It’s time we think about peace. By doing so in the context of war, we might win both the war and the peace.

We plan to win wars and therefore we organise, train and equip ourselves, our allies and our partners to win wars. But what is our plan to win the peace?  How do we train for that? Do we even really understand the new complexities of the globally-integrated 21st century?

War is the ultimate come-as-you-are event: it doesn’t allow time to prepare. Military victory must be pursued before a war begins; but military victory is no longer a sufficient outcome.  Lasting peace is the ultimate goal, but it cannot be achieved without preparation, which must be pursued even before a war begins.

The United States-led military missions accomplished in Iraq and Afghanistan, for example, were only the beginning of the fight for the real victory ‒ peace.  The massive application of treasure that followed the military’s exploits does not appear to have been as well planned as the military campaign that preceded. It begs the questions: did we really understand the nature of the war we were about to enter into before we engaged in combat?  Do we ever?

Over the last fourteen years of war, a few simple truths have emerged.

“War is the ultimate come-as-you-are event: it doesn’t allow time to prepare”

First, cost: we cannot afford our current way of dealing with instability, and we never could.  Nevertheless, we become involved again and again. It will be too expensive unless we adapt.

Second, collateral damage: any time we choose ‘kinetic options’ ‒ formerly known as violence ‒ we create a humanitarian disaster on some scale.  We are not prepared in advance to deal with those consequences.

Third, collaboration: many people are constantly engaged in improving the human condition, wherever the military goes. These people don’t work for defence ministries  or for government. So military personnel don’t know who these people are or how to work with them, and their work is often neglected in operational planning. But these people are addressing instability on the ground before the military arrives; many stay during the military operations; most return to continue their work after the conflict is over.

Fourth, cooperation: the armed forces are not the solution ‒ they are part of the solution, but we have yet to figure out how to effectively integrate military and civilian activities. Creating the conditions for the success of others is the key activity of the military.

And last but not least, context: preparing the exit strategy for the next possible conflict now is the best guarantor of future success. Understanding the context in which we are operating, committing to close cooperation with those also engaged, and collaborating effectively with partners to ‘de-conflict’, coordinate and integrate everyone’s efforts, are essential elements of the military’s realisation of a tenable exit strategy.

With a good plan in hand, the military must be prepared to operate on the ground in the area of instability in ways that reinforce the stability and the development work of the international community. But such comprehensive preparation to win the peace and to understand the exit strategy takes time, and as time is scarce once a military operation begins, the preparation must take place in advance.

It’s always been easier to form a coalition to manage a crisis than to create a coalition to prevent one. But the silver lining is this: if we can build the necessary relationships to operate effectively together from day one of a crisis, we would have the same set of relationships and the same level of understanding required to work collectively to prevent that same crisis in the first place.

Even if we don’t fully prevent conflict from breaking out, our collective efforts from the start can go a long way towards mitigating the consequences of the conflict, reducing its intensity and shortening its duration.

“Crises grab our attention, motivate us to action, and force us to collaborate and cooperate”

By focusing our collaborative efforts on building a coherent capacity to manage the next crisis somewhere in the world, we will simultaneously develop the capacity to work together effectively in potentially unstable hot spots while there is still time to do something about it.

Crises grab our attention, motivate us to action, and force us to collaborate and cooperate. It’s time to take the energy we put into responding individually and then figuring out how to work together on the ground, and channel it into preparing together to respond collectively. In this way, thinking about both war and peace in the same context, we see how preparing for war with a view toward the peace that follows can give us the capability to better preserve the peace in the first place.  An ounce of prevention is certainly a pound of cure in this case.

And this is an urgent imperative. If we continue to see crisis response as too expensive and too ineffective, we will not respond. If we continue to see conflict prevention as too complicated and too amorphous, we will not apply the resources we need in time.

Only by living the way we intend to fight, doing the difficult now so the easy will come, can we start to develop the collective set of skills we need to engage effectively ‒ if we are to win the peace we must start now.

The views presented in this paper represent the author’s personal opinion and findings and not the official views or policy of the United States government.

IMAGE CREDIT: CC/Flickr – Latvijas armija