Why the Mightiest Superpower on Earth Hasn’t Won a War in Decades

Orig­i­nal­ly pub­lished in the Sep­tem­ber, 2015 issue of Play­boy

More than 200,000 Amer­i­can sol­diers are deployed in 150 coun­tries around the world. A sin­gle air­craft car­ri­er can deploy more fight­er jets than most coun­tries can. The U.S. econ­o­my and cul­ture dom­i­nate even in the most hos­tile cor­ners of the globe. So why can’t Amer­i­ca win its wars?

That may seem an odd ques­tion, yet it is dif­fi­cult to look at the record and come to any oth­er con­clu­sion: For decades, the U.S. has not won the wars it has fought, at least not in any tra­di­tion­al sense. From Soma­lia in 1993 to Koso­vo in 1999 to the roil­ing car­nage of Iraq and Afghanistan, the Vic­to­ri­an idea of “vic­to­ry” through defeat of an ene­my has sim­ply not made sense in the con­text of the peo­ple and groups who fight. But because the U.S. for­eign pol­i­cy com­mu­ni­ty remains tied to such ancient and out­dat­ed ideas, the wars Amer­i­ca fights will con­tin­ue to end in a mud­dle.

Over time, the U.S. has become less and less capa­ble of defin­ing vic­to­ry in its wars. In the first Gulf war, vic­to­ry was straight­for­ward: the mil­i­tary defeat of Sad­dam Hussein’s army and the lib­er­a­tion of Kuwait from its bru­tal occu­pa­tion. But the next con­flict in which the U.S. fought, in Soma­lia, did not have a con­crete goal. There are a lot of rea­sons for that, but they begin with the nature of the con­flict itself. Soma­lia was not a con­ven­tion­al con­flict, with two sides squared off against each oth­er and the U.S. mil­i­tary on one of those sides. Soma­lia was some­thing else—essentially a war against chaos, fought in the hope that U.S. troops, with UN back­ing, could bring the many war­ring fac­tions to heel and impose a new gov­ern­ment on the coun­try. It failed.

While the wars in the Balka­ns involved more tra­di­tion­al forces, they result­ed in a dif­fi­cult and ten­u­ous peace despite more than a decade of occu­pa­tion by Euro­pean forces. NATO was able to defeat Ser­bian forces on the bat­tle­field, but the peace remains frag­ile: Eth­nic vio­lence is still a dif­fi­cult prob­lem in Sara­je­vo, and Koso­vo is still occu­pied by thou­sands of NATO troops enforc­ing calm. It might be peace of a sort, but it is cer­tain­ly not vic­to­ry.

Look­ing at the 21st cen­tu­ry, defin­ing an ene­my and then deter­min­ing how to achieve vic­to­ry against it is more dif­fi­cult than ever before. The ongo­ing wars in Afghanistan and Pak­istan, the Islam­ic State in Iraq and Syr­ia, Al Qae­da as well as Iran-backed mil­i­tants in Yemen, Al Qae­da and Islam­ic State fight­ers in Libya and Al Qae­da groups in Mali and Soma­lia make it dif­fi­cult to see how the appli­ca­tion of mil­i­tary force could ever be expect­ed to address the rea­sons those wars began in the first place. America’s mil­i­tary is incred­i­bly pow­er­ful, but it is not the right tool for the job of win­ning.

So why can’t Amer­i­ca do bet­ter?

It would be easy to say the Unit­ed States hasn’t learned a thing, but the messy real­i­ty is that we have per­haps learned too much from our first 14 years of the war on ter­ror. Gov­ern­ment offi­cials know they left two jobs undone, but they’re also aware of how unsup­port­ive the Amer­i­can pub­lic is of eter­nal, expen­sive war­fare.

U.S. offi­cials are also unwill­ing to admit they messed up. “Mis­takes were made,” as the say­ing goes, but those mis­takes don’t hap­pen in a vac­u­um. The Iraq war was, from con­cep­tion to with­draw­al, a com­plete dis­as­ter, and its exe­cu­tion stands against every­thing senior mil­i­tary offi­cers learn in war col­lege about strate­gic plan­ning. The offi­cial line that good things hap­pened in Afghanistan—look at all the chil­dren in school!—ignores the fact that the coun­try remains com­plete­ly ungovern­able and the Tal­iban con­trols more ter­ri­to­ry every week.

