The Definition of Victory

by Joshua Foust on 3/17/2011 · 5 comments

A win would be an Afghanistan that, again, can secure itself against the level of insurgency at that time, and that can govern itself, see to the needs of its people, presumably still with some level of international assistance, but with vastly reduced levels of assistance and a very different character to whatever security assistance is provided. And ultimately, of course, winning is really ensuring that there is not an al-Qaida sanctuary again in Afghanistan. And of course, it’s — what’s necessary for that is, again, an ability to secure and govern itself.

—General Petraeus, in his testimony this past week before Congress. If you can make sense of that, or be able to describe how we will know when we’ve reached that point, you should probably be promoted. Because what Petraeus has described is an undefined state, largely defined by absence and platitude, with no sense of achievement or benchmarks by which we can measure success.

In other words, General Petraeus has described a situation we simply cannot win, even while he insists we are winning. Does that make sense to you?


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This post was written by...

– author of 1848 posts on Registan.net.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from Registan.net. His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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{ 5 comments }

Shrikant Kalegaonkar March 17, 2011 at 11:34 am

As with any project, there has to be a set of SMART goals: specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and timely. Whenever the government, and by extension the military, has engaged in a project, be it the wars in Afghanistan/Iraq or reducing the debt/deficit, it has never provided SMART goals. However, that doesn’t mean they don’t exist.

Key concepts in project management (including the definition of SMART goals) were developed by the military. As such, I can only speculate that there are alterior motives for not sharing such information with the general public – national/operational security concerns; don’t want to comfort the enemy?? But, when project managers are asked to testify on the progress of the project and can’t reveal it, you get what we got: lots of platitude & hand-waving.

CE March 17, 2011 at 2:32 pm

Come on—from his testimony, it should be obvious that General Petraeus has internalized the definition of winning from Charlie Sheen’s massively successful PR-COIN campaign.

Sailani March 18, 2011 at 3:33 am

Agree 100%. What surprised me more than P4 saying this was that it was taken at face value on the Hill…

Iain March 18, 2011 at 9:34 am

I feel Shrikant has completely missed the point, but that Mr Foust with a series of posts has noted the military meta-strategy. Indeed, I would go so far as to suggest Shrikant has been ‘gamed’ by a shrewd US military strategy.

The military would choke at Shrikant’s suggestion of defined/measurable etc. etc. stuff. Mr Foust has pointed out in previous posts how such ‘facts’ can be construed in any sense that is wished. An increased number of American soldiers killed can indicate progress or lack of progress etc. Any attempt to use a postivist/rationalist framework for contriving a strategy is pointless. This is war (fog etc.). Yet this is the only way that the thinktanks know. Or lets be more specific: outside of the propaganda thinktanks (the Kagans etc.), the academic thinktanks and even the more practical ones lean towards a positivist framework. The game of policymaking demands this style of thinking. Yet the military knows this cannot work once violence becomes the primary tool.

The epistemic framework for the military is centred around Clausewitz/Galula/Stability Operations Manual/Counter-Insurgency Manual–i.e. completely different to the thinktanks. All these tools tell them to be aware of the complexity/confusion of war. They tell them to be aware that a major danger is the friction of their home side. And they tell them to take control of the strategy. And that means ensuring the civil leadership go along with the military idea of success– since the military in the Stability Operations manual look at a broader view of success as that which brings a sense of beneficiance to the American people. Petraeus has consistently succeeded in avoiding decisions that would have only been read as failure.

He, like everyone else, does not know how to ‘win’/’succeed’/improve things but he knows from the knowledge in Clausewitz etc. that more and more time can lead to a story of success. Two crucial tools are the now trademarked ‘The Surge’, and the non-withdrawal strategy. The former offers a narrative framework of ‘success’ and the non-withdrawal allows him to press the elite foreign policy community to not decide to decide. The Surge can work if a series of tropes that imply success can be lined up to show a ‘victory’, at that moment a rapid deescalation and a heading for the exit could be a textbook victory. The non-withdrawal position requires that the USA never actually have a moment of withdrawal. Just as in Iraq, masses of US troops remain, and yet as a story, they are gone. The keypoint for Petraeus is to ensure a growing gap between the symbolic of success and the ‘real’ of chronic unknowns.

Note the gap between the COIN population-centric plan and the actual strategy of Petraeus. Gen Petraeus does not have the slightest bit of ‘real’ interest in COIN. He is in favour of anything that goes along with its implicit compassionate message– who could actually be against such a kind, non-violent, democracy-loving way of ‘fighting’. Hence, the support for Major Gant’s piece and any other snake oil that comes along. In the meantime, he is busy killing everything that walks/talks/dresses like a Taliban. He understands there is no such thing as ‘a Taliban’ organisation. But he knows a future storyline requires a negotiation with this non-existent body. So, anyone that declares themselves Taliban most be highly pressured now to make themselves agreeable to a very hard negotiated piece. Of course, he can’t say this is what he is looking at, since this would then undermine its purpose. The Taliban cannot believe he wants to negotiate– which is why he has to go around killing and ruining any apparent negotiations going on.

The irony for all this is the origins of the thinktanks derived from a similar non-positivist style of strategy. It is the romantic/unscientific works of Churchill and Kipling that give the thinktanks their ideas about what makes the Afghans click. The epistemology of the thinktanks is a vast delusion. Only the military have grasped the true way to a ‘win’. The game they must now play is to ensure delay after delay and non-decision followed by non-decision, if this means having to reel off nonsense about ‘progress being made’ ,and an approving smile towards Kagan’s talk of a need for more ‘willpower’, then that is what they will do.

Petraeus can already book his place in the Whitehouse.

Don Anderson March 18, 2011 at 11:59 am

As some Eastern Mystics would say “focus on the sea, not on the waves…”

The Testimony of P4 is a wave. The overall direction of the policy is the sea.

The overall direction was actually set by Secretary of State Clinton several weeks ago. The message is simple.

We are open toward a non military solution to this conflict. The increased levels of violence, the very continuation of the Taliban on the battlefield in many new and disparate regions has signalled that not only 2011 but the period to 2014 as an inevitable draw down of most foreign military operations in the country. The sea will have its way.

P4 is following really last years line of surge thinking to its logical end. But he realizes that this too has failed. So does the often maligned yet shrewd Sec Def Gates in his swan song tour of Afghanistan and Europe. Congress can also see which way the flags are blowing out at Fedex Field also.

It is easy to confuse rhetoric and feel justified rage at propaganda lines, but logic and data is winning this battle.

The facts are out there. The military surge has not resulted in the elimination of the insurgent force. We are drawing down. Negotiations are open.

The testimony is rather on the meaningless side, as the the die has been cast.

“Go with the flow, you can’t resist it anyway”

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