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Why did we lose the war in Afghanistan?

February 25, 2015

Summary: Some US analysts are addressing themselves to this question.  My view is that the war has not yet been lost 

US troops in AfgOver at Foreign Policy, the writer Thomas Ricks is hosting on his blog the challenge to write 500 words or less (I guess it could be much less) on the issue of why the US lost the war in Afghanistan.  Just in case they do not post my contribution, I post it here.  Shame to waste it.

Why did we lose the war in Afghanistan?

The question is flawed. The original phrasing made it too specifically about US Army tactics and COIN doctrine. Aside from the definitional issues of who is “we” and what does “lose” mean, I am not sure I accept the premise of the question. The battle has not been lost yet. This fact (I really think it is a fact) has been due in large part to the efforts of the US, however confused and ill-informed these actions were. It is now being fought in a different way – yes, possibly in the way it should have been fought in the first place – but it is not over.

If Afghanistan did not, in 2015, have a functioning government and had imploded back into civil war, or the Taliban had returned to conquer, 1990s-style, major cities and provinces, including the capital, then you could perhaps be making the judgement that the war had been lost. Losing a war is surely not the same as prosecuting it in a very clumsy, protracted and costly fashion.

We now live in the era of globalisation, Al Qaeda, ISIS, information and cyber warfare, highly interwoven conflict causes (narco, ethnic, religious, political, criminal, etc). Conflict is more complex and fast-moving than ever before. We are now adding “hybrid” into the lexicon, although most of the tactics contained within are very old. Maybe “winning” wars in this century is just a really old-fashioned way of looking at things, inevitably replaced by a variety of other terms: solving, resolving, limiting, managing, containing. No fun for the army that wants to stick a flag on a hill, but perhaps many of the wars this century will now offer will be complex, multi-actor, multi-decade, multi-informational, low-intensity, affairs. There will be no real victors and the only time politicians and soldiers can pat themselves on the back is when a country is judged merely to have avoided implosion.

Maybe Afghanistan was always going to be this messy and complex and costly. Almost by definition, this is what will happen when the international community rapidly responds to crises in parts of the world it knows little about. But think how the conflict might be judged by historians in twenty years time. I am still pessimistic in many ways, but there has to be at least a 50/50 chance that Afghanistan will make forward progress, politically and economically, however slow and painful. The war is not lost and the US is still playing a key role.

Reappraise the definitions of winning and losing. But, if you insist on looking at it in black and white terms, George Friedman’s “The Next Hundred Years” puts it nicely:

“The United States doesn’t need to win wars. It needs to simply disrupt things so the other side can’t build up sufficient strength to challenge it…The United States has a huge margin of error…Its not stupid. It simply doesn’t need to be more careful…”.

Maybe the US did win? Maybe the Taliban are asking themselves the same question?

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