Yet Amer­i­can lead­ers have split into two camps (like every­thing else in Amer­i­ca, there are two and only two sides of the issue): One sees a fail­ure to kill enough and wants to go all-in with troops and a mas­sive air cam­paign in half a dozen coun­tries, while the oth­er wants to pull back and remain unin­volved. So far Pres­i­dent Oba­ma has gen­er­al­ly done the lat­ter while try­ing to do just enough to appease the inter­ven­tion­ists. This split also rep­re­sents a fatal break­age of America’s war pol­i­tics.

The dif­fi­cul­ty in every sin­gle war zone under dis­cus­sion here is that the U.S. has a poor record of play­ing a con­struc­tive role, but that doesn’t auto­mat­i­cal­ly mean Amer­i­can absence is the best pol­i­cy. The mil­i­tants plant­i­ng bombs are not some dis­tant, for­eign prob­lem. Every sin­gle con­flict we talk about has the poten­tial to cause state col­lapse and with it the col­lapse of region­al trade and secu­ri­ty. That’s a big deal, but it goes fur­ther: Groups like the Islam­ic State are active­ly recruit­ing peo­ple to their cause. (ISIS alone has signed up more than 20,000 peo­ple from out­side Iraq and Syr­ia to fight on its behalf.) Every sin­gle head of state in the West is wor­ried that their cit­i­zens who join the fight will even­tu­al­ly return home, rad­i­cal­ized and wired for vio­lence. Already Euro­pean offi­cials reg­u­lar­ly raid hous­es believed to host ISIS-rad­i­cal­ized ter­ror­ists. And as U.S. pol­i­cy mak­ers look at the churn these groups pro­duce, they are left with two con­tra­dic­to­ry impuls­es: the pub­lic demand that they “do some­thing” about this rise of mil­i­tan­cy and the pub­lic revul­sion at the idea of spend­ing mon­ey or deploy­ing troops to do it.

So the ques­tion fac­ing Amer­i­ca is not whether to get involved. We’re already involved and fac­ing the con­se­quences of that involve­ment every day. The ques­tion is howAmer­i­ca should be involved, and it is the ques­tion not being debat­ed.

This is because the pol­i­tics of America’s wars have failed. The mil­i­tary can do com­bat just fine, but the pol­i­tics of war that give the mil­i­tary scope and direc­tion have fun­da­men­tal­ly bro­ken down. The prob­lems plagu­ing America’s mod­ern wars, from Koso­vo in 1999 to Yemen in 2015, stem from an inabil­i­ty to work at the polit­i­cal lev­el both domes­ti­cal­ly and in the con­flict zone. And as long as our pol­i­tics remain bro­ken, no one should hold out much hope for a sat­is­fy­ing response to the fren­zied unrav­el­ing of coun­try after coun­try as Islamist mil­i­tants reduce once-proud cul­tures to hor­ri­fy­ing char­nel hous­es.

No one per­son is respon­si­ble for the polit­i­cal fail­ure of America’s wars. It’s too easy to point at the inane shenani­gans of the George W. Bush admin­is­tra­tion and place the blame there. It does not make sense to point at the fevered dream of the first few years after 9/11, when peo­ple said every­thing had changed but it real­ly hadn’t. The dys­func­tion goes deep­er, to a fun­da­men­tal dis­con­nect with­in Amer­i­can pol­i­tics that is reflect­ed in dis­joint­ed and inef­fec­tive pol­i­cy abroad. Bol­stered by over­heat­ed hap­py talk to the press and entrenched in mag­i­cal group­think, there is no coun­ter­vail­ing force at work in Amer­i­can pol­i­tics.

If any­thing, the incen­tives in our polit­i­cal dis­course go in the wrong direc­tion. Advo­cat­ing the use of force, no mat­ter how ill-con­sid­ered, is rich­ly reward­ed. (Think of the pun­dit William Kris­tol, who has faced no pro­fes­sion­al con­se­quences for his relent­less advo­ca­cy of war.) Con­verse­ly, oppo­nents of war who crit­i­cize the use of force to achieve for­eign pol­i­cy goals are pun­ished harsh­ly: MSNBC for­eign pol­i­cy cor­re­spon­dent Ash­leigh Ban­field crit­i­cized the media fever pro­mot­ing the 2003 run-up to the Iraq inva­sion; the net­work took her off the air. She now cov­ers court cas­es on CNN.

