From Afghanistan to Iraq and Syria: unwinnable wars?

Article by Joana Lopes | Illustration by Niccolò Cedeno


Back in 2001, George W. Bush declared: “Either you are with us, or you are with terrorists”. Stated in the aftermath of September 11th (9/11), this quote roughly marks the moment in which U.S military forces were deployed to Afghanistan. Shortly after, Iraq war followed (2003) and then, in 2011, a civil war broke in Syria. This article presents a brief status on these three conflicts while assessing whether they are unwinnable or not.


Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria

Fully understanding Middle East politics is a puzzling task however there are common themes amongst the conflicts in the region: (1) oil; (2) religion and (3) violence, combined with traditional security threats (military threats, domestic and international). According to the last report of the Global Peace Index (GPI) (2020), “the Middle East and North Africa region remained the world’s least peaceful region. It is home to four of the ten least peaceful countries in the world”. Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan[1] account for the lowest positions in the ranking. Ongoing ISIS attacks; the recent assassination of Qassim Suleimani, commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards’ expeditionary unit (the Quds Force) and the current policy decisions of Trump (and Israel) are also fuelling animosities in the Middle East.

Are these conflicts “unwinnable”? It is difficult to assess rigorously. First, the concept is commonly used, but seems to be theoretically underexplored in the academia. In the book “Modern Geopolitics and Security: Strategies for Unwinnable Conflicts” Professor Amos Guiora, the author, provides an elusive definition. The “best answer” to understand the concept of an “unwinnable conflict”, affirms Guiora, is “perhaps the word “limits”, being those related with its management and possible (foreign) interventions. Second, empirically, we fall short for an answer (in the conclusion we tell you why).


1. Afghanistan (2001 – )

a) Why it has started?  Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan (2001) started in the aftermath of 9/11. In 2001, the U.S and its allies (backed by the UN) intervene in the country to topple the Taliban and Bin Laden’s al-Qaeda targets in Afghanistan.

It is America’s longest war but Afghanistan has been in turmoil long before the U.S direct intervention. The 1979 Soviet invasion was quickly transformed into a proxy war: in the midst of the Cold War, the U.S fuelled the conflict by funding the mujahideen rebels (Bin Laden included). After URSS withdrawal (1989), an ethnic conflict followed and the Taliban rose to power (1996), imposing an ultra-conservative and violent regime. Years later, the Islamic State (ISIS) (2014) emerged and it’s still exploring the chaos (as well as al-Qaeda).

 b) What is the current situation? In 2018, “violence in Afghanistan was worse than in Syria” (25.000 people died). In 2020, Afghanistan is the least peaceful country in the world (GPI): in February, the Taliban forces controlled almost 18% of Afghan’s districts and 48% are contested. The U.S-Taliban peace agreement (29th February 2020) and the United Nations’ appeals for global ceasefire provided some hope but the strikes haven’t stopped. Recently, after a bloody Ramadan, “the Afghan government and the Taliban called for a three-day truce” but the massacre still continues, especially from ISIS.


2. Iraq (2003 – )

a) Why it has started? The 2003 U.S invasion of Iraq (Operation Iraqi Freedom) is seen as a result of the Gulf War (1991) as well as of 9/11. After Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait (1990), the US led coalition went to war with Saddam’s to force his troops out of Kuwait.

In the aftermath of 9/11, Iraq was included in George W. Bush’s “axis of evil”, labelled as a “rogue state”, that is, a state perceived to be a threat to national security for suspicious development of weapons of mass destruction and links with terrorism. Iraq war divided the country and provoked a major crisis in the Transatlantic Relationship since it wasn’t endorsed by the UN. In 2003, British intelligence officer Katherine Gun leaked a U.S spy plan to bypass the UN Security Council (by blackmailing certain states to vote for Iraq intervention).

