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Zero-Sum Victory

What We're Getting Wrong About War

Why have the major post-9/11 US military interventions turned into quagmires? Despite huge power imbalances in the United States's favor, significant capacity-building efforts, and repeated tactical victories by what many observers call the world's best military, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq turned intractable. The US government's fixation on zero-sum, decisive victory in these conflicts is a key reason why military operations to overthrow two developing-world regimes failed to successfully achieve favorable and durable outcomes.

In Zero-Sum Victory, retired US Army colonel Christopher D. Kolenda identifies three interrelated problems that have emerged from the government's insistence on zero-sum victory. First, the US government has no organized way to measure successful outcomes other than a decisive military victory, and thus, selects strategies that overestimate the possibility of such an outcome. Second, the United States is slow to recognize and modify or abandon losing strategies; in both cases, US officials believe their strategies are working, even as the situation deteriorates. Third, once the United States decides to withdraw, bargaining asymmetries and disconnects in strategy undermine the prospects for a successful transition or negotiated outcome.

Relying on historic examples and personal experience, Kolenda draws thought-provoking and actionable conclusions about the utility of American military power in the contemporary world—insights that serve as a starting point for future scholarship as well as for important national security reforms.

About the Author

Christopher D. Kolenda is a West Point graduate, internationally renowned combat leader, and retired Army colonel. He holds a PhD in War Studies from King's College, London, and is the editor of Leadership: The Warrior's Art. He is the first American to have fought the Taliban as a commander in combat.

Reviews

"In this very well written book, scholar and soldier Chris Kolenda goes far towards explaining why President Biden chose to pull US forces out of Afghanistan, even for those of us who disagree with the decision.  Years of often disorganized and stove-piped efforts left the United States and international community enormously frustrated—and contributed to making Afghanistan a weak kleptocratic state facing a potent and foreign-supported insurgency.  I was briefed by Kolenda after his command in the eastern mountains of Afghanistan early in the war, encountered him often in Kabul and Washington thereafter, and know how much of his own sweat and tears and life he poured into the mission.  Yet these pages smack not of payback or vendetta, but of sad—yet scholarly, and thoughtful, and constructive—criticisms that America must wrestle with. 

 

Kolenda offers practical solutions to reduce these unforced errors and restore faith in America's strategic leadership. Among Kolenda's most creative and compelling recommendations, as we seek to avoid overmilitarizing our future approaches to such complex missions, is this, drawn from his conclusion:  'Address America's Bureaucratic Way of War by decentralizing to an in-theater, interagency command so that someone is accountable for results. Congress can hold meaningful hearings, and senior officials can stop misleading Americans with their claims of in-silo progress.'

 

Like it or not, our recent 20-year effort in Afghanistan may not be the last of its kind.  It may not even be the last one there.  We need to get better at this kind of complex intervention in case the need ever arises again."—Michael O'Hanlon, senior fellow at Brookings, author of The Art of War in an Age of Peace:  U.S. Grand Strategy and Resolute Restraint

"The most thoughtful analysis yet of America's recent conflicts – and future challenges. Chris Kolenda, a veteran of both battlefield and bureaucratic combat, provides an account of Iraq and Afghanistan that is simultaneously brilliant, depressing, and deeply instructive. The best teams learn from their defeats. Hopefully, we will also. Zero-Sum Victory is a great place to start."—General Stanley A. McChrystal (USA, Ret.), co-author Team of Teams

"Chris Kolenda writes from a position of strength, for he was a man in the arena. War in all its forms has always been a very human affair and it is these failures of human enterprise that he shines a searchlight upon, and in doing so helps us understand the 'why' that our best endeavours in Afghanistan and Iraq fell short."—Lieutenant General Sir Graeme Lamb, KBE, CMG, DSO

"Chris Kolenda's mesmerizing account of how US interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq became quagmires highlights a singular truth we ignore at our peril:  the purpose of war is not to keep the game going in multiple overtimes until one side prevails, but rather to achieve an acceptable political outcome. He concludes with a set of practical, but challenging recommendations on the structural changes needed in the bureaucracy to ensure more objective and better-integrated approaches to ending the inevitable irregular wars of the future. Policymakers, take note!"—Ambassador Robin Raphel

