Why Wars No Longer End with Winners and Losers

H. L. Mencken, America's early-20th-century curmudgeon, was well ahead of his time when he said that war (like love) is easier to start than to stop. Before 1945, there was something like a formula for how wars were fought and ended. When groups disagreed, usually over a piece of land, and failed to reconcile their differences amicably, they duked it out until one surrendered and the other carried off the prize. When they ended, wars had clear winners and losers.

With U.S. troops leaving Iraq and deploying in Afghanistan, it's worth asking: how are wars won now? Increasingly, they're not. Instead, says Page Fortna, a political scientist at Columbia University who researches war outcomes, nearly half of all wars since World War II have ended indecisively. That trend between states started with the Cold War, and for civil wars it began when the Cold War ended. (By contrast, only half a percent of all wars fought between 1816 and 1946 ended without a victor, according to the Correlates of War, an academic project that codes war outcomes.)

Partly, that's because the meaning of victory itself is changing. Even military routs have become divorced from political resolution, prompting a rise in "frozen conflicts" that seem to drag on through endless cycles of ceasefires, stalemates, and resurgences without ever properly concluding, says Fortna. "Because of changing norms about what is acceptable to gain through warfare, issues that were once resolved militarily are now often left unresolved," she says. "There are still cases when one side is clearly stronger militarily, but that often doesn't translate into political victory. For example, what would victory in Iraq look like? Or Afghanistan? It's pretty open to interpretation." In a world where many guerrilla groups consider not losing to be the same as winning, it has become much harder to translate military success into the political stability necessary for peace.

Some political scientists blame—or credit—the new reliance of U.N. peacekeeping forces for these changes. Others note the shift away from territory as the primary war goal after financial holdings overtook property as the pillar of economic power. But unconditional surrender is so rare nowadays—what, then, does it mean to win a war? And what happens in its place? NEWSWEEK put these questions to political scientists mining conflict data; here, we break down outcomes into seven rough categories that have replaced the clear-cut results of yesteryear.

"There are two conditions that need to be met for a war to end in a draw," says Fortna. "One, neither side clobbers the other. And two, the sides can agree to stop fighting." To get to the second, she says, the parties have to overcome a "fog of war"—an information gap that keeps each one from trusting that the other won't attack.

In the Korean War, for example, there was no neutral peacekeeping force; it took two years and millions of lives before the parties settled on the terms of a ceasefire. With that, the 38th parallel, where Allied forces had partitioned the country in the first place, became the unofficial border between North and South. The armistice held for years, then decades, never leading to peace accords or solving underlying political issues, never convincing either party it could move its troops away from the border zone. It has, so far, kept the aggressors from firing at each other. But technically, without a peace treaty, the United States is still at war with North Korea.

Such draws are as old as warfare itself, except for one change: there are more of them now. Fortna attributes that trend largely to the rise in peacekeeping, since neutral forces help combatants to see through war's fog and negotiate a settlement (see slide 4). Since the end of World War II, peacekeepers have rendered a tie from several Cold War conflicts between states—with a psychological assist from the specter of mutually assured destruction. Later, after the Cold War ended, they shifted their focus to civil wars, coinciding with more draws in internal conflicts.

Other examples: Iran and Iraq; India and Pakistan.

Category: Political Stalemates
Case Study: Israel-Palestine

Stalemates, though, aren't just about the status of forces; they're also about politics. And sometimes even the most staggering military rout isn't enough to break a political stalemate.

In the Arab-Israeli conflict, Israel has shown superior strength of arms on the battlefield at least eight times: the 1948 war of independence, the 1956 Sinai war, the 1967 Six-Day War, the 1970 war of attrition, the 1973 Yom Kippur war, the 1982 invasion of Lebanon, the second war in Lebanon in 2006, and the 2008 siege of Hamas-controlled Gaza. But because of the distinction between military outcomes and political outcomes, the geography of Israel still looks roughly the same as it did after 1948.

That's because the conflict is fought as much today over public relations as it is on the battlefield. Both sides, for example, claimed victory after the 2009 war between Israel and Hamas. And although Israel clearly destroyed more targets and lost fewer lives, if Hamas doesn't admit defeat, who's to say it actually lost? Short of taking over the Gazan government (which the Israelis know would be a bloody, unpopular, and probably immoral affair), there's little Israel can do to force Hamas from power.

That's why political settlements don't always follow military ones—there's no political will to implement them. Militaries today refrain from pursuing the ruthless tactics associated with absolute war, mindful of CNN and cell-phone cameras. Insurgencies amplify their perceived successes and injustices using the same tools. Amid the cacophony, political constituencies (in this case, Israeli and Palestinian voters) dig in their heels, holding leaders back from compromises.

The world has thrown everything but the kitchen sink at this one: negotiated settlements, ceasefires, military hardware, insurgencies, terrorism, peacekeeping forces, occupations, withdrawals. But the conflict rages on, because Israelis haven't (or can't) come up with a peace package the Palestinians will accept, and Palestinians haven't (or can't) decided to settle.

