WASHINGTON – President Obama’s announcements about a phased withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan seems to be tailored to the American political calendar. A nice troops cut (down to 9,800) will take place before the end of this year, (mid-term elections), while all troops will be home by 2016. This will be presented, no doubt, as the final achievement of the Obama presidency.
What have we accomplished?
However, absent from these announcement about “our boys and girls finally coming home” any serious analysis of what was achieved in this long conflict. A conflict that, mind you, President Obama defined long ago “A War of Necessity”.
But may be the American public is not that interested in analyzing what we accomplished. Americans just want “this thing” to be over.
Indeed, probably reflecting this public mood, when talking about the end of the US military engagement in Afghanistan, many commentators, almost casually, say that: “This has been the longest war ever fought by the American military. After so many years, it is time to go”. Just like that.
It is time to go home
Now, let me understand this. The end of the war is necessary “because it went on too long?” Is this really the rationale for ending a major military effort?
This may be a good reason for going home after a long party: “We are all very tired. Time to go home and get some sleep”. But is this how we decide to end wars? “It has gone on too long, time to go home?”
This is incredibly superficial and in fact irresponsible. And yet nobody challenges the view that “war fatigue” is the main reason for getting out.
All wars have a political objective
Well, in the real world, we go to war to achieve a political objective, as von Clausewitz taught us centuries ago.
In Afghanistan’s case, the stated objective was to defeat al Qaeda and the Taliban, so that Afghanistan could no longer be used as a training ground and base of operations for launching terror attacks against America and other countries.
Well, did we achieve that objective? Amazingly, today this is not even part of the conversation. We are told, in vague language, that we went into Afghanistan, “because of 9/11”. This should mean that we wanted to achieve the goals outlined above: namely destroy all of the Afghanistan-based al Qaeda’s training facilities, while driving the Taliban out of power because of their open support for al Qaeda.
That said, did we do all this? Are we going home because, at last, the job is done? Who knows, really. This critical point is not part of any public conversation about the end of the US military engagement. Most people simply feel that “Afghanistan is a mess, and that it is time to get out of there”.
Did we win? Did we lose?
In the real world there are only two reasons for ending a war. Either you end it because you won, (you achieved your political objective through the use of arms); or you end it because you lost, (you did not achieve your goal).
And here is a critical caveat: you cannot say “I won” until the other side concedes defeat. You cannot declare victory until the losing side says “I lost”, and stops fighting.
We did not win Afghanistan
In the case of Afghanistan, we do not have this neat “either/or” scenario. We have a much more complicated situation. However, one thing is certain. Quite clearly, after 13 years of fighting, America did not win.
There is still a Taliban-led insurgency going on, even though one might argue about its actual strength and ability to disrupt normal civilian life. But it is clear that we are not going home because we won. The Taliban is still fighting. As they have not been defeated, (see above), we did not win.
So, are we leaving because we lost? Well, here it gets really complicated.
The administration says that we shall leave, mind you, following a well crafted pull out plan, (see Obama’s statements mentioned above), because we are confident that the Afghan army and police we trained are now capable to carry on the fight on their own, without our direct engagement.
So, one might say that we are not terminating our engagement because we lost, but because of a successful transfer of conflict responsibilities. The war will continue, but “under new management”.
If the Afghans cannot fight
But what if this is not true? What if this notion of transferring responsibility is just smoke, a public relations exercise created to mask what is in fact defeat? What if, contrary to our optimistic public statements, the Afghans are not really capable of successfully fighting and eventually defeating the Taliban-led insurgency?
Well, then we have in fact lost; but we are not admitting it.
For public relations reasons we say that we have full confidence in the Afghan armed forces, when in fact we do not. In truth, we believe that sooner rather than later the Afghan forces, still poorly equipped and poorly trained, (no air force, hardy any serious air-lift capabilities), will start crumbling. In fact, we really believe that the Taliban eventually will prevail.
Their fight, not ours
However, even though we have little or no confidence in the Afghan armed forces, we hope that between now and the time of eventual defeat most people in America will have lost interest. We hope that, once we are gone, the American public will tune Afghanistan out, and so nobody will care that much about the fate of this most unfortunate country.
Basically, the idea is that, once we are gone, “it is their fight”. Therefore, if the Afghans will have a hard time struggling against a determined Taliban insurgency, or if they are in the end defeated, it will be their problem and not ours.
Obama’s final political achievement?
With the total withdrawal from Afghanistan by the end of his second term, Obama will have kept his promise to be the President who ended all the wars. As to the meaning of these wars, well who cares really.
Amazingly enough, this is how America’s foreign policy is articulated in the age of decline and withdrawal. “We go home, because we are tired of all this fighting”.
(Note: As I have written elsewhere in this Schirach Report, I do believe that the post 9/11 goals should have been pursued through a very different kind of engagement. We did not need a full-blown invasion of Afghanistan, coupled with extravagant and in the end unachievable goals of economic and institutional modernization, to achieve what we wanted. America mistakenly transformed an anti-terror effort into a counter-insurgency campaign. I shall come back to this issue in a separate article).