"Chris Kolenda brings unique insights into America's wars over the past two decades.  His personal experience across the spectrum is unmatched: combat commander on the ground; senior advisor at four-star headquarters, the Pentagon, and the White House; and negotiator with the Afghan Taliban.  Practitioners and academics alike will find his observations and recommendations clear, well-founded, and compelling.  This is the book to begin our national after-action review of the Long Wars."—Douglas E. Lute, Lieutenant General, US Army, Retired.US Ambassador to NATO, 2013-17

"Packed full of insight, this is a brilliant insider's account, by soldier-scholar Chris Kolenda, which shows how the failure to think through war termination led the United States to lose in Iraq and Afghanistan. Kolenda offers an essential and timely guide for how to avoid military quagmires in the future."—Theo Farrell, professor and author of The Sunday Times bestseller Unwinnable

"Christopher Kolenda, one of the great soldier-scholars of our time, has produced a path-breaking new study on a critical policy question that has yet to be sufficiently answered: Why have American wars in the post-9/11 era experienced so much failure? Kolenda offers a rich and thoughtful analysis that will make a lasting contribution to the war studies field. Zero Sum Victory is essential reading for subject specialists and the broader public alike."—Michael Kugelman, Senior Associate for South Asia, Wilson Center

"Zero-Sum Victory is mandatory reading for any student or observer of the global war on terror. In this compelling and highly readable text, Christopher Kolenda draws upon all aspects of his impressive career as a combat commander, strategic policy advisor, and academic.  His extensive first-hand experience provides authentic insights into what we are getting wrong about war.  He highlights the absence of strategic consideration on a war termination framework, the mistaken conflation of military plans with national strategies, and the prevalence of confirmation bias masking emerging risks. As Kolenda argues, these errors were further compounded by the conduct of 'the bureaucratic way of warfare' that confused authorities, responsibilities, and accountabilities to such an extent that 'the whole became less than the sum of its parts'. Chris's coverage of the failure of Afghan peace negotiations is the most authoritative first-hand account you will find, with Zero-Sum Victory concluding with a superb analysis of the implications for US foreign policy and scholarship."—Major General Dr. Adam Findlay AM, Former Special Operations Commander - Australia

"Zero-Sum Victory, the product of a rare combination of incisive scholarship and years of hard-won and occasionally bitter first-hand experience, is an essential guide to 21st-century Western military strategy and its many dysfunctions and critical reading for anyone wanting to understand what went so wrong in Iraq and Afghanistan and, indeed, what might still go wrong now."—Dr. Simon Anglim, Orde Wingate: Unconventional Warrior

"Chris Kolenda is a rarity: a US Army commander who fought in Afghanistan and then spent years jump-starting peace talks with the Taliban. His rigorous and unsparing assessment of what went wrong during the longest war in American history deserves widespread attention."—Craig Whitlock, author of The Afghanistan Papers: A Secret History of the War

"In Zero-Sum Victory, Chris Kolenda provides insightful and compelling answers to the question of why the US wasn't able to 'win' in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan. His conclusion that the US systematically defaulted to a goal of zero-sum victory in its unconventional wars is a powerful one for policymakers confronting the coming decades of challenges to US military power."—Dr. Jonathan Schroden, Director of CNA's Countering Threats and Challenges Program

"War termination is among the most important responsibilities of the state. Yet the U.S. has failed systematically at this since 2001. In Zero-Sum Victory, Christopher Kolenda makes a landmark contribution toward improving this baleful record by highlighting the crucial importance of negotiation in ending wars. The book is essential reading for both policy makers and scholars."—Stephen Biddle, author of Nonstate Warfare: The Military Methods of Guerillas, Warlords, and Militias

"Few have had the diversity of perspectives on war as Chris Kolenda, and the framework he provides makes this book essential reading for understanding how bureaucratic silos and strategic narcissism led to our failures in Afghanistan and Iraq. He expertly lays the groundwork for a much-needed assessment of where we went wrong – and how to avoid those mistakes in future conflicts."—Jason Dempsey, veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan and author of Our Army: Soldiers, Politics, and American Civil-Military Relations

"What went wrong in America's recent wars? In Zero-Sum Victory, Chris Kolenda looks for answers in the mountains of eastern Afghanistan, the corridors of American power, and the annals of history. Read this erudite volume in order to get things right."—Richard Fontaine, CEO, Center for a New American Security

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October 26, 2021
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