As his Marines prepare to leave Helmand Province, General James Amos, the commandant, says the mission has " paid off ." He cites several metrics:
"The number of violent events, from gunshots to roadside bombs, has dropped in almost every district since 2010."
"Roads have been paved and markets secured, allowing commerce to grow in places like Marja, Nad Ali and Lashkar Gah, the provincial capital."
"Civilian casualties are down by 20 percent."
"[T]he Afghan National Army has grown, to almost four brigades with more than 16,000 soldiers."
These are positive developments. The situation in Helmand is doubtless better off than when the Marines doubled down their effort there, making it "the defining battleground" of the campaign.
Was it worth the 360 dead and 4700 wounded Marines it cost to get to that point? That's a metaphysical question, not one of public policy. Certainly, though the answer will be a resounding no if the gains "turn overnight" once NATO forces leave the country, as Amos acknowledges is possible.
More importantly, though, it makes little sense to measure success based on the situation on the ground in 2010. The war started, after all, in October 2001 in response to the September 11 terrorist attacks, and success should be measured against the objectives set forth at the outset.
Indeed, all the metrics cited by Amos are much worse now than they were when the war began. The U.S. invasion set off the gunshots, roadside bombs, and civilian casualties. Eleven years ago, few Americans much cared about the conditions of the roads or the state of commerce in Marja and Lashkar Gah, places they never knew existed. And the expansion of an army that Afghanistan can't independently afford would be universally hailed as a setback absent a continuing insurgent threat.
So, what were American war aims way back on October 7, 2001?
As declared by President Bush , "These carefully targeted actions are designed to disrupt the use of Afghanistan as a terrorist base of operations and to attack the military capability of the Taliban regime." This, he explained, was after the Taliban government failed to accede to "a series of clear and specific demands: Close terrorist training camps. Hand over leaders of the Al Qaeda network, and return all foreign nationals, including American citizens unjustly detained in our country."
Bush outlined several very specific objectives in the speech:
"The Taliban will pay a price" [for failing to meet the demands].
"By destroying camps and disrupting communications, we will make it more difficult for the terror network to train new recruits and coordinate their evil plans."
"At the same time, the oppressed people of Afghanistan will know the generosity of America and our allies. As we strike military targets, we will also drop food, medicine and supplies to the starving and suffering men and women and children of Afghanistan."
"Today we focus on Afghanistan, but the battle is broader. Every nation has a choice to make. In this conflict, there is no neutral ground. If any government sponsors the outlaws and killers of innocence, they have become outlaws and murderers themselves. And they will take that lonely path at their own peril."
Those goals were achieved long ago; indeed, within weeks of the launch of Operation Enduring Freedom. The Taliban paid the price of being ousted from governance. Al-Qaeda's camps in Afghanistan were destroyed and their communications there disrupted; those who weren't killed set up shop in Pakistan and elsewhere instead. And, certainly, other governments thinking of allying themselves with al-Qaeda had to be aware that the cost had risen substantially.
Whether the Afghans "know the generosity of America and our allies" is difficult to say. But there was good evidence that the toppling of the Taliban and humanitarian aid were well received, at least in the early going. It became murkier as the fight and the presence of American and NATO troops dragged on.
Toward the end of his speech, Bush pledged: "To all the men and women in our military, every sailor, every soldier, every airman, every Coast Guardsman, every Marine, I say this: Your mission is defined. The objectives are clear. Your goal is just. You have my full confidence, and you will have every tool you need to carry out your duty."
More than eleven years later, our forces are still fighting and dying. And, while the goal may be just, the mission still isn't defined and the objectives are far from clear.
James Joyner is managing editor of the Atlantic Council.