“Although the story made headlines around the world at the time of the leak and later at the time of her trial, (…) it remains largely missing from the official narratives of the build-up to the Iraq war.” Yet, due to her actions, “a second UN resolution directly to authorise war against Iraq never materialised.”

b) What is the current situation? Iraq is one of the most unstable countries in the Middle East: as Afghanistan, it has fallen into a campaign of violence and since mid-2019 and specialists are worried of a possible resurgence of ISIS. “There is still no consensus on what a post-post-Saddam Hussein Iraq should look like” and the country has seen the eruption of multiple protests to “demand an end to corruption and foreign interference, an overhaul of the political system, and economic justice”. This led to the resignation of Prime-Minister Abdul-Mahdi (November 2019). Internal conflicts (Kurds; Sunnis and Shiite); foreign interventions (U.S; conflicts with Iran); ISIS and coronavirus are just some among the factors which are preventing long-term peace.


3. Syria (2011-)

a) Why it has started? The war in Syria began in the awake of Arab Spring (2011) as a pro-democracy protest. Lack of freedoms, corruption, growing economic instability and high unemployment rates inflamed the anger which were then severely repressed by the Syrian government and quickly turned into a civil war that is now in its ninth year (2020).

 b) What is the current situation? Syria has descended into a horror. Over the years, the conflict has grown more complex. There are multiple players on the ground, ranging from pro-government forces (Syrian armed and security forces and pro-government militias); opposition forces (backed up by foreign powers as the U.S., Russia or Turkey) to Islamic State’s fighters.

Earlier this year (January 2020), the Permanent Representative of Portugal at the UN Security Council, Ambassador Francisco Duarte Lopes – speaking on behalf of the European Union – reiterated that “there can be no military solution to the Syrian crisis” and stressed the need to “permanently cease indiscriminate airstrikes and shelling on civilians, and to respect international humanitarian law”. The conflict “has had profound repercussions on the overall stability of the Middle East” and “has led to the death of half a million Syrians and the displacement of half of the Syrian population”, Ambassador stated.



Despite the available data (on deployed personnel; attacks; deaths; refugees…etc.), there are many variables which prevent us to state an acute conclusion on whether these conflicts are unwinnable or not: e.g. volatile nature of the conflicts; foreign policy decisions and external interventions; emergent terrorist forces; or the lack of political consensus, along with consecutive blocks in the UN Security Council. Ultimately, we hope these conflicts end. The victory lies in the analysis of various aspects, but there are already some indicators of a possible resolution, despite continuous severe human rights violations.

In the case of Afghanistan, we think it mainly depends on the efficacy of the peace agreement as well as on the implementation of security measures to prevent a massive resurgence of ISIS. The perceptions on the war are controversial. In 2017, Foreign Affairs polled 52 prestigious academics and policymakers and asked whether the war in Afghanistan was a mistake or not.

The majority of the participants responded positively, arguing it was a mistake sustaining a large-scale presence in Afghanistan. Americans have a contradictory opinion (2019): Even after 19 years of war and the disclosure of the “Afghanistan Papers” (which accounts how the U.S government mislead the public on the war), the American public is supportive of maintaining their government boots on the ground.

In the case of Iraq and Syria, humanitarian projects funded by the UN and the EU are proving to be vital. The military defeat of ISIS by the Coalition forces in 2017 has triggered improvement, yet – as we explained – both countries are still in a high volatile situation, now further aggravated by the new coronavirus.

Regardless of the conflict, international community should remain focused on protecting human rights, promoting peaceful transitions, justice and continue to stress the importance of multilateralism through full compliance with international rules, as the UN resolutions.


[1] The term “Middle East” goes back to the 19th century and were meant “to refer to (various delineations of) territories that lay between Western Europe and the Far East (China, Japan, etc.)”. This is why Afghanistan is sometimes “regarded” as a Middle East territory in spite of being located in Central Asia. In Angriest, Michele (eds) (2013). Politics and Society in the Contemporary Middle East – 2nd edition. USA: Lynne Reinner Publishers. Page 2.

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