By Rich Stowell
At the conclusion of OEF, have we won in Afghanistan?
It has become fashionable to denigrate the accomplishments, or rather the prospects, of the Afghanistan War.
Soldiers—both enlisted and officer—returning from Afghanistan are often heard complaining that the country is doomed, destined to go the way of Iraq vis à vis ISIS.
Is the pessimism warranted? Is Afghanistan lost? Can we say that we have accomplished anything of substance there? In short, after 13 years of combat in Afghanistan, did we win?
At the risk of sounding too optimistic, the answer according to any objective measure has to be yes. To understand the degree to which we have been successful, it is critical to identify those standards by which we should judge the war.
Two goals are commonly understood to be at the heart of Operation Enduring Freedom. First is the broadly agreed upon goal of the initial stages of the campaign, to depose the Taliban and eliminate al Qaeda as a credible threat.
The second is broader: to prevent Afghanistan from ever again becoming a sanctuary for terror groups like al Qaeda.
The first is easily demonstrated, the second too long range to know. But there are some interim objectives that are easier to assess.
President Obama laid out these objectives in his first major address on the Afghanistan War at West Point, five years ago this month. In it he declared that it was “in our nation’s vital interests to send 30,000 additional troops to Afghanistan.” The surge followed an earlier authorization of a substantial troop increase.
The first objectives of a renewed push in Afghanistan was to “disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al Qaeda and its extremist allies… and to prevent its capacity to threaten America and our allies in the future.”
Perhaps Obama’s speechwriters crafted that phrase for its alliteration, but those verbs describe a spectrum of outcomes. It is quite easy to disrupt, altogether more difficult to dismantle and defeat.
But the U.S. military and its ISAF partners have done it. The Taliban remains a threat, but the extremist al Qaeda elements are all but silent in Afghanistan.
The president’s second goal, to “deny al Qaeda a safe haven” inside Afghanistan is even easier to declare having been met. Gone are the days of al Qaeda camps. There are no large hospitable geographical areas in which to take refuge and plan attacks. They might survive, but they are on the run. Hardly a haven.
Obama’s third goal was to “reverse the Taliban’s momentum and deny it the ability to overthrow the government.” Even the most hardened pessimist is unable to assert that the Taliban poses a substantial threat to the government of Afghanistan. Though immature, the government there enjoys the support of a large majority of Afghans, is in control of every city, and has the backing of the international community.
Moreover, Afghan security forces are strong, growing, and improving. They have taken the lead in the fight against the Taliban and are proving their mettle in places like Helmand.
It is easy for naysayers to denigrate the ability of the Afghan National Army with in the face of attacks like the one the Taliban launched against Camp Bastion last month. But the ANA quickly retook their positions, and the insurgents took far more casualties than government forces.
The ANA enjoys international support in both weapons and training, as well as the faith of the Afghan people.
None of this is to say that things will not turn south. It will take vigilance and a patient application of diplomatic, economic, and military assistance to Afghanistan to see things stabilize. There is a problem of corruption, of funding for the security forces, and a general susceptibility to Islamist extremism that plagues the region.
But those were problems that the military was not charged to solve, and they persist in other countries we consider to be stable allies.
By the measures the military uses, and by the measures imposed on the military by its civilian leaders, the Afghanistan campaign has been a success.