Originally published in TomDispatch.
4,000,000,029,057. Remember that number. It’s going to come up again later.
But let’s begin with another number entirely: 145,000 — as in, 145,000 uniformed soldiers striding down Washington’s Pennsylvania Avenue. That’s the number of troops who marched down that very street in May 1865 after the United States defeated the Confederate States of America.
Similar legions of rifle-toting troops did the same after World War I ended with the defeat of Germany and its allies in 1918. And Sherman tanks rolling through the urban canyons of midtown Manhattan? That followed the triumph over the Axis in 1945.
That’s what winning used to look like in America — star-spangled, soldier-clogged streets and victory parades.
Enthralled by a martial Bastille Day celebration while visiting French President Emmanuel Macron in Paris in July 2017, President Trump called for just such a parade in Washington. After its estimated cost reportedly ballooned from $10 million to as much as $92 million, the American Legion weighed in.
That veterans association, which boasts 2.4 million members, issued an August statement suggesting that the planned parade should be put on hold “until such time as we can celebrate victory in the War on Terrorism and bring our military home.” Soon after, the president announced that he had canceled the parade and blamed local Washington officials for driving up the costs (even though he was evidently never briefed by the Pentagon on what its price tag might be).
The American Legion focused on the fiscal irresponsibility of Trump’s proposed march, but its postponement should have raised an even more significant question: What would “victory” in the war on terror even look like?
What, in fact, constitutes an American military victory in the world today? Would it in any way resemble the end of the Civil War, or of the war to end all wars, or of the war that made that moniker obsolete?
And here’s another question: Is victory a necessary prerequisite for a military parade?
The easiest of those questions to resolve is the last one, and the American Legion should already know the answer. Members of that veterans group played key roles in a mammoth “We Support Our Boys in Vietnam” parade in New York City in 1967 and in a 1973 parade in that same city honoring veterans of that war.
Then, 10 years after the last U.S. troops snuck out of South Vietnam — abandoning their allies and scrambling aboard helicopters as Saigon fell — the Big Apple would host yet another parade honoring Vietnam veterans, reportedly the largest such celebration in the city’s history. So, quite obviously, winning a war isn’t a prerequisite for a winning parade.
And that’s only one of many lessons the disastrous American War in Vietnam still offers us. More salient perhaps are those that highlight the limits of military might and destructive force on this planet or that focus on the ability of North Vietnam, a “little fourth-rate” country — to quote Henry Kissinger, the national security advisor of that moment — to best a superpower that had previously (with much assistance) defeated Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan at the same time.
The Vietnam War — and Kissinger — provide a useful lens through which to examine the remaining questions about victory and what it means today, but more on that later.
For the moment, just remember: 4,000,000,029,057, Vietnam War, Kissinger.
Peace in Our Time… or Some Time… or No Time
Now, let’s take a moment to consider the ur-conflict of the war on terror, Afghanistan, where the U.S. began battling the Taliban in October 2001.
America’s victory there came with lightning speed. The next year, President George W. Bush announced that the group had been “defeated.” In 2004, the commander-in-chief reported that the Taliban was “no longer in existence.”
Yet, somehow, they were. By 2011, General David Petraeus, then commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, claimed that his troops had “reversed the momentum of the Taliban.” Two years later, then-commander General Joseph Dunford spoke of “the inevitability of our success” there.
Last August, President Trump unveiled his “Strategy in Afghanistan and South Asia.” Its “core pillar” was “a shift from a time-based approach to one based on conditions”; in other words, the “arbitrary timetables” for withdrawal of the Obama years were out. “We will push onward to victory with power in our hearts,” President Trump decreed. “America’s enemies must never know our plans or believe they can wait us out.”
The president also announced that he was putting that war squarely in the hands of the military. “Micromanagement from Washington, D.C., does not win battles,” he announced. “They are won in the field drawing upon the judgment and expertise of wartime commanders and frontline soldiers acting in real time, with real authority, and with a clear mission to defeat the enemy.”