At this basic lev­el, the pub­lic dis­course on war in Amer­i­ca has sim­ply stopped work­ing. You could see this at play in the ear­li­est stages of the war in Afghanistan, in 2001. The pun­dits, who faced intense pres­sure to sup­port the war regard­less of the facts, called it a mas­ter­piece before the shoot­ing had even stopped. Writ­ing in For­eign Affairs just sev­en months after the con­flict began, Michael O’Hanlon, a mil­i­tary expert at the Brook­ings Insti­tu­tion who still preach­es the finesse of Amer­i­can mil­i­tary pow­er, said the war “may wind up being more notable in the annals of Amer­i­can mil­i­tary his­to­ry than any­thing since Dou­glas MacArthur’s inva­sion at Inchon in Korea half a cen­tu­ry ago.” It had “deprived Al Qae­da of its sanc­tu­ary with­in Afghanistan and left its sur­viv­ing lead­ers run­ning for their lives”—Osama bin Laden, of course, would remain at large for near­ly a decade.

O’Hanlon was express­ing the zeit­geist inside the Belt­way: Rid­ing high on the NATO-led air war over Koso­vo in 1999 and thor­ough­ly impressed with the tech­no­log­i­cal mod­ern­iza­tion of the U.S. mil­i­tary, for­eign pol­i­cy wonks believed the rapid col­lapse of the Tal­iban had lit­tle to do with the inher­ent weak­ness of the Tal­iban regime or the brit­tle­ness of Afghan soci­ety after two decades of hor­ri­fy­ing, bloody con­flict, but rather was due to Amer­i­can exper­tise and prowess.

The real­i­ty, how­ev­er, is that dur­ing the ear­ly days of the war in Afghanistan the U.S. bad­ly mis­un­der­stood the country’s pol­i­tics. The spe­cial oper­a­tors who deployed in Octo­ber 2001 estab­lished a liai­son with the very mon­sters who’d made the Tal­iban look like sav­iors when they emerged from the civ­il war in 1994. Afghans knew who these bru­tal men were even if the Amer­i­can offi­cials in charge did not.

From the U.S. per­spec­tive, the Tal­iban were the real ene­my: They had host­ed Al Qae­da, declined to hand over Osama bin Laden after 9/11 and had to be attacked in response. By fail­ing to under­stand the polit­i­cal back­ground of Afghanistan, the U.S. poi­soned every diplo­mat­ic and mil­i­tary effort it made there. By play­ing to the North­ern Alliance war­lords so heav­i­ly, the U.S. guar­an­teed the Tal­iban would have a dis­en­fran­chised con­stituen­cy to mobi­lize for their insur­gency, which is still going on today.

That per­spec­tive nev­er made it into main­stream Amer­i­can dis­course about the war. Afghanistan experts abounded—many were left over from the pre­vi­ous Amer­i­can war there, dur­ing the Sovi­et inva­sion in the 1980s. Yet the voic­es of those who knew bet­ter, who under­stood Afghanistan, were swept aside, replaced by a panoply of “for­eign pol­i­cy experts” who were learn­ing on the job while impos­ing a new gov­ern­ment on the coun­try.

Sim­i­lar­ly, from the ear­li­est days of the Iraq inva­sion there were signs that some­thing had gone hor­ri­bly wrong. The U.S. decid­ed to dis­band the Iraqi Nation­al Army and cleanse the gov­ern­ment of for­mer Ba’athists (who had formed Sad­dam Hussein’s polit­i­cal sup­port). These oppres­sive insti­tu­tions had held Iraqi soci­ety togeth­er for decades, but U.S. plan­ners nev­er effec­tive­ly replaced them—creating a pow­er vac­u­um that left Iraqi soci­ety vio­lent­ly frag­ment­ed. As a 2012 Joint Staff study con­clud­ed, “The U.S. gov­ern­ment moved to estab­lish a new sov­er­eign Iraqi gov­ern­ment and focused on long-term, state-of-the-art nation­al infra­struc­ture while ignor­ing ear­ly signs of an insur­gency.” The U.S. want­ed to build roads and a par­lia­ment while insur­gents were busy plant­i­ng bombs. The insur­gency quick­ly mutat­ed into a sec­tar­i­an war fueled by Al Qae­da that is also still going on today.

