When the United States lost the Vietnam war, the Vietnamese showed another face of war:

With a big difference of power, the weaker country can win.

This is happening again in Afghanistan and in Iraq. In Afghanistan the United States, one of the richest countries in the world, fights with one of the poorest and even with this difference it isn't able to win the war.

So, what I'm asking is: can an invading country win the war if and only if the people of this invaded country are not willing to fight hard enough?

  • 1
    There's too much rethoric in this question for my tastes. "the poorest country"?
    – o0'.
    Commented Apr 4, 2012 at 20:40
  • Hum.. my english isn't so good. I don't want to be a anti-American :)
    – Rodrigo
    Commented Apr 4, 2012 at 20:55
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    There is a logical problem to this question (although I realize this may be a translation error). A powerless country can never win any conflict, because they have no power. Its also a difficult question to answer because it really depends on the difference in power between the actors and a host of other factors. In general though, it certainly isn't an "if and only if" sort of situation, because it is certainly possible for a population to be fully committed to a war and still lose. Even occupied virtually indefinitely if the invader has the will and resources. Commented Apr 4, 2012 at 23:26
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    Problem is no one has really won in Afghanistan in a long while, even Russia eventually gave up their invasion of Afghanistan. Sometimes it is not just the difference in wealth but also the battlefield, if you choose your battlefield unwisely you will never win.
    – MichaelF
    Commented Apr 5, 2012 at 11:55
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    This boils down to semantics. You would need to define "winning" in the context of your question (e.g. Afghanistan is militarily defeated and has been for at least 150 years, but it has never been pacified by any modern standard - so is that winning or not ?).
    – user3769
    Commented Aug 6, 2015 at 15:13

5 Answers 5


It is impossible for a modern power to conquer an invaded country. The reason for this is the current aversion to atrocity – the large scale massacres, enslavement, forced migration, etc. that were used to control a foreign occupied population are no longer acceptable.

Thus, a powerful country can destroy an existing regime, but establishing a favourable replacement is near impossible if a large enough proportion of the population are prepared to oppose it, even if they are only armed with rifles and IEDs.

(It's even becoming difficult for native minorities to maintain unpopular regimes without resorting to atrocity and incurring the condemnation of the international community, despite the advantage of local knowledge and established institutions that a foreign force lacks.)

  • I disagree strongly with the wording of the first sentence, but I'm still +1'ing this because it is the only answer here that's getting the reason correct. The rest of this is spot on.
    – T.E.D.
    Commented May 19, 2012 at 2:10
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    I have to ask: what aspect of the wording do you disagree strongly with? I must admit I was being deliberately provocative with the 'impossible' bit, and 'conquer' does seem rather archaic these days (a telling change!), but if you agree with the rest I would have thought it only mildly disagreeable, at worst… Commented May 21, 2012 at 2:55
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    "Impossible" is far too strong of a word. It can be done. It is just highly unlikely (for the exact reasons you explain).
    – T.E.D.
    Commented May 21, 2012 at 13:01
  • @Paul Hutton, although I agree with your answer, it still feels insufficient. For example, when China invaded and occupied Viet Nam on and off over a thousand years, or when the Mongols tried three times, or 99 years of French colonialism imposed on Viet Nam with their guillotines, public hanging and scalping, they were still defeated. They were all much more powerful. How do you explain that? Commented Oct 16, 2017 at 15:18
  • @ngườiSàigòn My hypothesis is that atrocity is necessary for conquering on a short timeline, not that it would always be sufficient! Commented Oct 18, 2017 at 0:01

No. The USA had won the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq in any military sense. Their problems there are that they cannot keep the countries secure, safe and politically stable.

This is much different from Vietnam where they were opposed by a regular army, supplied from abroad and did not control the whole territory.

But indeed if an occupying army is very sensitive to casualties, a sparse insurgency and instability can force it leave.