Other examples: China and Tibet; Turkey, Iran, Iraq, and Kurdistan.

When wars do end by negotiation, it's usually a third party who's brought the combatants to the table—neighboring states, centrist politicians, the United States, the United Nations. If they have a model, it's El Salvador.

In 1990, 10 years into a brutal civil war, the United Nations brought together leftist rebels and government forces, which had just lost their U.S. support with the end of the Cold War, in Geneva. Step by step, they agreed to an agenda and then a U.N. mission to work inside El Salvador that would hold them to their word. By 1992, after three graduated peace agreements had been signed and observed, the guns were silenced, and, as planned, U.N. representatives stuck around to monitor elections and supervise reforms. Today, El Salvador, for all its problems with crime, is a stable, war-free democracy with a former rebel leader as president.

Since the end of the Cold War, negotiated settlements have become the enlightened way to end civil wars: while 80 percent once ended with military victories, the split is now 40-40 (draws make up the rest). But El Salvador's success story may be the exception, not the rule. Negotiated settlements tend to break down, as they did in Sudan, where a series of peace agreements disintegrated into renewed war in 1983 and 2005.

That doesn't bode well for the coming decade: the number of civil wars steadily increased from about 1940 until the early 1990s, dropped off over for more than a decade, then surged again after 2004. According to University of California, San Diego, political scientist Barbara Walter, that's probably because the negotiated settlements of the 1990s haven't held. "They're breaking down and war is resuming," she says. "Two of the things we know about civil wars is that, one, a country that experiences one civil war is much more likely to experience a second civil war. And, two, negotiated settlements are much less likely to keep the peace than a decisive military victory is." According to the Human Security Brief, wars that end through negotiation have a downside. They last three times longer than those that end in victories and are nearly twice as likely to restart within five years.

But Michael Doyle, a political scientist at Columbia University and former adviser to Kofi Annan, argues that the track record on internationally brokered settlements hasn't been all that bad, since such figures conflate truces (agreements merely to stop fighting) with negotiated settlements that address disputed issues and set up new institutions. "Most people think these interventions are all just a mess, which is not true," he says. Instead, he argues that failures like those in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Somalia occur when international forces try to enforce external solutions without local support. But with the right mix of troops, negotiations, law enforcement, and even bribes, he says, more than 86 percent of negotiated peace treaties last. "There's no way one will find something wonderful like Sweden just after a civil war, but, in the right conditions, negotiated settlements can lead to a viable civil peace."

Other examples: Cambodia, Namibia, Sierra Leone, Mozambique.

Even international interventions—and even when they force parties to the negotiating table—don't always deliver conclusive results. "Peacekeeping allows parties time to put the guns down without fearing that the other side will attack, which means conflicts that would have led to military victories are now ending in draws," says Fortna. The downside, she says, is that peacekeepers can then become caught in a "frozen conflict," unable to resolve the underlying dispute and afraid to leave lest the fragile peace devolve back into war. The result is the emergence of states that amount to internationally governed protectorates, as currently seen in the Balkans.

NATO's airstrikes began in the summer of 1995, to punish the Serbs, led by Radovan Karadzic (with the tacit consent of Serbia's Slobodan Milosevic), for killing or expelling Muslims in eastern Bonia. By that December, they had wrought the Dayton accords between Bosnians and the Serbs. But while the fighting stopped, the populations continued to balkanize—and they never learned to trust each other again. More than a decade later, international forces worry that their withdrawal would allow Bosnia to fracture into dysfunctional independent ethnic statelets, returning to the death and forced migration of the 1990s.

"The Dayton accords pasted together a very weak international state that now survives predominantly by the presence of the European community and residual NATO troops," says Doyle. "They're holding the country together. It's not a country that could exist if it were completely independent."

Other examples: East Timor, Liberia, Congo, Afghanistan, and Iraq.

Victories that end with a bang seem obvious enough to spot. But often, what seems like outright victory only leaves a discontented population (even if it's the minority) unwilling to accept defeat but smart enough not to reignite outright combat.

In Chechnya's case, Russia launched wars in 1994 and 1999 to respond to secession attempts by Chechen rebels. It's not hard to see who had the greater strength of arms; Russian forces utterly decimated the capital, Grozny, and resumed direct control of its government, while the rebels have accomplished only terror attacks and targeted killings. Following the war, Russia maintained a decadelong counterterrorism campaign to quell the insurgency. Eventually, Moscow declared that Chechnya had been subdued and installed a local strongman (with what appears to be a penchant for extrajudicial killings) to do its bidding.

Rather than surrender or continue fighting, the rebels simply resorted to wilier methods. In 2002, they stormed a Moscow theatre and began a hostage crisis that left 129 civilians dead. Others targeted an elementary school in Beslan, North Ossetia, in 2004—killing 344, more than half of them children. And so there's something like a standoff. On one side remains a scattered insurgency. On the other are routine crackdowns by Moscow's client. Still, this past April, Russia announced an end to its counterterrorism operations, effectively declaring Chechnya's separatist battles over.

