White House redefines ‘winning’ in Afghanistan ahead of review

Obama administration officials and lawmakers are lowering the bar for success in Afghanistan ahead of the first strategic review of war policy in the post-Osama bin Laden era.

Washington has largely shed words like “winning” and “success” as public fatigue about the costs and duration of the decade-long conflict have increased. 

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What is emerging is a search for a new definition for winning the war in Afghanistan that would allow most U.S. forces to leave the war-torn country without the risk of having the Taliban and al Qaeda quickly fill a vacuum. 

Building an Afghanistan that is “a shining city on a hill … is not going to happen,” Ryan Crocker, the veteran diplomat hand-picked by President Obama to serve as ambassador to Kabul, told senators Wednesday at his confirmation hearing. 

Instead of trying to fashion a Western-style democracy in Afghanistan, Crocker said, the goal should be “sustainable stability.”

That means “good enough governance” that allows Afghan officials to prevent groups like the Taliban, al Qaeda and the Haqqani network from setting up shop there, Crocker told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. 

Crocker was hesitant to declare definitively whether even that kind of progress is within reach. 

“I think we can get to sustainable stability,” said Crocker, who described progress in the country as hard but not “hopeless.”

Crocker testified to lawmakers whose patience with the war was wearing thin even before the release of a report Wednesday by Democratic staff on the committee that suggested most of the $18 billion the U.S. has spent on foreign aid and nation-building in Afghanistan has had little effect. 

“If there is any nation in the world that really needs nation-building right now, it is the United States,” said Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.), who was Navy secretary under President Reagan. 

The Foreign Relations report said the U.S. was spending $320 million a month on foreign aid to Afghanistan, mostly on stabilization programs in the country’s south and east. Evidence is scarce, the report said, that the programs have promoted stability in those restive areas.

“When we are putting hundreds of billions of dollars into infrastructure in another country, it should only be done if we can articulate a vital national interest, because we quite frankly need to be doing a lot more of that here,” Webb said. “You can fight international terrorism without remaking an entire [Afghan] society.”

White House press secretary Jay Carney said Obama disagrees with the negative picture portrayed in the report, of millions of dollars being wasted on unsustainable investments and nation-building in the country.

“It’s important to note that Afghanistan has made significant progress,” Carney said. “And the presumption that our assistance has contributed little and that Afghanistan has made no progress is just simply wrong. We disagree with that.”

That Congress is weary of the Afghanistan fight has been clear for some time. It was exemplified by a vote last month in the House in which lawmakers narrowly defeated a measure that required the Pentagon to produce a plan for accelerating the exit of U.S. troops from Afghanistan. 

In a separate 123-294 vote, the House also rejected a measure to require the withdrawal of U.S. ground troops. Sixteen Republicans voted for the measure, twice as many as supported a similar bill in 2010.

The death of bin Laden, the man behind the Sept. 11 attacks that led to the U.S. presence in Afghanistan, is another factor. 

The United States’ “role needs to change,” Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) said bluntly on Wednesday. 

 Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) said many senators are “expecting pretty dramatic changes at the end of this fighting season” because the current strategy “is unsustainable.”

Obama himself has suggested bin Laden’s death means there should be a change in U.S. policy. 

The president’s 2008 campaign was built on the idea that the Bush administration had ignored a necessary war in Afghanistan to fight an unnecessary war in Iraq. But as he prepares for his own reelection campaign in 2012, Obama is sounding a different tune. 

“By us killing Osama bin Laden, getting al Qaeda back on its heels, stabilizing much of the country in Afghanistan so that the Taliban can’t take it over ... it’s now time for us to recognize that we’ve accomplished a big chunk of our mission and that it’s time for Afghans to take more responsibility,” the president said Tuesday in an interview with Hearst Television.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates suggested during an interview with ABC News this week that a clear American victory in Afghanistan is not likely. 

“We have not had a declared victory in a war — with the possible exception of the first Gulf War — since World War II. It is the phenomenon of modern conflict,” Gates said.

In place of a definitive U.S. win, the outgoing secretary described what he views as the “key” metrics for measuring whether the operation has been a success.

“The key is: Are our interests protected? Is the security of the United States protected? Are the Americans safer at the end because of the sacrifice these soldiers have made? That’s the real question,” he said during the interview.