“Victory” in Afghanistan

I participated in an interesting Twitter dialogue yesterday. Spencer Ackerman floated the idea that maybe the Obama administration won’t ask for more troops for Afghanistan after all. Eli Lake responded “You think Obama would risk alienating Petraeus — and with him the Army and Marines — to betray his own campaign’s policy?” I asked what campaign promise that would violate, since one thing that’s bothered me about the conversation around this issue has been the conflation of the troop increase that’s already happened — what Obama promised during the campaign — and the idea of a further increase.

He responded “the promise to try to really win the war in Afghanistan, particularly since the generals are asking for more troops.” Chris Hayes, in turn, replied “I think “really win” is my new favorite strategic phrase.” To which I said “Is ‘destroying’ the Taliban consistent with plans to negotiate with them and achieve reconciliation?” Then Lake said “Peeling off reconcilable Taliban — thru talks — is an effective way of destroying them. AQI was destroyed that way.”

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I agree on the policy merits about peeling off and reconciliation. But whether or not people want to admit it, I think this insight highlights the fact that there really is massive ambiguity around the idea of “winning” and “destroying” this or that organization. The extent to which someone is “reconcilable” is relative to our own objectives. This means that “winning” can’t actually be our objective. Nor, I think, can “destroying the Taliban” be our objective if we’re going to admit of the possibility of reconciliation — we need to think about what we’re willing to accept. Suppose the bulk of the Taliban just really want to fight it out with other Afghan factions, and are plagued by doubts that association with al-Qaeda is mostly counterproductive to this goal. They want a deal in which they agree to kick foreign al-Qaeda types out, but we also need to leave and stop assisting their enemies. Would that be a good deal? Would it count as victory? Are those really the same question?

Obviously, in part this is semantic. A big part of what Bush & Petraeus did around the time of the surge was pivot off their political adversaries to successfully redefine “victory” as what Bush would have called “defeat” back in 2005, while portraying that scale-down of objectives as an act of stubborn defiance. Whatever we accept in Afghanistan, I fully expect the administration to frame it as “winning.” Analytically, though, we’re still left with the question of what we’re really hoping to achieve.