According to Stanford political scientist James Fearon, the conflict has been suppressed to the point that it can no longer be called a civil war. But sporadic violence continues: attacks on police, civil-society leaders, and high-ranking government officials returned this summer, raising the specter of a third war. Ominously, suicide attacks, which had not been seen in years, began to recur, including one at the beginning of January that killed six police officers. That's similar to Colombia, where leftist rebels have lost much of their strength in the past decade, leading observers like Doyle to postulate that the end of the conflict will be one long slow fizzle. But so long as occasional attacks persist, it's an uneven and chronically uncertain win at best.

Other examples: Colombia, Yemen, Western Sahara (Morocco).

Victories since World War II are both less common and less clear, but they do still happen. The North Vietnamese eventually conquered South Vietnam and expelled U.S. forces. Iraq's land grab in Kuwait was successfully repelled by an enormous U.S.-led coalition in the first Gulf war, demonstrating—in their collective horror over the invasion—just how rare and unfashionable wars fought over land grabs have become. And colonial campaigns ousted foreign occupiers throughout Africa and Asia, notably in places like Algeria, Mozambique, and Afghanistan.

More recently, Sri Lanka's newly ended civil war provides an instructive example of how old-fashioned victory can still work. For over 26 years (a virtual eternity compared to most wars), the ethnic Sinhalese-majority government fought the ethnic Tamil Tigers, who wanted to secede from the island country. During that time, the Tigers introduced suicide bombing to modern warfare. In 2005, a new Sinhalese president came to power and—determined to win the war once and for all—launched a final debilitating offensive in the spring of 2009.

It may have been for the best, says Harvard political scientist Monica Duffy Toft, who argues that military victories tend to produce more durable peace than negotiated settlements. "The Sri Lankan government adopted a strategy of victory, built up their armed forces, and, because it's an island nation, literally pushed them to the beach," she says. "Did Sri Lanka have international support? No. There was condemnation across the board. But in the old days, that's how it was done. That's how you defeat an insurgency."

Of course, that approach often lays out unpalatable moral choices. "Victories aren't always such good things. Victories can lead to genocide," warns Doyle. Think, for example, of Cambodia after the overthrow of a U.S.-backed dictatorship in 1975, after which 2 million people were exterminated by the Khmer Rouge regime in order to consolidate its power.

Other examples: The first Gulf war, Algeria, Cambodia, Mozambique.

Only a few short years ago, the vogue among military strategists was to point to the British response to the Malayan Emergency as a model for how the current experiments in Iraq and Afghanistan might play out. Having tossed out the Japanese, who annexed Malaya during World War II, the British installed a transitional colonial administration to rapidly rebuild the country's disrupted economy. Displeased with their strict political control, a communist insurgency formed and began attacking British targets. Casting the insurgency as the primary barrier to decolonization, the British succeeded in putting down the rebellion and keeping the support of the Malay population.

But while the parallels are strong, today's wars—in Iraq and Afghanistan—lack the qualities that made British success possible. For one, the Malay insurgency was led by outsiders ethnic Chinese communists—unable to win local credibility. And since Malaya was surrounded by ocean, the rebels couldn't retreat across or receive reinforcements from beyond a porous border (as they can in Pakistan). But perhaps most effective were the strict controls they imposed on Malaya's basic infrastructure. "People forget that the British had a very heavy hand there. They were very good at population control," says Toft. Rice distribution centers essentially allowed British forces to starve the opposition by tracking which villages were supplying guerrillas with food, while the forced resettlement of ethnic Chinese limited their recruitment opportunities. Such tactics, says Toft, would never be considered acceptable today.

What of victory in Iraq and Afghanistan, then? Some goals have already been cast aside as fantasies; neither country, for example, will be built into a Jeffersonian democracy with a free market. On the other hand, U.S. protection and aid does seem to make a difference. "On a very minimal level, Iraq is a victory simply because Saddam Hussein is gone. But so much can happen between tossing out the original combatant and securing the peace. It's that gap that's been difficult to achieve," she says. "In the old days, you would just take over the country. No one was wagging a finger at the outside power. But it's much more difficult to achieve victory today because occupying powers cannot resort to the same strategies that were used in the past."

Recognizing those limits, then, perhaps an inbetween definition of victory is in order. The Bush doctrine that took shape after September 11 held that preemptive regime change is both necessary and achievable when a state harbors transnational actors who threaten the United States. Iraq and Afghanistan belied that vision, but a more modest, limited victory can still achieve some goals. Iraq's central government may never be the strong, stable ally once envisioned, but it can govern with the consent of the country's major factions. Likewise, nation building may not be possible in Afghanistan, but, with a light, sustained military footprint, it can be kept from devolving into civil war or falling to the Taliban. There may never be a clear end date when coalition troops can declare victory and head home. But it's still possible Western forces could achieve modest goals in those countries.