Losing by "Winning": America's Wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria

By Anthony H. Cordesman

The U.S. has now reached the point where the third Administration in a row is fighting wars where the U.S. often scores serious tactical victories and makes claims that it is moving toward some broader form of victory but cannot announce any clear strategy for actually ending any given war or bringing a stable peace. Once again, a new Administration seems to have focused on the tactical level of conflict and called this a strategy but has failed to have any clear strategy for ending the fighting on favorable terms.

More than that, the new Administration seems to have accepted the legacy of the previous Administration by largely abandoning the civil side of each war. It is dealing with major insurgencies and civil war as if they were limited terrorist movements. It has no clear civil-military strategy, plans for stability operations, or options to create the level of governance and development that could bring a lasting peace. It has no grand strategy and is fighting half a war.

Losing by "Winning": Afghanistan

The new Taliban offensives in Afghanistan are yet another warning of the fact that the U.S. is involved in a war of attrition that it has no guarantee of winning at the military level, and where it has no apparent strategy for dealing with Afghanistan's lack of political unity, leadership, and failure to give its people economic progress and freedom from corruption.

The U.S. has made progress in creating more effective Afghan forces and has provided enough train and assist personnel to provide serious help to the Afghan Army. It also provided more air support. Combat air support increased from a low of 411 sorties per year that actually fired munitions in 2015 to 1,248 in 2017. Put differently, the US. increased the number of sorties actually firing munitions per month from an average well under 100 sorties in 2008 to over 500 in the first five months of 2108.

That said, the recent fighting has not shown these steps are making the country more secure or that they can halt the slow growth of Taliban influence and control over given districts. Pakistan remains a problem, and Iran and Russia now seem ready to deal with the Taliban on their own. The US. and Afghan government forces may not be losing, but there is no clear evidence that they approach any form of winning.

Moreover, the U.S. is doing a far worse job of trying to fight the civil half of the war. It has virtually halted any major efforts at nation building and may be planning on major cuts in the limited stability and civil-military operations it still conducts. This simply is not a viable approach in what is effectively a failed state war.

Afghanistan's weak and divided central government has made some progress under President Ghani, but it is far from clear that the next election can be any more successful than the last one, or bring the level of united, honest, and effective government the country desperately needs to keep Taliban influence from growing and raise the level of popular support to the point where it has really won hearts and minds.

Seventeen years on, the U.S. has no real strategy in Afghanistan other than hoping that the Taliban will be exhausted first and be willing to negotiate on the government's terms, or somehow be

willing to split the country, and accept a division that gives it control over a substantial portion at the government's expense. The U.S. not only can't answer the question of, "how does this war end?" The U.S. cannot answer the question of "why should this war end?"

Losing by "Winning": Syria

Afghanistan, however, is scarcely the only case in point. The war in Syria has become an Assad victory. The U.S. has largely defeated ISIS as a protostate or Caliphate, but has empowered Assad in the process. A combination of state terrorism, Russian airpower, and Iranian and Hezbollah support, have given the Assad regime a second life. It already controls some 75% of the remaining population and is steadily winning more control every day.

For all the talk of defeating terrorism in Syria, the latest START statistic on terrorism also show that ISIS has only been responsible for less than 30% of the terrorist acts in both Syria and Iraq between 2012 and 2017. It has only been responsible for 31% of the incidents in Syria alone – even if all Assad regime acts of state terrorism are excluded. Moreover, the Assad regime faces a major new fight against the remnants of the Syrian rebel forces in Syria's northwestern region of Idlib. Turkey is actively intervening against Syria's Kurds – the same groups that were the key to the U.S. supported fighting on the ground.

The civil side of the war is even worse than it is in Afghanistan, in part because Syria was a far more developed country when the war began. World Bank studies show that Syria's economy is devastated, and the UN estimated at the start of this year that that nearly half the country was at risk from the impact of war. No one knows how to accurately estimate the cost of rebuilding and recovering from the war – even if Syrian's could agree on how to do it and find the money. Worse, World Bank studies also show Syria has lost the equivalent of a decade of development, and there is no credible source of the far higher levels of aid it would need to allow its economy to recover and meet the needs of its people and heal the anger and massive political and economic divisions between Arab and Kurd, Sunni and other sects, and its regions.

Once again, the US cannot answer either the question of why the fighting should end or can end in a stable peace. In fact, at least the public side of American strategy seems to consist largely focusing on tactical victories against ISIS and pretending that the rest of Syria and the region do not exist or will magically become peaceful and stable because of some formal peace negotiations. Unlike Afghanistan, there is not even the shell of a plan to shape the future structure of the U.S.-back military forces in Syria or its security. There has never been a stability plan or meaningful civil-military operations. The U.S. hasn't just been just fighting half a war, it at best has been fighting less than a third of the enemy.

