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.