As for­mer Wash­ing­ton Post Bagh­dad bureau chief Rajiv Chan­drasekaran doc­u­ments in his book Impe­r­i­al Life in the Emer­ald City, the U.S. eschewed experts on Iraq when it staffed up its bureau­cra­cy there; rather, it pre­ferred to hire peo­ple with polit­i­cal con­nec­tions, prefer­ably to con­ser­v­a­tive Repub­li­cans, and assumed their lack of knowl­edge about Iraq could be filled in as need­ed.

The result was dis­as­ter. Yet as the sit­u­a­tion in Iraq grew steadi­ly worse, a new word began fil­ter­ing through inter­nal chan­nels of mil­i­tary dis­course: coun­terin­sur­gency, or COIN. Soon mil­i­tary thinkers, pro­fes­sors at war col­leges and think tank pun­dits began to sug­gest that the only way to defeat the expand­ing resis­tance to the U.S. occu­pa­tion of Iraq and Afghanistan was a broad coun­terin­sur­gency strat­e­gy where­by troops would “live among the peo­ple” and “win by out-gov­ern­ing the oppo­si­tion.”

Again, this was not an idea that came from the peo­ple who knew these coun­tries best. Look­ing back, the strongest and loud­est crit­i­cism of coun­terin­sur­gency came from those who antic­i­pat­ed the heavy cost such a pol­i­cy would impose on the peo­ple who lived there. But that was imma­te­r­i­al: America’s war politi­cians didn’t want to hear con­sid­ered opin­ion about how to nav­i­gate local pol­i­tics; they want­ed sup­port for win­ning the war.

The prob­lem is COIN has a lot of nasty bag­gage. COIN was how France col­o­nized Africa. It was how France and Britain com­mit­ted mas­sive atroc­i­ties in Alge­ria and Malaysia. As recent­ly as the 1950s, hun­dreds of thou­sands of Alge­ri­ans and Malaysians died at the hands of Euro­pean colo­nial­ists who lit­er­al­ly killed their way to igno­ble with­draw­al. Amer­i­ca tried coun­terin­sur­gency in Viet­nam. It didn’t work. By the time Europe’s empires had col­lapsed, leav­ing mil­lions liv­ing in ruin, COIN was inter­est­ing only to his­to­ri­ans, not to any­one think­ing about wars in the 21st cen­tu­ry.

So when mil­i­tary plan­ners thought they need­ed COIN in Iraq and Afghanistan, they didn’t know how to sell it. The gen­er­al most close­ly asso­ci­at­ed with COIN, David Petraeus, had writ­ten his Prince­ton dis­ser­ta­tion on the con­cept, and he devel­oped the Army’s new man­u­al instruct­ing sol­diers how to do it.

Team Petraeus sold COIN through a child­ish lie. Coun­terin­sur­gency had been a bru­tal fail­ure else­where, so they tried a new tack: rebrand the idea with mod­ern anthro­po­log­i­cal the­o­ry and his­tor­i­cal research and sell it as the “grad­u­ate school of war­fare.” Amer­i­can COIN would kill the bad guys while pro­tect­ing the good guys. It would destroy ter­ror­ist net­works and build up legit­i­mate gov­ern­ments. But most of all, mon­ey, not bul­lets, would win the peace. Sol­diers received on-the-job train­ing. In addi­tion to killing bad guys, they set­tled trib­al dis­putes, paved roads, invest­ed in local busi­ness­es and advised crooked local politi­cians how to gov­ern their own peo­ple, all while not speak­ing a word of Pash­to, Ara­bic or Dari. What could pos­si­bly go wrong?

Promis­es aside, Amer­i­can COIN was just as bru­tal as Euro­pean COIN. Since 2007, Bagh­dad has been eth­ni­cal­ly cleansed of its Sun­ni cit­i­zens. Dis­en­fran­chised and angry at a sec­tar­i­an gov­ern­ment the U.S. sup­port­ed for years with mon­ey and weapons hand­outs, those Sun­nis now form the sup­port base for the ISIS mil­i­tants every­one is wor­ried about. Suc­cess cre­at­ed its own fail­ure.

