Defining war success

When President Barack Obama today releases a review of U.S. progress and strategy in Afghanistan, he probably won’t dwell on two intelligence reports, the details of which were presented to some members of Congress last week.

The New York Times released information about the classified reports Wednesday. The two reports — one on Afghanistan and one on Pakistan — say there is little chance of success in Afghanistan unless Pakistan decides to seriously engage in the effort to hunt down Taliban in its regions near Afghanistan.

Nine years into the war with the Taliban, it’s clear Pakistan has paid a lot of lip service to rooting out insurgents in its northwestern mountains, but it has done little to actually accomplish that goal, even as it receives billions of dollars in U.S. aid each year.

Beyond Pakistan, however, Obama and the U.S. military must address this question: What constitutes victory in Afghanistan?

U.S. military commanders say with increased troop strength they have been able to kill increasing numbers of insurgents lately, and they plan to continue this over the next year and more. “Degrading the Taliban,” they call it.

But is a high body count proof of victory, when the Taliban seem to have an unending supply of young men eager to attack American and Afghan forces?

Establishing well-trained Afghan police and army units is fine, but that effort assumes there would be a centralized governing aparatus to direct them. We believe that assumption misunderstands Afghanistan and the history of warfare there.

In Iraq, where feuding political and religious groups have finally managed to forge a coalition government, we can at least point to an emerging stable government and declining violence as evidence of success for the military efforts there.

That’s not the case in Afghanistan, where government corruption is rampant and many government officials have ties to the Taliban. And that’s just in areas around large cities. Rural parts of the country are still ruled by clans, whose leaders’ loyalties are flexible, to say the least.

Obama may very well seek to downplay the intelligence reports today. But, as he outlines our military strategy for the next year and beyond, he ought to give us some benchmarks that will allow us to assess whether we have achieved success.


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