The Farce of Afghan Success

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by Joshua Foust on 10/18/2012 · 8 comments

Army War College professor Steven Metz has a provocative argument in WPR this week:

With the endgame near for large-scale U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan, Americans have already begun to debate the broader implications of the conflict. Many have painted it as a failure, even a strategic fiasco. But it is not. Given the dynamics of the conflict and its wider strategic context, Afghanistan should be considered a win, albeit one that came at a much greater cost than was necessary.

Metz argues that George W. Bush’s initial, limited goals for Afghanistan (defeat the Taliban and al Qaeda) were appropriate and achievable, but soon turned into expansive “nation building” goals that were not. President Obama then assumed these goals, expanded upon them, and has since come to believe that Bush’s original ambitions were, in fact, the right ones. Based on this, Metz says the war was a success, despite its extreme cost.

With all due respect to Metz, whom I like and whose work I respect otherwise, this argument is utter nonsense. For starters, to call Afghanistan a win requires redefining goals late in the game to make the game seem more palatable — something the Bush administration did repeatedly in Iraq to much appropriate consternation. Though Metz says “the United States recognizes that the best it can do is to keep the Taliban from winning, rather than decisively defeat them,” he’s basing that on inference, not the actual statements made by the Administration (Obama has, in fact, already declared the war a success and brags of his “winding it down”).

But a much bigger problem is Metz’s redefined idea of victory. “If U.S. involvement there is judged by the inability to attain the expansive, unrealistic goals that eventually developed during the Bush administration and carried over to the first few years of the Obama administration,” he writes, “it will be seen as an abject failure.”

Metz continues, “if the yardstick is the initial Bush and late-Obama objectives — preventing Afghanistan from being used as an al-Qaida base — then U.S. involvement can be considered a success.”

This is missing a crucial third part of President Obama’s plan for the country: building a sustainable, effective fighting force. Metz mentions the training piece earlier, as one of unmet expectations and failed benchmarks. Essentializing and then ignoring part of Obama’s 3 part strategy to call it a success skirts the boundaries of honesty.

Much more importantly, however, defining victory through absence — no al Qaeda means victory — is a serious mistake. In a paper I wrote earlier this year, I explained why:

It is an impossible goal, as a single act could lead to defeat. By President Obama’s definition of victory, success means al Qaeda can never use Afghanistan or Pakistan to threaten the United States. This then means the war is either already won, or it will never be won—al Qaeda does not have a safe haven in Afghanistan and is “on the ropes,”34 or, alternatively, we must stay there forever to make sure it never has a safe haven in Afghanistan or Pakistan.

This is strategic incoherence at its most stark. And it is being endorsed here, as evidence of victory.

That being said, the idea of viewing Afghanistan through the lens of maintenance rather than victory — preventing al Qaeda’s use of the area to launch attacks on the U.S. through continued, and low key, engagement with the Afghan and Pakistani governments — is a good one. But that’s not really what Metz is arguing.

It is difficult to see how one avoids the conclusion that the U.S. mission in Afghanistan has failed. That doesn’t mean it is a defeat, per se, but our original objectives, several times over, have proven impossible to meet. In the aftermath, however, we should be pondering how to manage that failure to avoid defeat. Assisting Afghanistan in the security transition post-withdrawal, encouraging them to reconcile the political elements of the Taliban, and cracking down on Pakistan’s sponsorship of terrorist groups inside Afghanistan all require continued presence, attention, and — yes — even troops. It will be a far cry from the idealist goals President Obama initially came into office with, but it would not be a total defeat somehow redefined as a success.

Managing failure is a far cry from simply declaring success and walking away. By arguing for just that, Metz is doing the war, and the very real challenges it poses to the future security of the region and the U.S., a disservice.

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This post was written by...

– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from 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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Don Bacon October 26, 2012 at 4:57 pm

The ANA 215th Corps will take over soon when the Marines leave Helmand, the focus of Obama’s surge. The corps commander, Maj. Gen. Sayed MaloukMalouk doesn’t say victory, he says peace.

news report:
Maj. Gen. Sayed MaloukMalouk emphasized that the public and the ANA have a common goal—peace. He added the ANA soldiers and Afghan civilian are exposed daily to the danger of war.“They’re tired of war,” said Malouk. “They’re frustrated, they no longer want to be in this war. This (war) is something that’s been imposed by other people from beyond this country; and the Afghan (insurgents) who have been fighting against the ANSF, they themselves have been victims of this war. They have been encouraged by those others.”

Brigadier Gen. Ghulam Farooq, deputy commander, 215th Corps: “We’ve had continuous war in this country, we’re tired of war and we wish for peace.”

Don Bacon October 26, 2012 at 4:59 pm

correction — make that Malouk (just one).

anan October 28, 2012 at 10:19 pm

The ANSF took over most of Helmand (completed phase 3 transition) some time ago.