Mean­while, in Afghanistan the rate of bomb­ings is so intense, a Tal­iban fight­er dies every 48 hours plant­i­ng a bomb. Hun­dreds of thou­sands of civil­ians have been killed thanks to America’s efforts.

The wars did not have to turn out this way. But bol­stered by a cadre of yes-men, nei­ther the mil­i­tary nor the White House felt any need to define vic­to­ry in either war. Fred­er­ick Kagan, the pun­dit most asso­ci­at­ed with the “surge” pol­i­cy that gave troops space to with­draw from Iraq pub­licly, said the pol­i­cy was meant to give Iraq “the space for polit­i­cal progress.” In 2008, despite that polit­i­cal progress not hap­pen­ing, Kagan declared the pol­i­cy a suc­cess in The New York Times and sup­port­ed the troop with­draw­al as part of a job well done.

By 2010, how­ev­er, Kagan had declared with­draw­al a fail­ure, revers­ing his belief that Iraq’s sov­er­eign­ty and inde­pen­dence from Amer­i­can occu­pa­tion were good things. Kagan was not revers­ing him­self; rather, Iraq’s pol­i­tics had col­lapsed and a mas­sive rebel­lion in Sun­ni areas against the Shia gov­ern­ment had sprung up. (This was before the Syr­i­an civ­il war and the emer­gence of ISIS.) Kagan thought the with­draw­al allowed Iraq’s pol­i­tics to fall apart, not that Iraq’s pol­i­tics were the prob­lem to begin with. He nev­er grap­pled with the inter­nal pres­sures and fis­sures of Iraq’s polit­i­cal chal­lenges; he sim­ply assumed that mil­i­tary force would be enough and would allow the Iraqis to work it out on their own.

Kagan was hired to do the same thing in Afghanistan. But by 2010, the war there was in its twi­light stage as well. The Oba­ma White House, much as the Bush White House had done in Iraq, set frus­trat­ing­ly vague vic­to­ry con­di­tions cou­pled with an arbi­trary with­draw­al date: Afghanistan should sud­den­ly have a func­tion­al gov­ern­ment, which would then defeat the Tal­iban, but even if it didn’t, U.S. troops were leav­ing in 2014. Some­how COIN would be the way this hap­pened.

It is no sur­prise the plan failed in Afghanistan the same way it has failed in Iraq. But this fail­ure of imag­i­na­tion is not sole­ly Kagan’s fault. He is just the most promi­nent per­son to have ben­e­fit­ed from the tox­ic rela­tion­ship that has grown between the pun­dit class and the mil­i­tary lead­er­ship. COIN did not come out of nowhere; the tac­tics, oper­a­tions and strat­e­gy to fight insur­gen­cies and rebel­lions have been the sub­ject of eter­nal debate in the mil­i­tary for many years, since before the 9/11 attacks. Rather, because COIN was being sold so clev­er­ly by a polit­i­cal­ly ascen­dant general—Petraeus was already the sub­ject of numer­ous glow­ing media pro­files in 2004—the Wash­ing­ton machin­ery of pol­i­cy pun­dit­ry mobi­lized to endorse what every­one thought was a win­ning strat­e­gy. It didn’t mat­ter that the strat­e­gy was not, in fact, a win­ner. COIN was how the war would be won, regard­less of the dis­hon­esty required to sell it to the pub­lic. And just as Iraq skep­tics were pushed out of the pub­lic eye, so too were COIN skep­tics pre­vent­ed from par­tic­i­pat­ing in the pol­i­cy. Those lav­ish­ly sub­si­dized Pen­ta­gon war zone tours were avail­able only to COIN boost­ers. (My own mil­i­tary embed requests in Afghanistan were denied in 2011 after I’d pub­licly crit­i­cized the strat­e­gy.)

