On December 28 NATO’s mission in Afghanistan formally ended. The NATO International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) flag was rolled up and, technically speaking, thirteen years of “war” ended. Most Americans were transfixed by the NFL that Sunday rather than events in far off Kabul; President Obama did not disrupt his Hawaiian vacation. No V-E or V-J day or V-A day celebrating, no bells tolling, no acclaim for the troops on this quiet Sunday.
What is victory? Victory is obtaining one’s strategic objectives in a given conflict. In war, victory usually means that someone wins and someone loses. No one surrendered in Afghanistan. No party signaled a formal defeat. So, did we win in Afghanistan? Is that why we are leaving? Did we lose?
Perhaps it helps to think about the actors involved and what their strategic objectives were. First, the U.S. was attacked by al Qaeda, an international Islamist terrorist network, on September 11, 2001. Al Qaeda’s ultimate objective was a unified Sunni (thus anti-Shia Iran) caliphate covering the former territories occupied by Muslims during the golden age of violent, expansionist Islam. That territory stretched from Spain (al Andalus) to India. Al Qaeda wanted to unite Muslims worldwide, through persuasion or fear, behind their radical Islamist worldview.
As an organization, al Qaeda failed. Osama bin Laden is dead and has not achieved the martyr-like status of a Che Guevara. Al Qaeda’s leadership is either dead, hiding, or marginalized. Its worldview has been rejected by the majority of Muslims worldwide. Unfortunately, it has splintered and an off-shoot has taken its leadership mantle (Islamic State), but this goes to show its irrelevance today. Most importantly for the U.S., al Qaeda never hit the U.S. homeland again. We can argue about the cost of how we went about defeating al Qaeda, but clearly we won and they lost.
What about the Taliban? The Afghan Taliban (unlike its aggressive Pakistani cousin) never threatened the U.S. homeland. The objective of the Afghan Taliban, largely due to its indigenous Pashtun roots and its heritage fighting the Soviets, is to control Afghanistan. Mullah Omar’s Afghan Taliban never threatened Washington, London, Ottawa, or Paris (again, unlike the Pakistani Taliban). In contrast to al Qaeda, with its international leadership and foreign fighters (bin Laden was Saudi, its current leader Ayman al Zawahiri is Egyptian), the Taliban is deeply embedded in the social structures of Afghan life.
Today, the Taliban governs parts of Afghanistan and moves freely in many parts of the south and east. A key piece of evidence for its relevance as a fighting force is that this has been the bloodiest year for Afghan security personnel and citizens in recent history with over 5,000 killed this year alone. During these years of war, the Taliban has managed not just to survive, but to thrive. With the international military forces declining from a high of 170,000 just a few years ago to a mere 17,000 “trainers” now, the Taliban clearly looks to be one of the winners.
Afghanistan’s neighbors—what has thirteen years of war meant to them? Let’s set aside Pakistan for the moment. It is difficult to make a blanket generalization about the region, but most of the neighboring regimes that were in power in the early 2000s have remained (Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Iran). In most instances, these are post-Soviet authoritarian regimes in terms of their structure with deplorable human rights records (Human Rights Watch uses words like “atrocious” to describe them). None of them support violent Sunni Islamists like al Qaeda because such groups are destabilizing. Hence, they’ve benefited to the extent that the Global War on Terror provided them with Western money to fight Sunni Islamists at home and forced Western governments to pay little attention to their poor human rights records. These governments are not “winners” but they are clearly not “losers.”
Afghanistan’s neighbor Pakistan is a different story. The last forty years of Pakistani political life has been turbulent, with radical Islamists in the western provinces, autonomous badlands, and the hair-trigger anathema of India on its doorstep. The past decade has not been healthy for Pakistan due to political turmoil, the cozy relationships between Pakistani security agencies and various militant groups, the brazen violence of actors like Lashkar-e-Taiba and the Pakistani Taliban, and the frightening fact of Pakistani nuclear weapons. Pakistan is poorer, more factionalized, and less stable today than in 2001 and this is a tragedy when one considers the millions of Pakistanis who long for the cosmopolitan, independent, law-abiding vision espoused by Pakistan’s founders in 1948. Pakistan is a loser.
Afghanistan? Is it a “winner” in all of this? I have visited both Afghanistan and Pakistan and I have been overwhelmed by the courtesy of everyone from shopkeepers to government officials. I wish I could say that Afghanistan has won “something.” But, the question is off the mark because there actually is no unified Afghanistan. One objective for both Kabul and its NATO allies was a secure, unified country of Afghanistan, yet there are vast swathes of the country that are not under government control. After thirteen years there are hundreds of thousands of Afghans who have been exposed to Western generosity, education, and tools to create a modern country, but at present there is no unified country with a government that imposes or respects, as appropriate, the rule of law. The Taliban controls many districts and there are still minor warlords running others, although these latter are clothed with the respectability of formal government appointments. Afghanistan has not won much, at least not yet.
Finally, what about the United States and its allies? Did we win in Afghanistan? No one expected in December 2001 that we would spend a trillion dollars and the next thirteen years nation-building Afghanistan. At the time, the strategic objective was to punish war criminals, destroy their ability to act, and deter such violence in the future. Within months (e.g. the first international donor conference of January 2002), a grandiose reconstruction scheme was set in motion under international auspices.
In terms of a tally sheet, the West did contain most of al Qaeda’s violence to the greater Middle East, although we refused to publicly deal with the radical, religious inspiration of its ideology because we feared alienating moderate Muslims worldwide. We bumbled along politically with the weakest of partners (e.g. Karzai, local warlords, an uneducated citizenry), well-intentioned and with tremendous restraint in terms of our battlefield rules of engagement. Our aid workers, diplomats, and private auxiliaries worked in tough conditions. Our troops can go home with honor at having fought well under the most extreme of circumstances and with pride that no similar al Qaeda attack ever occurred again on U.S. soil. But the financial cost has been massive due to our ever-growing commitments to create a modern country from scratch, and after more than a decade of war, the U.S. image has been tarnished by Abu Ghraib and other controversies that most people would not have believed possible in the 1990s.
Is this a victory or a loss? It is clearly a victory of sorts, but not the satisfying one of “unconditional surrender” in 1945. The U.S. and its allies remain safe, free, and prosperous. We decapitated al Qaeda and met our primary objectives. Most of the world rejects violent Islamism, but the violence continues from Nigeria to Syria. The West lost about 3,500 troops, including 2,150 Americans, in Afghanistan and spent a trillion dollars. It has been a very costly victory, in large part because we expanded our objectives exponentially.
Eric Patterson, Ph.D. is Dean of the Robertson School of Government at Regent University and the author or editor of a dozen books, including Ending Wars Well (Yale University Press, 2012).
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