What Does America Consider Success in Afghanistan?

U.S. Army soldiers in Kharwar District, Afghanistan. Flickr/U.S. Central Command

America must start measuring success in Afghanistan by achievements on the ground and not by unrealistic expectations.

Wednesday’s terror attack in Kabul is a stark reminder of how brutal the war in Afghanistan still is. A suicide truck bomber drove near the German Embassy in Wazir Akbar Khan, the diplomatic heart of Kabul, and then detonated his bomb amid the morning rush-hour traffic. The blast killed at least ninety civilians and wounded another four hundred.

This wasn’t the first such attack in Afghanistan, and it won’t be the last. After almost sixteen years of war in Afghanistan, it is only natural to wonder: how do we know if we are winning?

Winston Churchill, while serving as a young officer fighting the Pashtuns in the 19th century, explained the difficulty of winning the type of war he faced then and that the United States faces now in Afghanistan:

“There are no general actions on a great scale, no brilliant successes, no important surrenders, no chance for a coup de theatre. It is just a rough hard job, which must be carried through. The war is one of small incidents. The victory must be looked for in the results.”

Some things never change. What was true in 1897 is as true in 2017.

When NATO ended its combat operations in Afghanistan and transitioned into a train, advise and assist role in 2015, the usual fanfare associated with victory in war was notably absent. There were no triumphal parades, no formal surrender ceremony, and no heroic march into an enemy’s capital. This is not the Afghan way of war.

As Churchill wrote in 1897, “The victory must be looked for in the results.”

In late 2001, just after the 9/11 attacks, there were two main goals in Afghanistan. First, to deny Al Qaeda a safe haven from which to plan, train and launch terrorist attacks on a global scale. Secondly, to remove the Taliban regime from power as punishment for not cooperating with the international community and for harboring terrorism—a sort of twenty-first century version of a nineteenth-century punitive raid on the frontier. Both were accomplished with relative speed— it can even be argued that this was achieved by the summer of 2002.

As the years went by, the explanation for what U.S. forces were doing in Afghanistan shifted from America’s raw national-security needs to vague notions of nation building and “bringing democracy.” Consequently, the inability to produce what public opinion considers tangible and achievable results sixteen years on has disappointed many.

Since our military intervention in 2001, we have focused on the quixotic goals of creating “a strong central government” and a “pluralistic society” in Afghanistan. We have tried accomplishing these goals by “holding free and fair” elections, “tackling corruption,” and building the “institutions of democracy.” If we fail to achieve these goals, we are presented with doomsday scenarios of “ungoverned spaces,” the Taliban “back in power,” and the establishment of new terrorists “safe havens.”

But this black-and-white view of the situation doesn’t work in a place like Afghanistan. It is a place with many shades of gray. There is a complex middle ground in Afghanistan, and this is where we are today—and where we will likely be for the foreseeable future.

Few in the United States believe that we have been defeated in Afghanistan. They just think we haven’t met the objectives they expected to be achieved—and that what we have achieved has taken too long and cost too much.

This is not an unreasonable view. We have been fighting in Afghanistan for almost sixteen years and will likely have some form of military involvement there for at least sixteen more. An eighteen-year-old soldier serving in Afghanistan today was only two years old at the time of the 9/11 attacks. Thousands of U.S. troops have been killed and wounded and just shy of $1 trillion has been spent.

For years, especially in the earlier days of the war, successive U.S. commanders thought that if one more road could be paved, one more school built, or one more hospital constructed, America could leave Afghanistan just that much better. Over the years, this focus on nation-building—however well intended it might have been—resulted in expectations set so high in Afghanistan that even obvious successes on the security front were not considered good enough.

This created an impossible situation for the U.S. military. With the lofty goals of nation building defining our success in the early days, the only thing most people see today in Afghanistan is failure.

However, a closer look at the situation shows that much has actually been achieved. After the successful targeting of Taliban leaders, combined with a robust counterinsurgency campaign over the years, the group as a national movement has degenerated into several smaller, weaker and localized insurgencies—each with a different set of grievances and goals.