Even before the war in Iraq, the mil­i­tary had shown itself unable to adapt quick­ly and nim­bly enough to prop­er­ly address the com­plex, dirty, low-tech­nol­o­gy mod­ern bat­tle­field. The Mil­len­ni­um Chal­lenge war game, held from late July to ear­ly August 2002, mod­eled a con­ven­tion­al assault on a Mid­dle East­ern coun­try. The com­man­der of the ene­my forces, Marine Corps Lieu­tenant Gen­er­al Paul Van Riper, knew the U.S. could dom­i­nate any radio sig­nals or com­put­er mes­sages his forces would send. He also knew the U.S. had panop­tic-like knowl­edge of every mil­i­tary asset he had to defend his beach. So he used minarets and motor­cy­cles to relay instruc­tions and civil­ian air­craft and dinghies to swarm the invad­ing Navy, with a dev­as­tat­ing sur­prise end­ing: In the sim­u­la­tion, he sank 16 U.S. Navy ves­sels, includ­ing an air­craft car­ri­er.

The Pen­ta­gon did not want to grap­ple with such a weak­ness at the heart of its very expen­sive mil­i­tary force. The pol­i­tics of the Pen­ta­gon demand­ed that it win, so it reboot­ed the war game and script­ed Van Riper’s moves to guar­an­tee a vic­to­ry.

Why was the mil­i­tary so resis­tant to fac­ing a nim­ble, uncon­ven­tion­al ene­my? It wasn’t for lack of think­ing: In the mid-1990s, in response to the dis­as­trous with­draw­al from Soma­lia and frus­trat­ing, uncer­tain results in the Balka­ns, Pres­i­dent Bill Clin­ton issued Pres­i­den­tial Deci­sion Direc­tive 56, which detailed “key ele­ments” of how the gov­ern­ment could man­age what it called “com­plex con­tin­gency oper­a­tions.” Two years lat­er, Marine Corps Gen­er­al Charles Kru­lak coined the Three Block War con­cept, where­by sol­diers would engage in high-tem­po com­bat, car­ry out peace­keep­ing oper­a­tions and pro­vide human­i­tar­i­an aid to locals with­in the space of three city blocks. Nei­ther Krulak’s vision nor PDD 56 formed an effec­tive frame­work for how the mil­i­tary could rapid­ly adapt to a nim­ble, most­ly ad-hoc adver­sary. The Pen­ta­gon can defeat orga­nized armies—it’s good at it, and some­times it acts as though it miss­es the days when that was what it did. In mod­ern war­fare, though, civil­ian vehi­cles can be trans­formed into bombs, some­times with civil­ians still inside them. Sol­diers ranked as low as cor­po­ral can be forced to make deci­sions with the pow­er to win or lose an entire war. Local politi­cians will lie seri­al­ly to your face while sell­ing your weapons and posi­tions to your ene­my. Col­lapsed civ­i­liza­tions will have to be rebuilt.

By the time of the 9/11 attacks, the Depart­ment of Defense didn’t want to think about future Soma­lias. It want­ed a big ene­my and became obsessed with Chi­na. Fight­ing Chi­na was so sexy few ever thought to plan a response to the grow­ing sophis­ti­ca­tion of Al Qae­da attacks on U.S. out­posts. Bomb­ings, from the Kho­bar Tow­ers in 1996 to U.S. embassies in Tan­za­nia and Kenya in 1998 to the USS Cole in 2000, sug­gest­ed the most imme­di­ate threat to the U.S. wasn’t Chi­na but Islamist mil­i­tants. With no strate­gic think­ing about how to counter them, the U.S. instead relied on lob­bing a bunch of cruise mis­siles into Afghanistan and Sudan in response. (There was nev­er a for­mal U.S. response to the Cole bomb­ing.)

Despite the past decade of war, the Pen­ta­gon still strug­gles to adjust to the real­i­ty of asym­met­ric war­fare. It was IEDs, not Chi­nese stealth jets or Russ­ian state hack­ers, that cre­at­ed multi­bil­lion-dol­lar agen­cies that spend bil­lions of dol­lars on armored trucks and explo­sives detec­tors. Tech­no­log­i­cal­ly unso­phis­ti­cat­ed insur­gents who built $100 bombs killed thou­sands of troops and pushed the U.S. into an arms race it could nev­er win. The Pen­ta­gon nev­er addressed the rea­son bombs had become so effec­tive against its troops; it just want­ed to build a bet­ter truck.