The man given that authority was General John Nicholson who had, in fact, been running the American war there since 2016. The general was jubilant and within months agreed that the conflict had “turned the corner” (something, by the way, that Obama-era Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta also claimed — in 2012).
Today, almost 17 years after the war began, two years after Nicholson took the reins, one year after Trump articulated his new plan, victory in any traditional sense is nowhere in sight. Despite spending around $900 billion in Afghanistan, as the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction determined earlier this year, “between 2001 and 2017, U.S. government efforts to stabilize insecure and contested areas in Afghanistan mostly failed.” According to a July 30, 2018, report by that same inspector general, the Taliban was by then contesting control of or controlled about 44 percent of that country, while Afghan government control and influence over districts had declined by about 16 percent since Nicholson’s predecessor, General John Campbell, was in command.
And that was before, last month, the Taliban launched a large-scale attack on a provincial capital, Ghazni, a strategically important city, and held it for five days, while taking control of much of the province itself. Finally driven from the city, the Taliban promptly overran a military base in Baghlan Province during its withdrawal. And that was just one day after taking another Afghan military base.
In fact, for the previous two months, the Taliban had overrun government checkpoints and outposts on a near-daily basis. And keep in mind that the Taliban is now only a fraction of the story. The U.S. set out to defeat it and al-Qaeda in 2001. Today, Washington faces exponentially more terror groups in Afghanistan — 21 in all, including an imported franchise from the Iraq War front, ISIS, that grew larger during Nicholson’s tenure.
Given this seemingly dismal state of affairs, you might wonder what happened to Nicholson. Was he cashiered? Fired, Apprentice-style? Quietly ushered out of Afghanistan in disgrace? Hardly. Like the 15 U.S. commanders who preceded him, the four-star general simply rotated out and, at his final press conference from the war zone late last month, was nothing if not upbeat.
“I believe the South Asia Strategy is the right approach. And now we see that approach delivering progress on reconciliation that we had not seen previously,” he announced. “We’ve also seen a clear progression in the Taliban’s public statements, from their 14 February letter to the American people to the recent Eid al-Adha message, where [Taliban leader] Emir Hibatullah acknowledged for the first time that negotiations will, quote, ‘ensure an end to the war,’ end quote.”
In the event that you missed those statements from a chastened Taliban on the threshold of begging for peace, let me quote from the opening of the latter missive, issued late last month:
“This year Eid al-Adha approaches us as our Jihadi struggle against the American occupation is on the threshold of victory due to the help of Allah Almighty. The infidel invading forces have lost all will of combat, their strategy has failed, advanced technology and military equipment rendered useless, [the] sedition and corruption-sowing group defeated, and the arrogant American generals have been compelled to bow to the Jihadic greatness of the Afghan nation.”
And those conciliatory statements of peace and reconciliation touted by Nicholson? The Taliban says that in order to end “this long war” the “lone option is to end the occupation of Afghanistan and nothing more.”
In June, the 17th American nominated to take command of the war, Lieutenant General Scott Miller, appeared before the Senate Armed Services Committee where Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) grilled him on what he would do differently in order to bring the conflict to a conclusion. “I cannot guarantee you a timeline or an end date,” was Miller’s confident reply.
Did the senators then send him packing? Hardly. He was, in fact, easily confirmed and starts work this month. Nor is there any chance Congress will use its power of the purse to end the war. The 2019 budget request for U.S. operations in Afghanistan — topping out at $46.3 billion — will certainly be approved.
All of this seeming futility brings us back to the Vietnam War, Kissinger, and that magic number, 4,000,000,029,057 — as well as the question of what an American military victory would look like today. It might surprise you, but it turns out that winning wars is still possible and, perhaps even more surprising, the U.S. military seems to be doing just that.
Let me explain.
