Defining victory and defeat in today’s wars

Orly Mercado

Posted on January 24, 2007

No longer resonating

When the US Federal Bureau of Investigation carried out DNA tests and positively identified Khaddafy Janjalani’s remains, it was great news for Philippine security authorities. After all, he was Southeast Asia’s most wanted man as head of the Abu Sayyaf bandit group linked to Jemaah Islamiyah. The news out of the presidential palace and the armed forces chief was upbeat but decidedly muted. Philippine officials have learned an important lesson in defining victory or defeat in today’s war against terror.

In the past, whenever a leader of an insurgent or separatist group was captured, a “major blow” to their cause was claimed, and an end to the conflict predicted. Not anymore.

In the United States, as the Bush administration gropes for an exit strategy that can salvage its misadventure in Iraq, a debate has begun about how to define victory or defeat. Ticker tape homecomings and battleship surrenders are now just sepia images of a long gone era when wars were easier to understand.

But how can you define victory or defeat if the objectives of the war itself are ill defined? The supposed arsenal of weapons of mass destruction was never found. The original slip of the tongue admission by President Bush of American interest in Iraq’s oil has long been forgotten. Even the avowed role of the United States as the world’s sheriff with “superpower responsibility” does not wash with the American public that will not commit to a war without end. In Iraq, the US may likely lose not only the war, but the peace as well.

As the US unilateralist war has turned sour, it finds itself in a bind to convince the international community to take over. Today, Bush’s strategy relies heavily not only on his troop surge, but on successfully pursuing classic counter-insurgency tactics that they hope will win over the Iraqi population. If only it were that simple. Iraq’s ethnic and sectarian groups are not only armed, but with powerful sponsors in Iran and Syria, two countries the Bush administration refuses to deal with.

Today, as Bush addressed a Congress he no longer controls, his language has changed. He appears to have learned some lessons, but little else. The announcement confirming that Southeast Asia’s most wanted man has been killed had the right tone. Bush’s state of union address had lost its timbre and resonance.

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