For all the talk about "peace" talks and negotiations, a divided country with rebel and largely Kurdish enclaves cannot have a real or stable peace. However, even a total Assad victory would then mean an Alawite dictator trying to rule over a largely hostile Sunni population that has lost some 400,000 civilians, been terrorized by barrel bombs and chemical weapons, and seen millions displaced or driven out of the country. It would also leave Israel, Turkey, and Syria's Arab neighbors to deal with Russia, the impact of Iranian and Hezbollah influence, and the spillover of the almost inevitable rebirth of some form of ISIS or rise of other new Sunni Islamist extremism resistance.

Losing by "Winning": Iraq

And then, there is Iraq. The U.S. has done better militarily the second time around than it did between 2003 and 2011. As was the case in Afghanistan, the U.S. finally began to concentrate on truly serious efforts to build-up combat-effective ground forces in 2015. It then sent train and assist forces forward to support them in actual combat. It also accepted the fact that there was no chance of success in fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan, or ISIS in Iraq-Syria without massive amounts of U.S. airpower.

The Military Side

The end result has been a success, at least in fighting ISIS to the point of destroying the its ability to occupy key Iraqi cities, and its "caliphate." At the same time, this success has come at the cost of a major expansion of Iran's military and security role in Iraq, and the rise of Shi'ite and Sunni militias.

The U.S. has not rebuilt Iraqi forces to a level where they have a credible capability to deter or defend against Iran, and tensions between the Arab forces under the control of the central government in Baghdad and the Kurdish Peshmerga in the North led to a major confrontation in 2018, where the government forces took back large areas the Pesh Merga had occupied, but the Arab and Kurdish forces remained as divided as ever.

Once again, "winning" at the military level has been largely a tactical success with no apparent strategy for winning even the military side of a stable peace. And here, it is useful to examine the overall U.S. approach to all three wars in the President's FY2019 budget request to Congress – requests which provide far more detail than the almost total lack of any specifics in the new National Defense Strategy.

The Administration asked for minimal civil aid of any kind but requested an increase in the cost of the Department of Defense’s request for such operations for all three wars from $60.1 billion in FY2018 to $64.2 billion in FY2019 – far lower than the peak of $187 billion in FY2008. It was also clear from the FY2019 budget request – and statements by the Secretary of Defense and senior U.S. officers – that it was seeking a significant increase in direct train and assist aid to Afghan, Iraqi, and Syria forces in the field.

The number of troops the U.S. actually sent forward to assist allied combat forces in each country was never made clear, and the current Department of Defense monthly reports on military and civilian personnel overseas does not include entries for Afghanistan, Iraq or Syria. However, the budget request for FY2019 did state that the U.S. planned to keep the total number of average military personnel actually deployed in Afghanistan, Iraq or Syria. at 12,000 (less some 3,000 to 6,000 more in “temporary” personnel.

This was a massive cut from 187,000 in FY2008, but much higher that the low of 8,000 troops in FY2017. There also was a major increase in other levels of support although the Department did not provide a break out of the number of contractors or civilians, and the budget justifications do not provide any clear way to tie the Department of Defense reporting to the full State Department civil OCO effort

Other reporting by AFCENT showed that the U.S. had again made massive earlier increases in its active air support for local ground forces. The U.S. increased air support from a low of 1,411 sorties per year that actually fired munitions in Iraq and Syria in 2014, to some 10,000-12,000 per year in 2015-2017. The U.S. sharply reduced the number of attack sorties per month in 2018, but

only after making massive increases in such sorties in the fight to after liberate Mosul and inflict major defeats on ISIS in both Iraq and Syria.

Equally important, the FY2019 budget submission did not describe any form of plan or strategy for any of the three wars for the portion of U.S. wartime spending devoted to Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) beyond the coming fiscal year. It made no attempt to define a strategy or real-world budget estimate for the remaining period of FY2020 to FY2023 in the Future Year Defense Plan. The Administration also has not made any such attempt since submitting its budget request, or described any plan to build-up Iraq forces, reduced Iranian influence, reduced the growing flow of Russian arms sales, or help create some nation-wide systems for the rule of law and local security

The Civil Side

As for the civil side, the U.S. seems to have almost deliberately ignore the warning from the World Bank regarding the cost of rebuilding the areas damaged during the fighting with ISIS or the far higher costs of economic reform that can meet the needs of the Iraqi people and win their support for the central government. Just as the U.S. effectively abandoned serious efforts at nation building and stability operations in Afghanistan in 2014, and never tried to restore them when it renewed major military support; the U.S. ended such efforts in Iraq in 2011 and never renewed them as it effectively went nearly bankrupt under the combined pressures a massive need for structural reform, the cost of the fighting, and major reductions in petroleum export revenues.

