Getting ready for war, this time don’t forget a plan for peace

This piece was first published on King’s College London’s Kings Of War blog.

At last-week’s NATO summit in Wales, the United States stepped up its diplomatic effort to form an international coalition against Islamic State (IS) forces in Iraq and Syria.
In the wake of the summit, US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel announced that the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Canada, Australia, Turkey, Italy, Poland, and Denmark will be the “core group” of a larger and extended coalition against the IS threat. Meanwhile, US Secretary of State John Kerry urged NATO members to come up with concrete plans to tackle the IS: “We need to attack them in ways that prevent them from taking over territory, to bolster the Iraqi security forces and others in the region who are prepared to take them on, without committing troops of our own.” In addition, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei reportedly authorized Iranian military cooperation with the United States and the “core group” countries in Iraq. These latest diplomatic developments seems to give credit to the hypothesis that a major international military campaign against IS militants is about to begin.
While planning for war is clearly underway, not much has been said about any planning for peace. Let’s pretend for a moment that this US-led international military campaign is effective in rolling back IS forces from the territories they have seized astride Iraq and Syria. Who is going to secure and govern such territories? The Syrian Opposition Coalition? The Kurds? The Iraqi government? Whatever the case, the United States and its allies should be aware that any involvement in the current crisis in Iraq has to go well beyond the end of major military operations. In order to have a chance to be successful in the long term, any plan should include a clear commitment by the United States and its allies to continued military engagement in the region, as well as efforts to restore governance and delivery of basic services to the populace. In fact, if newly-liberated territories were to be left ungoverned and unprotected, Assad forces or IS militants could easily manage to reoccupy them, sooner rather than later.
The lack of a plan for peace, while preparing for war, is especially worrying because of its potential for blowback. Let’s take a brief look at three relatively recent military campaigns where an ostensibly effective strategy for war was not followed by a clear plan for peace.
In the 1980s, the United States supported an armed insurgency in Afghanistan against the local communist-led government and the Soviet Union. US officials set up a particularly complex but efficient system to provide economic and military assistance to a number of very diverse Afghan militant groups. US strategy was eventually successful insofar as, on 15 February 1989, the last Soviet troops were forced to abandon Afghanistan. However, the United States had no equally effective peace plan for post-conflict Afghanistan. On the contrary, after the Soviet withdrawal, Washington quickly disengaged from the country. Partly because of that, Afghanistan plunged into a protracted bloody civil war that eventually led to the rise of the Taliban regime.

On 19 March 2003, the United Stated began a military campaign against the regime of Saddam Hussein in Iraq. US military operations led to the quick defeat of the Hussein regime by May 1 of the same year. However, many studies of the US invasion of Iraq have provided extensive evidence that the United States had no well-designed peace plan for the country. The lack of such a plan resulted in a costly US military occupation and a decade of continued instability, the negative effects of which are still present in today’s Iraq in the form of Shiite-Sunni sectarian tensions and the rise of the Islamic State.

After exactly eight years, on 19 March 2011, the United States took part in a UN-sanctioned NATO-led military campaign in support of a popular uprising in Libya. Western military superiority was decisive in helping a fledging Libyan opposition to overthrow the regime of Col. Muammar Qaddafi. However, the United States and the other members of the coalition were again quick to disengage from the country they had just helped to liberate. Since then, Libya has been plagued by growing violence and unrest that have driven the North-African country toward an all-out civil war and made the possibility of state breakdown very real.

All that considered, the old saying “once you break it, you own it” appears particularly appropriate. In fact, to get involved in the “war phase” of a crisis without being ready, or willing, to commit the same amount of resources to the “peace phase” of it is likely to have extremely negative consequences, not only for the country experiencing the crisis but also for those countries that decided to intervene in support of one or the other warring party.

The latest international diplomatic moves tell us that the likelihood of a major military campaign against Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria is very high. Let’s see if this time, while preparing for a difficult war, leaders in Washington will also find the time to work out a much needed plan for peace.



    • Eugenio Lilli

      Hi Jonathan,

      I am not sure I understand your comment.
      However, if you mean that the outcomes of the above military interventions were “not as intended” in the sense of “unwanted” then I agree. But then, what is your point?
      If, instead, “not as intended” means “unforeseeable” I am afraid I disagree with you.
      Let’s take Afghanistan for example.
      I argue that the US quick disengagement after the withdrawal of Soviet troops was an important factor in plunging Afghanistan into protracted and bloody civil war. The possibility that that could happen was not unknown by US officials. On the contrary, according to several now declassified files, there were important dissenting voices arguing that quick disengagement from Afghanistan was the wrong policy.
      One of them was Edmund McWilliams who was sent in the spring of 1988 to Afghanistan as the US special envoy to the insurgents. In a letter to US Ambassador to Pakistan Robert Oakley, Mr. McWilliams wrote that “we [the United States] were wrong to have been so close to some in alliance; wrong to have given ISI such power and (now) wrong not to be actively seeking a political settlement.” Some years later McWilliams reiterated his concerns in another cable. In McWilliams’ own words such a US disengagement policy
      “serves neither Afghan interests nor our own […] The absence of an effective Kabul government also has allowed Afghanistan to become a spawning ground for insurgency against legally constituted governments. Afghan-trained Islamic fundamentalist guerrillas directly threaten Tajikistan and are being dispatched to stir trouble in Middle Eastern, southwest Asian, and African states.”
      McWilliams’ successor as US special envoy to the insurgents, Peter Tomsen, moved strikingly similar critiques to the US policy in Afghanistan. In a 1991 cable Mr. Tomsen firstly emphasized that “A political settlement must be put into place as rapidly as possible to forestall scenarios of continued instability and civil war in Afghanistan.” On another occasion Tomsen argued that it was in the US interest to stop the “Islamic extremists’ efforts to use Afghanistan as a training/staging base for terrorism in the region and beyond.”
      These examples tell us that US officials were well aware of the dangers about quickly disengaging from Afghanistan. Despite this, they eventually decided to act differently.


  1. Willelm

    The focus of an ‘ exit policy’ should be on a national, territorial level. At all costs a sectarian approach should be avoided.
    Priority should be given to supporting and advising the Iraqi authorities as their territory is the most vulnerable, weakened as its political and military powers are.
    The Kurds seem to have more clout, both military and politically, but they need additional support as well.
    Syria is a different story and those who fight IS should stay out of it. As long as Assad is in power, his army and advisers are capable of fighting IS and restoring order – whether we like his style of law and order or not.
    That scenario could alleviate the pressure on the Syrian opposition, as all of Assad’ s attention and means will be taken by the struggle against IS.


  2. Marshall

    How right you are! I can’t tell you how many times I’ve listened to concepts for operations, then asked, “And then what?” Or, as David Petraeus put it, “Tell me how this ends.” “Killing the bad guys” is, at best, half a plan.


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