  • But the insurgency WANT to create stability to do exactly what the U.S. do, leave their country. Isn't this a kind of win? In the Vietnam the U.S win all battle, but.. lost the war... Isn't the same now?
    – Rodrigo
    Commented Apr 4, 2012 at 21:10
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    The US will leave pro-US governments in Iraq and Afghanistan. Although there is far from safety and stability, the governments are able to manage the resources in a way the US wants until overthrown.
    – Anixx
    Commented Apr 4, 2012 at 21:21
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    I agree with this, in Afghanistan and Iraq its more a case of "winning the war, and losing the occupation". Commented Apr 4, 2012 at 23:21
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    The Vietnam war was lost not only because of the North Vietnamese army as you say, but also because the South was exactly like Iraq and Afghanistan. There were insurgents and the pro-USA government in the south was far from stable. When the USA pulled out, the South government fell. Same will probably happen in Iraq and Afghanistan. America needs to realise that democracy means most countries will choose governments that are different from what the USA would like. You can't impose a government on a country and claim to be creating democracy. Commented Apr 5, 2012 at 2:40
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    @Rincewind42 there are similarities between Vietnam and Iraq, but as the poster notes above two of the major differences was that the Vietnamese received significant outside assistance and the dynamic of the conflict more closely resembled a war than an ongoing occupation like in Iraq and Afghanistan. Commented Apr 5, 2012 at 12:01

can an invader country only win the war if and only if the people of this invaded country want to lose it?

This doesn't make much sense, was there ever a war where someone wanted to lose? Did Nazi Germany want to lose WW2? No

  • I say now, not in ww2 times :)
    – Rodrigo
    Commented Apr 5, 2012 at 11:38
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    perhaps German V Austria 1938?
    – none
    Commented Apr 8, 2012 at 4:43
  • There wasn't a war at all in that case, Mr none.
    – Oldcat
    Commented Aug 7, 2015 at 22:18

It's still possible for an invaded people to lose if the odds are TOO overwhelming. One example was the so-called "battle" of the Warsaw Ghetto in 1943, where there were only 70,000 Jewish residents, armed with only a few hundred rifles, against crack German police and army units.

But the thrust of the question is, have modern times made it possible to mobilize the civilian population in such a way so that even if one army is decidedly smaller/weaker than the other, can the civilian population supporting the weaker army prevent a defeat. The lesson of Vietnam was yes. That is, the Americans had to defeat not only the regular Vietnamese forces, which they basically did, but also the North Vietnam civilian population, which was a much harder task.

Going back to World War II, the Germans failed to capture Stalingrad, because they had to fight not only the defending Soviet 62nd army, but in also the civilian population, which provided food, information, militia, and "replacements" to the Soviet army.

  • 1
    That's a little isolated though, it's like USAF v Hiroshima - or RAF v Dresden, that was pretty definitive but not really a war.
    – none
    Commented Apr 8, 2012 at 4:43

"Not willing to fight hard enough" Hard ENOUGH to do what? To win? I guess by definition you could say that if they are not willing to fight hard enough to win, then they will lose.

While there have certainly been cases in recent times where one country has invaded another and then been defeated or forced to withdraw, I think the answer to your question is pretty clearly that it IS possible, because there are several instances where it has happened.

In 1968, the Soviet Union invaded Czechoslovakia and subjugated the country. They did not leave until the fall of the Soviet Union in 1989. Arguably that's not a good counter-example as the Soviets were ultimately forced out of all the countries they occupied, though the exact circumstances are complex.

North Vietnam invaded South Vietnam and conquered the country in 1975. They still control it. I think this is a clear counter-example.

In 1983 the U.S. invaded Grenada and installed a friendly government. The U.S. didn't conquer the country in the sense of annexing the territory, but the U.S.-friendly government is still there.

The case in Iraq is pretty ambiguous. The U.S. clearly defeated the Iraqi military, took over the country, and installed a friendly government. But then a new regime came to power in the U.S. that had little interest in retaining control, and began a voluntary withdrawal. Partly this was because of resistance, but mostly because they just didn't have any desire to retain control of the country. Iraq was then invaded by an outside power, ISIS. I say "outside" because they originally came from Syria. ISIS has support from some Iraqis, but I think it's fair to say that a majority of Iraqis do not support them. It's not at all clear how this will end. If ISIS ends up in control, that would be a counter-example.

In Afghanistan, the U.S. goal was to destroy the Taliban. It was never to conquer the country and make it a 51st state. So the U.S. achieved its goal and is leaving. That's not really a test of your thesis.

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