden has not changed the basic dynamic there. It was of course the Afghan Taliban regime that provided refuge and shelter for al-Qaeda prior to September 11, allowing thousands of would-be terrorists to rotate through training and indoctrination camps. The George W. Bush Administration succeeded in the autumn of 2001 in toppling the Taliban from power, striking a heavy blow against al-Qaeda's major base. But the administration's operational approach in Afghanistan was so light-footed that it failed to encourage either politically stable conditions in that country or the utter destruction of al-Qaeda. During Bush's second term in office, the Taliban rebounded with a powerful insurgency. As Seth Jones, a RAND analyst and adjunct professor at the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School, shows in his book, In the Graveyard of Empires (2009), this resurgence was powered not so much by economic motives or ethnic divisions as by the Taliban's extremist religious ideology and by weakness on the part of the existing Afghan government. Within the United States, Democrats like then-Senator Barack Obama argued that the administration had neglected Afghanistan while focusing on Iraq. On its merits this was a pretty good argument—and certainly a useful one politically. The only question was whether the argument was sincere. Many liberal Democrats revealed the basic insincerity of their position upon coming into possession of the White House in 2009. Afghanistan, they now argued, was another Vietnam, a futile war in a peripheral location and a distraction from pressing social and economic needs at home. Vice President Joseph Biden became the most powerful spokesman for this point of view. Bob Woodward describes the resulting political and bureaucratic tussle in his book Obama's Wars (2010).

Obama's Wars

Woodward's modus operandi has been to write a gossipy, well-sourced account of inside-the-Beltway politics every two years or so, based upon the fact that leading presidential advisers want Woodward to hear their point of view. The books then become essential Washington reading, because everybody says they are, even though the books are devoid of substantive analysis or even context. To paraphrase Abraham Lincoln: people who like this sort of thing will find this the sort of thing they like. Nevertheless, some important facts and themes do shine through the chatty, disconnected haze ofObama's Wars. To begin with, there is no indication that Obama had fully thought out, as of mid-2009, the implications of his 2008 campaign promise to escalate militarily in Afghanistan. It was merely a useful way of indicating to the median American voter that the young Illinois senator was no left-wing hippie. Soon after becoming president, Obama authorized some 20,000 additional U.S. troops for Afghanistan together with a so-called "civilian surge" that did not amount to much. He then appointed a new general to oversee America's efforts in the field, Stanley McChrystal. The mission declared by the White House was to "disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al-Qaeda" in its Afghan base through a new U.S. effort against the Taliban. Obama and many of his civilian advisers seem to have believed that these initiatives fulfilled his 2008 pledge to refocus U.S. attention on Afghanistan. General McChrystal then had the temerity to point out in public that existing U.S. troop levels were obviously inadequate to the stated mission. Though McChrystal could have been more diplomatic, he was right.

The Obama Administration was forced to conduct a second and much more contentious round of deliberations in fall 2009 over the question of America's precise military commitments. Unfortunately this came hard upon widespread charges of fraud over presidential elections in Afghanistan-charges that made our ally in Kabul all the more suspect to many Americans. In any case Obama conducted a full-scale review of U.S. strategy toward Afghanistan that lasted the entire autumn of 2009. One might think that such a methodical vetting and analysis of all options would be a healthy thing, and in the abstract it is. But in this case the most striking feature of the process was Obama's desire to split every difference between various groups of advisers, for the sake of domestic and bureaucratic politics.

Obama's leading military advisers—General McChrystal and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Mike Mullen—argued for 40,000, or at the very least 30,000, additional U.S. troops for Afghanistan. Any fewer, they suggested, would certainly fail to accomplish the stated mission. In saying this, the soldiers had the strong support of CIA director Leon Panetta. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates leaned toward this position as well. On the other side, Vice President Joe Biden, Obama's leading political advisers, Rahm Emanuel and David Axelrod, the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, Karl Eikenberry, and congressional liberals like Nancy Pelosi were all deeply wary of such an escalated American military presence. Biden became the spokesman for the opposition, as it were, arguing for diplomatic outreach toward the Taliban, a more limited commitment of 20,000 additional troops, and an increased reliance on long-distance airstrikes by unmanned drones against terrorist camps. Behind this argument was the powerful, longstanding left-liberal fear that foreign wars would endanger domestic social reforms, as they had Harry Truman's Fair Deal and Lyndon Johnson's Great Society. Indeed, the titanic domestic struggle over health care reform loomed in the background during this Afghan policy review.