Similarly, the U.S. seems to have done little to try to help Iraq raised one of the lowest ranked levels of governance in the world, or to shape an outcome of the 2018 election that would be any less divisive than the 2010 election the helped make Maliki a would-be authoritarian, renewed the divisions between Sunni and Shi'ite, and polarized and corrupted Iraq's military forces. In fact, it is a bit of a contest as to which of the three governments in the countries the U.S. currently is fighting in is ranked by the World Bank as have the lowest levels of governance. As for corruption, both Abadi and Ghani have made some progress in their respective countries, but Transparency International ranks Syria as the 3rd most corrupt country in the world, Afghanistan is still ranked 4th, and Iraq is ranked 11th..

The outcome of the Iraqi election remains unclear and may well remain so for some months, given the problems to both creating a coalition and making it actually operate. However, it is already clear that could easily empower Iran, re-divide Iraq between Shi'ite and Sunni, and/or leave a festering quarrel between the central government and the Kurds. Such an outcome might well turn the U.S. "victory" over the ISIS "caliphate" into a major victory for Iran and defeat for the United States, but it seems to be yet another aspect of the future than no one in the Administration is willing to publicly face or address.

Coming to Grips with Some Grim Realities

It is far easier to state these problems than it is to suggest the solutions, especially since all of the options involved now present major risks and uncertainties and none of the options are particularly good. One set of options is phasing down or phasing out of each such conflict. These options do need to be taken far more seriously, as do setting very clear conditions for continued U.S. military and aid support to Afghanistan and Iraq – conditions based on a serious understanding that the U.S. will actually act on if they are not met. Declaring victory and leaving is one thing. Setting the right conditions and leaving with full justification if they are not met is quite another.


The strategic importance of each war and country also, however, needs to be taken into full account. Afghanistan is not the center of major international terrorist activity. It is only one country of many which might become a center of international terrorism. U.S. withdrawal might well simply transfer its problems in stability and security to Pakistan, Iran, Russia, and its Central Asian neighbors.

Changing conditionality in Afghanistan from rhetoric to reality, and making the price of staying political unity, success in developing local security forces, and economic reform may be demanding. However, the cost of staying in a failed state over time is all too high. Moreover, the political cost to the U.S. of having to act on such conditionality may well be far more acceptable than an open-ended commitment to partial Afghan success or eventual failure.

Seen from this perspective, some form of peace with Taliban participation in the Afghan government, or division of the country may also be an option. However, it is one that is all too likely to either divide the country into ethnic and sectarian factions, see the Taliban reemerge as the dominant faction, or create some new form of civil war. Peace negotiations all too often become a form of war by other means or the prelude to new forms of power struggles.


Syria is the worst of a range of bad options. It is effectively lost already except for the Kurdish areas that have supported the U.S. Backing a coalition of the Kurds and some Arabs in the northeast on a contingency basis may be worth it – particularly if Iraq merits U.S. aid in creating a strategic buffer. However, the U.S. should not provide open ended support if it means becoming involved in the broader Kurdish struggles with Turkey or supporting a Syrian Kurdish movement with a fundamentally unworkable set of ideological goals.

It is also far from clear that the U.S. and its allies should continue even humanitarian aid to an Assad/Russian/Iranian dominated Syria – much support any development aid. It anything, the U.S. should begin now to evaluate the kind of aid it might give any renewed Sunni or other rebels faction both now in Idlib or later.


Iraq presents the highest risk that U.S. tactical victories will end in major strategic losses that really matter to the U.S. Its location as a land bridge that Iran can use to expand its strategic influence, its status as a major oil power, and its role in shaping Gulf security and the secure flow of world oil exports all make it far more of a strategic interest than Afghanistan or Syria.

This makes offering Iraq sustained military aid and economic aid as well far more of a priority, along with creating a matching civil effort to provide aid and assistance to its government if its government emerges out of the present election as a serious potential strategic partner. At the same time, the U.S. needs to seriously study what would happen if Iraq tilts towards Iran and consult with its Arab partners over the options.

Broader Options

Finally, the U.S. should consider two broader options.

First, trying to create some kind of broad international effort that could be coordinated by the World Bank to offer conditional aid for serious economic, governance, and political reform. The United States does not have to be the leader in "nation building." Having a more neutral and international body do so – with specialized expertise – may be the best answer to not fighting only half a war in the future. One thing is clear, however, there really is no purely military answer to any of America's three current wars, to dealing with the causes of terrorism, and to dealing with other conflicts like the fighting in Yemen or various Sub Saharan states.

Second, the U.S. needs to build on the military lessons of its current wars in shaping its commitments to future "wars" that involve terrorism and counterinsurgency campaigns. Finding the best combination of train and assist efforts and the use of airpower is one critical lesson, and one that will allow the U.S. to focus on other strategic priorities like Russia and China. the most critical issue, however, may be to define the conditions that really do merit U.S. intervention. One way or another, the U.S. has become involved in three "failed state" wars. Backing real strategic partners is one thing. Letting hope triumph over experience is quite another.

Anthony H. Cordesman holds the Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. He has served as a consultant on Afghanistan to the U.S. Department of Defense and the U.S. Department of State.