A new University of Georgia study has found that despite overwhelming military superiority, the world’s most powerful nations failed to achieve their objectives in 39 percent of their military operations since World War II.
Rather than military superiority, study author Patricia L. Sullivan says the most important factor influencing whether a military operation is successful is whether the strategic objective can be accomplished with brute force alone or whether it requires the cooperation of the adversary.
Sullivan notes that driving Saddam Hussein’s army out of Kuwait in the 1991 Gulf War and overthrowing his government in 2003 were both brute force operations, but quelling sectarian violence and building support for the current government has been much more difficult because it requires target compliance.
“If you know some key variables – like the major objective, the nature of the target, whether there’s going to be another strong state that will intervene on the side of the target and whether you’ll have an ally – you can get a sense of your probability of victory,” explained Sullivan in the current issue of the Journal of Conflict Resolution.
Sullivan’s analysis took in 122 post-WW II wars and military interventions in which the United States, the Soviet Union, Russia, China, Britain or France fought a weaker adversary. She examined factors such as the type of objective (on a continuum from brute force to coercive), whether the target was a formal state, guerilla or terrorist group, whether the target had an ally and whether the more powerful nation had an ally.
Past conflict studies have hypothesized that more powerful states fail because of poor strategy choices or a lack of resolve. Sullivan agreed that those factors play a role, but stressed that those factors do not adequately explain or predict why powerful countries fail. She points out that more powerful countries have a greater ability to absorb losses from poor strategy choices and can more easily change strategies. An emphasis on resolve fails to explain victories such as the first Gulf War, when many analysts predicted a difficult war against a highly resolved but much weaker Iraqi army.
Several factors contribute to the relatively low probability of success in the current Iraq war, says Sullivan. Most importantly, the objective requires the support of the population and can’t be accomplished by force alone. Factional infighting, the insurgency and possible insurgent support by countries such as Iran and Syria further undermine the chance of success.
“No one could have predicted exactly what would happen after we overthrew the regime of Saddam Hussein,” Sullivan said. “But what my model could say was that if the population was not supportive of whatever new regime we put in power and the American strategic objective shifted from regime removal to maintaining the authority of a new government, the likelihood of a successful outcome would drop from almost 70 percent to just under 26 percent.”