After exhaustive and exhausting rounds of discussion, most of which were leaked to the press, Obama decided that it would be best to give everybody some of what they wanted, and to escalate militarily while indicating publicly certain strict limits to that escalation. In his final decision, announced in December 2009, the president authorized another 33,000 troops to Afghanistan, but in a gesture intended to reassure dovish skeptics, simultaneously announced that U.S. troops would start to come home in July 2011. This fudging condition was itself fudged in a further crucial footnote, where it was stated that the summer troop withdrawal would be subject to conditions on the ground. Obama's decision was designed to satisfy on the one hand military demands for more troops, and on the other left-liberal political demands for a visible endpoint to U.S. efforts in Afghanistan. The two imperatives worked directly against each other; openly declared exit dates were nonsensical militarily. If Taliban insurgents knew that the U.S. would be on its way home starting July 2011, they could simply wait out the Americans. Still, that would be more of a problem for the U.S. military in Afghanistan than for Obama's political team, who were deeply suspicious of electoral complications arriving in uniform. It is hard to think of any case in American history where a U.S. president began a major military effort by announcing exactly when he intended to start withdrawing American troops from battle. But Obama's most fervent admirers appeared to believe that this represented a kind of political and bureaucratic masterstroke. Biden was left to think he had won the essential argument, and so was McChrystal.

Most of the major developments of 2010 went against the Biden camp and its ill-conceived strategy for long-distance disengagement. A media scandal over General McChrystal's lack of political savvy led to his replacement by General David Petraeus in June 2010, giving the U.S. war effort a new leader of immense credibility. At a November 2010 NATO conference held in Lisbon, the Obama Administration quietly affirmed that U.S. troops would be in Afghanistan through 2014. A December Afghan policy review that same year ended up reaffirming the existing approach and postponing any heated debate. It was left for Obama to announce in summer 2011 exactly how many troops he intended to withdraw and at what pace. Meanwhile, American soldiers and Marines hammered Taliban forces, robbing the jihadists of valuable numbers, space, and morale.

On June 22, 2011, Obama took to the airwaves to announce the beginning of U.S. troop withdrawals from Afghanistan. He declared that the United States would remove 5,000 troops immediately, another 5,000 by the end of 2011, and then a further 23,000 by September 2012. Everyone had expected some sort of token withdrawal, but the overall size and pace of the announced disengagement came as a surprise to many defense experts, whether Democratic or Republican. The decision had no clear military rationale. If Afghanistan was strategically vital to U.S. counter-terrorism efforts, as Obama himself had said rightly and repeatedly, why walk away from combat just when the Taliban were reeling? And if American forces were having a damaging effect on the Taliban, which they certainly were, why withdraw in such large numbers and at such a fixed pace, in the very middle of the 2012 combat season? The conclusion was inescapable: the chief consideration inside the White House was not military but political, specifically electoral. In other words, Biden was back. Obama and his leading political advisers were obviously determined to run on a re-election platform emphasizing the conclusion of "Bush's wars." They also needed to stave off any possibility of a left-wing anti-war challenger, within the 2012 Democratic primaries. So the overarching concern was to have all U.S. troops from the autumn 2009 Afghan surge visibly on their way home well before November 2012. If this sounds like a lousy way to make fateful decisions on matters of life and death, it is.

Obama follows an erratic but revealing pattern on major national security questions. Sometimes, as in June 2011, he makes terrible decisions. Sometimes, as with the strike on bin Laden, he makes good ones. Other times, as in Afghanistan 2009-10, he settles temporarily on something close to the right approach, though not exactly for the right reasons. A similar pattern can be seen on related concerns such as the detention and trial of suspected terrorists. He simply doesn't want to argue about matters of national security. They are not his chief priority. On the contrary, an uncompromising left-liberal line on a wide range of national security questions would no doubt distract from his main agenda, which is to introduce transformational domestic reforms to America's society, polity, and economy. All of this is suggested in Woodward's book, however obliquely. Obama is not a principled dove on Afghanistan, or a full-feathered hawk; he would just rather not talk about it. He does take al-Qaeda seriously—that much is clear. But he has always been half-hearted about the U.S. war effort in Afghanistan, fearful that it will endanger his re-election, and doubtful of its necessity. His strongest conviction appears to be not that the United States must win, but that he must win 2012, and to that end American troops must be on their way home long before the election.

Winning in Afghanistan

Michael O'Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, and Hassina Sherjan, the president of Aid Afghanistan for Education, make clear in their book, Toughing It Out in Afghanistan (2010), that U.S.-led military success in that country is both vital and possible. If the Afghan insurgents win, they will no doubt make room for their al-Qaeda allies to plan terrorist attacks from recovered territory, as they did before 9/11. Taliban leaders share with al-Qaeda a violently brutal, anti-Western ideology. While the U.S. and its Afghan allies may be able to splinter off select groups on the margin, the core leadership of the Taliban is just as hostile to the United States as al-Qaeda is. Vice President Biden's notion that Washington can cut a worthwhile deal with the Taliban is therefore profoundly misguided; the Taliban's leaders are not interested. Similarly misguided is Biden's argument that long-distance aerial drone strikes can substitute for boots on the ground. Everything we know about the nature of successful counterinsurgencies suggests the opposite. Drone strikes, by themselves, are inadequate militarily, because they do little to reassure Afghan civilians that they are safe from the Taliban. And if Afghan civilians feel unsafe cooperating with American and allied forces, they will not provide the intelligence necessary to defeat the insurgents. Fortunately the U.S. Army and Marines are now far better at counterinsurgency operations than they were six or seven years ago.

