Given the resurgent debate in the media, I've got plenty of thoughts about our policy in Afghanistan....
Foremost, nobody can define victory. Politicians, pundits and armchair commandos can make sweeping generalizations about the desired endstate, but nobody can outline the barest of steps needed to attain it. We played into Al Qaeda's hand in 2001. AQ is a cell based organization that can operate in nearly any nation, as they have. AQ purposely and publicly staged it's 'Headquarters' in Afghanistan during the planning of 9/11, based on the assumption that the US would retaliate militarily after the attacks. This retaliation would be conventional and enduring, as it's our modus operandi. The Taliban regime was expendable to AQ in the broader pursuit of it's goals; and our involvement in Afghanistan has brought forth dynamics that were on AQ's wishlist, but probably never dreamed possible.
Policy makers can't define what metrics are suitable for defining victory. Is it a democratic government? Not with the massive vote fraud in the recent election. The US however, will continue to support Karzai....to the detriment of many Afghan citizens.
Is it killing the enemy? This is the worst metric to use in a COIN environment. There is virtually no way to compete with what are called "$50 Taliban", Afghan civilians who will willingly aid Taliban, AQ and other insurgent groups for profit....as has been their way for centuries.
Is it 'winning the hearts and minds'? In a grand scheme yes; but only at the platoon level are we truly understanding the tribal dynamics in a given area, and unfortunately those dynamics are completely different the next valley over. Relentlessly killing Afghan civilians in punitive airstrikes is not helping matters either. In any COIN environment, and in this one in particular, the enemy has the decisive upper hand in information operations; they control the message because we and the Karzai Government are outsiders to nearly everyone outside of Kabul.
As NYT journalist Dexter Filkins writes:
The situation on the battlefield is difficult on its own. But it is, of course, inevitably bound up with the political stalemate in Kabul. As American commanders and diplomats have said repeatedly here, no amount of troops can substitute for a lack of political consensus among ordinary Afghans.
There is no strategic rationale for continuing the war in Afghanistan. The realities of continuing the fight have far more to do with domestic politics here in the US than strategic ramifications in the fight against AQ. Terror groups are not going to be the downfall of this nation...this nations self-detrimental actions will be. There is no strategic focus and no definable endstate. It would take at least as many years and more money than we've spent to date to prop up a shaky pseudo-democracy that will surely fail when we leave, due to the cultural and social desires of the Afghan people, and the fact that an Afghan military strong enough to secure the patchwork nation, cannot ever be supported by the Afghan economy.
These are very real issues that are being swept aside in the 'good war' defense of the supporters of this perpetual war. For some good analytical dialogue about COIN and Afghanistan, I recommend Abu Muqawama.