In Vietnam, that military aimed to “out-guerrilla the guerrilla.” It never did, and the United States suffered a crushing defeat. Henry Kissinger — who presided over the last years of that conflict as national security advisor and then secretary of state — provided his own concise take on one of the core tenets of asymmetric warfare: “The conventional army loses if it does not win. The guerrilla wins if he does not lose.” Perhaps because that eternally well-regarded but hapless statesman articulated it, that formula was bound — like so much else he touched — to crash and burn.
In this century, the United States has found a way to turn Kissinger’s martial maxim on its head and so rewrite the axioms of armed conflict. This redefinition can be proved by a simple equation:
0 + 1,000,000,000,000 + 17 +17 + 23,744 + 3,000,000,000,000 + 5 + 5,200 + 74 = 4,000,000,029,057
Expressed differently, the United States has not won a major conflict since 1945; has a trillion-dollar national security budget; has had 17 military commanders in the last 17 years in Afghanistan, a country plagued by 23,744 “security incidents” (the most ever recorded) in 2017 alone; has spent around $3 trillion, primarily on that war and the rest of the war on terror, including the ongoing conflict in Iraq, which then-defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld swore, in 2002, would be over in only “five days or five weeks or five months,” but where approximately 5,000 U.S. troops remain today; and yet 74 percent of the American people still express high confidence in the U.S. military.
Let the math and the implications wash over you for a moment. Such a calculus definitively disproves the notion that “the conventional army loses if it does not win.” It also helps answer the question of victory in the war on terror. It turns out that the U.S. military, whose budget and influence in Washington have only grown in these years, now wins simply by not losing — a multi-trillion-dollar conventional army held to the standards of success once applied only to under-armed, under-funded guerilla groups.
Unlike in the Vietnam War years, three presidents and the Pentagon, unbothered by fiscal constraints, substantive congressional opposition, or a significant antiwar movement, have been effectively pursuing this strategy, which requires nothing more than a steady supply of troops, contractors, and other assorted camp followers; an endless parade of Senate-sanctioned commanders; and an annual outlay of hundreds of billions of dollars. By these standards, Donald Trump’s open-ended, timetable-free “Strategy in Afghanistan and South Asia” may prove to be the winningest war plan ever. As he described it:
“From now on, victory will have a clear definition: attacking our enemies, obliterating ISIS, crushing al-Qaeda, preventing the Taliban from taking over Afghanistan, and stopping mass terror attacks against America before they emerge.”
Think about that for a moment. Victory’s definition begins with “attacking our enemies” and ends with the prevention of possible terror attacks. Let me reiterate: “victory” is defined as “attacking our enemies.”
Under President Trump’s strategy, it seems, every time the U.S. bombs or shells or shoots at a member of one of those 20-plus terror groups in Afghanistan, the U.S. is winning or, perhaps, has won. And this strategy is not specifically Afghan-centric. It can easily be applied to American warzones in the Middle East and Africa — anywhere, really.
Decades after the end of the Vietnam War, the U.S. military has finally solved the conundrum of how to “out-guerrilla the guerrilla.” And it couldn’t have been simpler. You just adopt the same definition of victory. As a result, a conventional army — at least the U.S. military — now loses only if it stops fighting. So long as unaccountable commanders wage benchmark-free wars without congressional constraint, the United States simply cannot lose.
You can’t argue with the math. Call it the rule of 4,000,000,029,057.
That calculus and that sum also prove, quite clearly, that America’s beleaguered commander-in-chief has gotten a raw deal on his victory parade. With apologies to the American Legion, the U.S. military is now — under the new rules of warfare — triumphant and deserves the type of celebration proposed by President Trump.
After almost two decades of warfare, the armed forces have lowered the bar for victory to the level of their enemy, the Taliban. What was once the mark of failure for a conventional army is now the benchmark for success.
It’s a remarkable feat and deserving, at the very least, of furious flag-waving, ticker tape, and all the age-old trappings of victory.