The Obama Administration made a major commitment in 2009-10, however reluctantly. There are still almost 100,000 American troops in Afghanistan. To say that they have already been there for years is patently false; most only arrived in summer 2009, and many parts of the country had never seen an American soldier beforehand. In other words, the U.S. effort in Afghanistan has barely had a chance to succeed. The essential thing is not to pull the plug, in some mistaken sop to supposed domestic political pressures, but to persevere and give American forces a chance to be effective. We know very well that this war will not climax with dramatic pitched battles. But it is entirely possible and indeed necessary for U.S. and allied forces to grind down the insurgents until they are incapable of giving al-Qaeda a major safe haven. To that end, we can only hope that Obama corrects his June 2011 Afghanistan decision over the coming months, and emphasizes from now on America's determination to persevere against the jihadists in that country. It is not impossible for the United States to achieve vital strategic successes in Afghanistan. But it is hard to achieve that success under a half-hearted commander-in-chief following a half-hearted approach.

Al-Qaeda Delenda Est

Raising our sights to the overarching, long-term struggle between the United States and al-Qaeda, is there any way to know how it will end? For all the scholarly work that has been done during the last decade on terrorism and counter-terrorism, remarkably little has been done to compare the ways in which terrorist campaigns come to a conclusion. Audrey Kurth Cronin fills this gap admirably in her book How Terrorism Ends (2009). Using intelligent analysis and a wide array of historical examples, the professor of strategy at the U.S. National War College distills several ways in which terrorist campaigns are terminated: first, by the government's arresting or killing a terrorist group's main leader; second, by the entry of a terrorist group into negotiations and legitimate political processes; third, by achievement of the group's political aims; fourth, by marginalization or implosion due to loss of popular support; fifth, by defeat through governmental repression or brute force; and sixth, by transition toward other forms of violence such as organized crime or even large-scale insurgency. Cronin finds that the killing of a terrorist group's main leader usually has limited immediate effect on that group's capabilities; al-Qaeda will remain a threat even without bin Laden.

Cronin's basic argument is that terrorist groups usually wither away and fail in the end, but that the path to such failure more often lies through the loss of popular support than through the direct use of force against terrorists. Indeed one of her main concerns is that governments unintentionally encourage more terrorism through violent over-reactions. Yet however much this may be true of certain regimes such as Putin's Russia, for the most part it is not true of the United States and its major democratic allies. If anything, Western elites tend to shy away from forceful methods of counter-terrorism. Those that do not—notably, in Israel—are regularly chastised, as they are by Cronin. Indeed, she goes so far as to say that governments that directly target terrorists by force are no better morally than the terrorists. This is like saying that a woman who forcibly defends herself against rape is no better than the rapist. Cronin is on firmer ground when she points out that terrorism typically fails when popular support for it dries up. The question then is whether al-Qaeda and its affiliates are anywhere near that point. Certainly they have succeeded in alienating millions of ordinary Muslims over the years through brutal attacks on innocent Muslim civilians. At the same time, the unpleasant fact is that millions of other Muslims internationally continue to sympathize with not only the goals but the tactics of al-Qaeda; these sympathizers provide a crucial source of funding, recruits, shelter, and political sympathy for radical Islamist terrorism in significant parts of the world. The long war against jihadist terrorists will therefore go on for some time, and it is essential that the Western mentality be one of tenacity rather than fatigue or self-flagellation.

Whatever the flaws in Cronin's analysis, she makes an all-too neglected observation: al-Qaeda will one day come to an end. They may pull off further terrorist attacks, but al-Qaeda and its affiliates will not succeed in achieving their great aim of a transnational Caliphate and the destruction of Western influence internationally. When framed in terms of their own stated goals, we see how doomed these fanatics really are. In the final analysis, their constructive power is minimal and their appeal self-limiting. Nor, we might add, will there be a negotiated conclusion to this long war between al-Qaeda and the West. The bargaining model of war points out that diplomacy is useless without force in the background—a useful lesson to remember. Yet in the case of al-Qaeda, we face a group that declares openly and quite rightly the impossibility of negotiations with its deadliest enemies. Here is where the bargaining model reaches its limits. In circumstances where ideological fanatics declare a fight to the knife against some chosen adversary, as al-Qaeda has done, there is nothing to do but destroy them. No other end is possible. Al-Qaeda's own leaders say as much. So in this case, there will be no peace between the two sides, however much Western left-liberal opinion might pine for it. Instead, the safest prediction is that the U.S. and its allies will eventually succeed in wearing down jihadist terrorists as we have worn down previous murderous ideologues, through a combination of force, intelligence, and ideological appeal, in spite of all short-term errors, doubts, and fears. This long war will then come to an end, in the way that most wars do: one side will win. And it will not be al-Qaeda.

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For Correspondence on this essay, click here.