MG Malouk is saying the right things. The ANA wants peace. But in reality 215th ANA Corps is engaged in heavy continuous kinetic activity, inflicting and receiving enormous casualties. At an operational cost that is completely unsustainable with Obama’s proposed $4.3 billion annual ANSF budget.

The “others” he refers to is politically correct code for proxies of the Pakistani Army.

Look forward to reading Metz’ piece in full and commenting afterwards.

This said, one of the worst negative outcomes from this year’s insider attack spree (many of them against 215th ANA Corps and Helmand ANP) is to increase suspicion between Pashtun ANSF and non Pashtun ANSF, and to especially increase tensions between non Pashtuns/Northern Pashtun ANSF against Southern Pashtun ANSF.

Insider attacks against ANSF from other ANSF have skyrocketed in 2012 versus 2011 levels.

This is the worst news coming out of Afghanistan this year. It reduces the amount of support the ANSF can expect to receive from ISAF contributors, India, Russia and Iran longer term. And it increases the odds that the deep state will go for an all out win [i.e. breaking the ANSF].

Metz thinks this is a victory. Splendid.

Don Bacon October 30, 2012 at 1:30 pm

The “others” Malouk refers to, who have imposed war and encourage its continuance, are obviously the US/NATO. Pakistan didn’t start warring on Afghanistan.

anan October 31, 2012 at 12:51 am

Don Bacon, 215th ANA Corps hates the Pakistani Army and sees themselves as in a proxy war with the Pakistani Army. The Taliban are perceived by 215th ANA Corps to be Pakistani Army stooges. 215th ANA Corps might be wrong, but that is their belief.

Who is killing and wounding so many 215th ANA Corps soldiers? 215th ANA Corps are also killing a lot of Taliban soldiers. This fight is very kinetic and personal.

“Pakistan didn’t start warring on Afghanistan.” If you were a Helmand villager, you shouldn’t say this to an ANA soldier or even worse an NDS officer. They are liable to detain you and beat you up as a Pakistani spy. Anecdotally they beet up a lot of locals for being Pakistani spies. I have heard ISAF soldiers complain about how counterproductive these Helmand ANSF policies are.

Two of the best brigades in the ANA are Shirin Shah’s 3rd Bde, 215th ANA Corps and Abdul Wasea’s 2nd Bde, 215th ANA Corps. 1st Bde, 215th ANA Corps is decent. 4-215 is brand new. Hopefully some advisors for 4-215 will provide some more color in the coming weeks. Some 207th Corps ANA are also in Helmand.

Atilla October 30, 2012 at 9:45 am

Oh dear. Still talking about Afghanistan like it is America or Europe. They have had non-stop war for 30 years and are tired of it and ready for the US to build up their internal peacekeepers, rid them of corruption, and put them on the road to development.Most Afghans want this and will push out the extremeists when given the chance. If we can hang on and keep our forces there for a few more years – decades- centuries all this will be possible.

I do love that old feel good movie with John and Jimmy, and Lee too. The one about the greatness and truth of America, “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.” What was the quote? “When the fact becomes legend, print the legend.”

Dishonesty October 31, 2012 at 11:46 am

Superb soldiers 215th Corps:

In one case in August, a Marine was sharing a security post with an ANA soldier when the Afghan chambered a round in his rifle in an attempt to intimidate. The Marine tossed him from the 11-foot tower and handcuffed him, and the soldier was put in 1/7’s detention facility, Bradney said.

“It’s not that we didn’t have sh– heads,” the battalion commander said of dealing with problems in the Afghan forces. “There are plenty of sh– heads. It’s just how you deal with them. If some ANA [soldier] slingshots a round because he doesn’t like that you’re not giving him a bottle of water, and you let that go, then what happens next? He walks on post with the round sling-shotted and shoots you in the gut.
For example, Afghan weapons were stored in armories on partnered bases, rather than kept in their possession.

Victory in progress:

By August, Marine commanders had made it clear to Afghan officers that the Afghan National Army, Afghan Uniformed Police and other native forces would be required to take charge in providing security. Marines would remain in advisory roles and provide quick-reaction forces when emergencies arose but otherwise would launch operations only occasionally, while acting on intelligence they collected.

The Taliban quickly began attacking Afghan bases and taking back ground they had lost. Route 611, the main highway from Sangin to Kajaki, was seeded with IEDs, and members of the Afghan National Civil Order Police abandoned a number of posts in Sangin,
In the south, 3rd Battalion, 8th Marines, out of Lejeune, has been redistributed in similar fashion, with platoons taking over positions that once housed infantry companies and companies taking over posts that used to be operating bases for battalions. For the most part, security appears to be holding in Marjah, Nawa and other districts that were once insurgent strongholds, Marine officials said, but violence has spiked in Trek Nawa and other regions nearby

Good News?
Yes,the frigid temperatures at night led to the annual end of Afghanistan’s unofficial fighting season!!!!

Dihonesty November 9, 2012 at 11:33 pm

Do you remember Army officer Paula Broadwell?
Tarok Kalache?The Unforgivable Horror of Village Razing.

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