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Q&A With Gideon Rose on How Wars End

Gideon Rose

  • Country: The United States
  • Title: Editor, Foreign Affairs
  • Education: Yale University, Harvard University
  • Books: How Wars End

In Gideon Rose's new book, How Wars End, he argues that American leaders have repeatedly ignored the need for careful postwar planning. But they can and must do a better job -- making the creation of a stable and sustainable local political outcome the goal of all wartime plans, rather than an afterthought to be dealt with once the "real" military work is over.

Drawing on vast research, including extensive interviews with participants in recent wars, Rose re-creates the choices that presidents and their advisers have confronted during the final stages of each major conflict from World War I through Iraq and Afghanistan.

Tom Kneeland: Isn't it true that most wars actually end when both sides get sick and tired of the killings?

A: Yes and no. Wars involve the use of force to achieve political goals, and they end when the belligerents stop using force. But that can happen in several ways. Sometimes one side simply loses the ability to continue, because it has been completely defeated (Nazi Germany in World War II). Sometimes one side can choose to walk away from the fight and does so, giving up whatever was at stake (the United States in Vietnam, considering 1973-75 as a single case). And sometimes the key belligerents on both sides agree to stop and call it a draw (essentially what happened in Korea in 1953). At some point, every war, with the general outcome starting to become clear, enters what might be called its endgame, which is best thought of as a discussion over what the details of the final settlement will be and what will happen after the shooting stops. In my book, How Wars End, I tell the stories of the endgames of American wars over the last century.

Michael Muhammad (via Facebook): Does the rest of the world view America as an empire?

A: That is a very interesting question, because it depends in part on what one means by "empire." Everybody knows that the United States has vastly greater power than other countries and regularly uses that power to pursue its interests. But a lot of times those U.S. interests are widely shared or viewed as reasonably benign. So other countries have been far more accepting of American power than one might expect. In terms of standard international relations theory, there should have been a lot more "balancing" against the United States over the last several decades than has actually occurred. This suggests that the United States is seen as supplying some valuable public goods (peace, prosperity, and so on) for the international system at large, not simply acting like a grasping bully. I discuss these sorts of things in the conclusion of How Wars End, where I make a deliberately provocative argument about what I call America's "grand strategy of progressive global pacification" and why it has generally been good for both the United States and the world at large.

Jose Baba: You write that American leaders have repeatedly ignored the need for careful postwar planning. With all their advisers, military experts, and think tanks, how can they still have planned so poorly and caused thousands of American deaths? When do you think they might stop ignoring good planning?

A: Everyone knows how to lose weight -- eat reasonable amounts of healthy food and get some exercise -- yet Americans still buy millions of crazy diet books every year, chasing some sort of magic bullet to get thin quickly and easily. I think national leaders often do something similar when it comes to the tough questions about war -- they avoid the real choices life throws up, because all the options are at least somewhat unpleasant, and they chase mirages that hold the hope of cheap, easy success. The domestic political system contributes to the problem by making leaders pay a huge price for accepting any outcome less than perfection -- which is, unsurprisingly, hard to achieve. If our leaders were to think clearly about the tough trade-offs involved in war and foreign policy in general; if they were to explain those trade-offs to the public honestly, along with their reasons for favoring one option over another; and if we the people were mature enough to give them credit for such behavior rather than blaming the messenger, things would improve. Is that likely? No. So the best we can realistically hope for is simply that leaders make fewer major unforced errors next time around.

Bhandhasith Charoenpanichpun (via Facebook): What is the interest of United States in Afghanistan?

A: I think the most important U.S. interest in Afghanistan lies in ensuring it does not become, once again, a haven for radical Islamist terrorism. I think the second most important U.S. interest there relates to Pakistan -- trying to make sure that the trouble in Afghanistan does not bleed across the border, contributing to the further destabilization and radicalization of a nuclear-armed state already in critical condition. And I think the third most important interest lies in trying to help Afghanistan and its people escape from the traps of war, tyranny, and poverty -- both because doing so would live up to American ideals and because failing to do so would be a blow to our reputation and credibility. The problem, of course, is that we do not really know how to achieve any of these goals, let alone all of them. So we are stuck muddling through there year after year, largely because we do not want to admit failure.

Abdul Rauf (via Facebook): Can the Afghan war end if the U.S. Army leaves Afghanistan?

A: I think the war would intensify, not end, if U.S. forces left. The most likely scenario in case of a withdrawal is a return to the prior chaos. It is always possible, though, that our departure would lead to some sort of cease-fire between the government in Kabul and its opponents -- but this would probably come at the expense of most of the gains achieved in recent years and probably would not be stable.

Greg Scoblete (via Real Clear World): During the Bush administration, U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was often criticized for his not-so-private reluctance toward keeping U.S. troops inside Afghanistan and Iraq to perform nation building, arguing that the United States had to "take our hand off the bicycle seat" so these countries could learn to ride themselves. Would the U.S. have been better served -- in both Iraq and Afghanistan -- by quickly and comprehensively withdrawing troops after the initial military victories were won?

A: The answer to that depends on what one thinks would have followed such withdrawals. In Iraq, I think such a course would have led to disaster -- to something like the chaos of 2006, but even more and much quicker. Looking at how Iraq has pulled back from the brink in the last few years would seem to vindicate the opposite course -- staying longer and providing for general security and stability -- and I think we should have been ready to do that from the beginning. Afghanistan is a tougher call, however. Strong arguments have been put forward that we should have made a greater and more sustained investment there early on, and that, had we done so, the situation would not have deteriorated in recent years. But it has never been clear to me just what the political endgame can and should be in Afghanistan, so in this case I have a bit more sympathy for the "declare victory and go home" school. In my skeptical moments, when I am not under the spell of the COINdinistas and the New Great Gamers, I am tempted by the folks who say that we should have tiptoed out more quickly there, accepting the risks of possible instability (and even the need for possible re-intervention of some sort) rather than the costs of a major ongoing presence.

Walter P. Blass: As the Balkan wars of 1992-95 ended, NATO and the United States assured the protection of ethnic minorities by separating the two sides. But in Afghanistan, if we simply let the Karzai regime negotiate whatever it can with the Taliban, we are likely to witness the return of women to a medieval chattel status, given the past Taliban policies and the male prejudices in the country. Have you any suggestions how we can avoid dooming half the country to this fate?

A: Unfortunately, I agree with your analysis and do not have any bright ideas about how to avoid it. All our choices in Afghanistan strike me as lousy. I think the real question is whether we want to accept the costs of staying or the risks of leaving. How one answers that depends on how one judges the odds of eventual success and the magnitude of the interests described above.

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