Think Tank (6/2022)
Prof Amin Saikal (right)
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Why the United States Doesn’t Win Wars: Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan
27 Oct 2022

The RSIS Seminar “Why the United States Doesn’t Win Wars: Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan” was held at the LHS Lecture Theatre, The Hive, on 27 October 2022. The speaker, Professor Amin Saikal, AM, FASSA, is Distinguished Visiting Fellow at RSIS, Adjunct Professor of Social Sciences at the University of Western Australia, and Non-Resident Fellow of the Liechtenstein Institute on Self-Determination at Princeton University. The seminar was chaired by Dr Bernard Loo, Senior Fellow, Military Studies Programme, Senior Fellow, Military Studies Programme, Coordinator, MSc (Strategic Studies) Programme, and Editor, IDSS Paper at RSIS.

The United States has lost several wars since the end of World War II. Professor Saikal identified and analysed four themes underpinning the US losses in what can be termed as small or medium wars in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan, despite its military prowess. The first was its inability to comprehend local complexities and regional intricacies. In Iraq, for example, Saddam Hussein’s removal destabilised the strong dictatorial state and energised the suppressed society. This created a political vacuum that ultimately led to sectarian violence and a weak Iraqi government at the mercy of regional interventionism.

The second theme was the US inability to secure credible and effective partners on the ground. For all three wars, the local governments were incompetent and unpopular, being more engaged in the politics of self-preservation and the protection of elites. The third theme was the US inability to fulfil its promises of stability, prosperity, and democracy in each country despite prolonged involvements and high costs. This dwindled public support and increased pressure for its withdrawals. Finally, the fourth theme was that the US political leaders did not always move according to the same timetable as the military. While leaders at home favoured short-term involvements and time-based exits, the military commanders on the ground might have other operational considerations and preferred condition-based withdrawals.

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