The U.S. still hasn’t fig­ured out how to win its many uncon­ven­tion­al con­flicts. And it is that uncer­tain­ty that caus­es so much heart­burn in Wash­ing­ton. There is no imme­di­ate­ly clear course of action when an off­shoot of Al Qae­da forces the overnight col­lapse of a mil­i­tary you’ve spent $25 bil­lion cre­at­ing. There is no guide­book for how to respond when that same group floods YouTube and Twit­ter with ghast­ly snuff videos, cack­ling as they behead liv­ing pris­on­ers and fill mass graves. Yet that is what hap­pened last sum­mer in north­ern Iraq.

It seems to be hap­pen­ing else­where as well: Groups pledg­ing alle­giance to ISIS in Libya have not only seized major cities and decap­i­tat­ed dozens of peo­ple, they have been spot­ted by satel­lite try­ing to pre­pare MiG-25 fight­er jets for com­bat.

Last Sep­tem­ber the White House called Yemen its mod­el for how to go after the Islam­ic State in Iraq. Almost as if in response to Pres­i­dent Obama’s endorse­ment, Yemen imme­di­ate­ly fell in a coup d’état staged by a Shia minor­i­ty that has now allied itself with Iran. Sau­di Ara­bia, which has sup­port­ed rad­i­cal Islamist groups in Syr­ia, spent the first half of 2015 bomb­ing Yemen to try to dis­lodge the Shia forces. Few pol­i­cy mak­ers like to talk about the “mod­el” of Yemen any­more.

But what of oth­er shad­ow wars? Pak­istan has lit­er­al­ly blown up in America’s face. The U.S. bad­ly mis­judged how Pak­istan soci­ety and elites would react to a years-long cam­paign of covert drone strikes in their coun­try. In Libya, the U.S. tried to imple­ment regime change with no fol­low-up, no occu­pa­tion troops and lit­tle recon­struc­tion aid. It has been an abysmal fail­ure. Beyond the embassy attacks in Beng­hazi, Islamist mil­i­tants who pledge their loy­al­ty to Al Qae­da con­trol swaths of the coun­try. A hands-off approach in Syr­ia has not helped either: The coun­try is a night­mare of chaot­ic vio­lence. Despite some U.S. air strikes in Iraq, the untouched areas of the Islam­ic State in Syr­ia mean the group is not like­ly to be defeat­ed any­time soon.

The U.S. has had more luck in fight­ing its war on ter­ror in South­east Asia. Both the Philip­pines and Indone­sia have shown that the U.S. can play a pos­i­tive role with an effec­tive gov­ern­ment that takes an active part in its own coun­tert­er­ror­ism cam­paigns. But most coun­tries are not Indone­sia or the Philip­pines. They are more like Soma­lia, with a most­ly dys­func­tion­al gov­ern­ment, under­de­vel­oped insti­tu­tions, med­dling neigh­bors and a lot of places the U.S. can’t reach very eas­i­ly. Or they’re like Mali, where a French-led, Amer­i­can-sup­port­ed cam­paign kept the south­ern half of the coun­try free of mil­i­tants but where the north­ern reach­es are lost to Islamists.

These are the places that will stymie any future pol­i­cy for coun­ter­ing ter­ror. It seems Amer­i­ca can’t real­ly win, at least not the way we nor­mal­ly think of win­ning: Being balls deep as we are in Iraq doesn’t do it, but being hands-off as we are in Libya doesn’t either. The old mod­el of assum­ing clear vic­to­ry comes after bat­tle sim­ply doesn’t apply to the world any­more, and it should have no place in our dis­course about war.

Maybe we need a new way of think­ing about secu­ri­ty chal­lenges, one that isn’t tied to Vic­to­ri­an ideas of defeat­ing an ene­my on the bat­tle­field. Maybe achiev­ing vic­to­ry looks like some­thing else, such as shift­ing the dan­ger from an acute to a minor threat. Maybe man­age­ment is a bet­ter way of address­ing chal­lenges: A coun­try might be a mess, but at least its mil­i­tants aren’t attack­ing the home­land. Or maybe ignor­ing the sit­u­a­tion entire­ly is the way to go.

If the past 14 years of war­fare have taught the U.S. any­thing, it is that we have to pick our bat­tles care­ful­ly. We can­not and should not be cav­a­lier about the promis­es we make, the sac­ri­fices we ask our sol­diers to make or the out­comes we expect to hap­pen. And we have to be hon­est about the threats that con­front us and espe­cial­ly about our own capac­i­ty to address them.