How Many Wars Has the U.S. Really Won?

Last week, President Obama and Afghan President Hamid Karzai agreed on an accelerated withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan. “By the end of next year, Afghans will have full responsibility for their security, and this war will come to a responsible end,” the president said.

A few thousand U.S. troops could remain for counterterrorism and training Afghan troops. But this war will be over after 13 years, making it America’s longest.

And afterwards? Will the barbaric Taliban re-establish itself as the ruling party? Will Al Qaeda find a foothold there again? We don’t know, but judging by what happened after Iraq, it won’t be good.

It made me wonder: How many wars since the unconditional surrender of Germany and Japan in 1945 have we actually won?

So, I put together this “scorecard.” I’m not including many small and covert operations (like Grenada and Panama in the 1980s), just full-scale wars.

Korea 1950-53. Communist North Korea, with China’s backing, invaded South Korea. The US responded through a UN military mission, but combat ended with a truce. The two sides are technically still at war across a demilitarized zone, with a prosperous south and a desperate, erratic north. Verdict: Stalemate.

Vietnam 1961-73. The US sent more than 500,000 troops to back South Vietnam against the Communist north, led by Ho Chi Minh. The US dropped four times as many bombs on the two Vietnams, Laos and Cambodia as it did in all World War II. Some 58,000 Americans lost their lives, while more than three million Vietnamese may have died. In 1975, the Communists seized power anyway. Verdict: Ignominious defeat.

U.S. Marine Corps War Memorial, Arlington National Cemetery, 2011. Photo: Flickr/Nuno R. Silva

U.S. Marine Corps War Memorial, Arlington National Cemetery, 2011. Photo: Flickr/Nuno R. Silva

First Gulf War 1990-91. After Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, half a million Americans and allied forces pushed Iraq out of Kuwait, then invaded Iraq itself and hemmed in Saddam with no-fly zones and tough sanctions. Still, Saddam slaughtered Shi’ites in the South and remained a huge nuisance, creating unfinished business for a future President Bush. Verdict: Partial victory.

Balkan Wars 1994-1999. The U.S. used its superior air power to help NATO stop Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic from completing the “ethnic cleansing” of Bosnia and Kosovo. President Bill Clinton led the NATO mission and spearheaded diplomacy as well. US ground troops participated in Bosnia. The peace has largely held and Milosevic and others faced war crimes trials. Verdict: Victory.

Afghanistan war 2001-2014(?): The US and a broad coalition invaded Afghanistan in October 2001 and quickly expelled the Taliban and Al Qaeda, many of whom fled to Pakistan. But the small number of troops committed by Defense Secretary Donald “You Go to War with the Army You Have” Rumsfeld –fewer than 20,000 until 2006—made it impossible to stabilize the country and crush the Taliban. By the time of the 2010 surge, it was too late. Verdict: Partial victory (so far).

Iraq: 2003-2010: The neoconservatives’ signature war involved trumped-up warnings of weapons of mass destruction and false claims that Saddam was behind the 9/11 attacks. Although we did capture Saddam and destroy his regime, 160,000 US troops weren’t enough to put down the rebellion and sectarian violence that paralyzed the country. Now the violence continues and Iraq has become a friend of—Iran. Verdict: Partial defeat.

I draw three lessons from this:

1. Only unconditional surrender lets you successfully engage in nation building. (Exhibits A and B: Germany and Japan.) If you can’t achieve that or something close (as in the Balkans), don’t make nation-building one of your goals.

2. Alliances are critical. The most successful wars involved broad alliances—the first Gulf war, the Balkans wars, and the early stages of Afghanistan. The US couldn’t have defeated Hitler without the Soviet Union on the Nazis’ eastern front, and allies played vital roles in the Pacific theater as well.

3. The Powell doctrine really works. The former general and Secretary of State said don’t go to war unless there’s:

  • A vital national security interest
  • Clear, attainable objectives
  • A defined exit strategy
  • Broad support from both the American people and the international community.

As early as this spring, we may hear renewed talk about attacking Iran’s nuclear facilities. I hope President Obama has digested the lessons of these past conflicts before getting us into another.




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