Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts The Upside of Down: How the U.S. Wins by Losing Wars

The Upside of Down: How the U.S. Wins by Losing Wars

When Sherlock Holmes first met Dr. Watson, the fictional detective famously declared: “You have been in Afghanistan, I perceive.” Holmes deduced from Watson’s wounds and post-traumatic stress that the doctor must have served during the Second Anglo-Afghan War of 1878-1880. Today, if an astute visitor looked around our country, and saw the political division, the graves of thousands of soldiers and general war weariness he might also conclude: “You have been in Afghanistan, I perceive.”

But the nation’s military disappointments could yield surprising strategic opportunities.

First of all, when the U.S. withdraws from a military theater, it could provoke the enemy alliance to collapse. The presence of foreign troops often serves as glue binding opponents together. Withdraw our soldiers and you remove the adhesive.

Back in the 1960s and 1970s, Washington feared that an American exit from Vietnam would trigger a “domino effect” of Communist gains. But after we came home, Communist China and Communist Vietnam actually went to war with each other.

Similarly, in 1989, the Soviet Union pulled out of Afghanistan, after a decade of brutal warfare against Mujahideen insurgents. With the Red Army gone, the Communist regime in Kabul looked like a dead man walking. But the Soviet presence was the one thing keeping the insurgency united. No longer seeing red, the Mujahideen factions turned on each other. The government in Kabul actually outlasted the Soviet Union itself—and only collapsed when Russia cut off its aid supply in 1992. Today, the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan could provoke the Taliban coalition to weaken. Through clever use of diplomacy, foreign aid and air strikes, Washington may be able to drive a wedge into the insurgency and help Kabul remain in power.

Difficult wars can also encourage enemies to…

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