Paul Pillar

The Blurry Line Between Victory and Defeat in Afghanistan

An article in Monday's New York Times describes how old habits are dying hard among some former Taliban who have come over to the government side in northern Afghanistan. The fighters, who are supposed to be converted under a U.S.-financed program into a village self-defense force separate from the national police, are shaking down the locals to hand over ten percent of their earnings as an “Islamic tax.” This is not sitting well with many Afghans, who smell a step back to the kind of warlordism that led many of them to support the rise of the Taliban in the 1990s.

I would not hold this development against the U.S. military commanders who have pushed for this program. It is a reasonable idea for trying to expand some modicum of government presence in areas where that presence is especially thin, amid a counterinsurgency in which the U.S.-led coalition and its Afghan government partner do not have—and will not have, even under any of the more hawkish timetables being discussed—the forces to secure Afghanistan. The lesson from this story is instead that it is one more indication of how thin and blurry is the line between good guys and bad guys in this war, and thus between victory and defeat.

There always has been a misleadingly dichotomous view of victory and defeat in Afghanistan. This view has recently become even more pronounced in response to heightened, appropriate concern over the resources being expended in this war. Those opposing any significant drawdown of forces have tried to tilt the argument in their favor by positing a gradated concept of costs against an all-or-nothing view of benefits. A more extensive pullout of forces beginning this summer would only marginally reduce spending on the war and ease pressure on the national budget, goes the argument, but staying the course at current troop levels can make the difference in whether or not Afghanistan falls apart into terror-ridden chaos. That argument is invalid not only because even the marginal cost is significant and should be considered amid current fiscal circumstances but also because the either-or picture of the consequences is invalid as well. Whatever is the effect—if any—of the course of the Afghan War on terrorist threats to the United States is at least as marginal as the war costs, given all the other more important ingredients in that threat. The picture also is invalid regarding the political and social circumstances within Afghanistan. Whether armed bands in Konduz Province do or do not identify themselves as Taliban while extorting a tithe from the citizens does not spell a difference between victory and defeat in this war.

Several of the characteristics that have been evident in the more than three decades of civil conflict in Afghanistan will continue to shape politics and society there no matter what coalition forces do or do not accomplish in the months ahead. One such characteristic is the fragility and temporary nature of loyalties and alliances. Throughout the war against the Soviets, militias and warlords frequently changed sides without changing their stripes or their habits. That is still happening in the current phase of the war, and it will continue after NATO forces are gone—no matter how long it is before they go. Another enduring characteristic, related to the first one, is that any political order that emerges in Afghanistan is more the result of many bargains struck among disparate, local centers of power than it is the imposition of a central government's rule. Yet another enduring feature of the Afghan landscape is that the Taliban has no monopoly on what we Americans would dislike, and what we might consider the attributes of a loss rather than a win.