Leaving Afghanistan: Is it victory or defeat?

Leaving Afghanistan: Is it victory or defeat?
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Mission accomplished … or not. After 20 years, U.S. troops will finally leave Afghanistan for good. President BidenJoe BidenAtlanta mayor won't run for reelection South Carolina governor to end pandemic unemployment benefits in June Airplane pollution set to soar with post-pandemic travel boom MORE has declared the “forever war” over, and promised to bring home all troops by 9/11 of this year. There will be no conditions placed on the Taliban, as the U.S. leaves tread marks on the driveway. “We’re going to zero troops by September,” said one official.

After two decades of fighting in Afghanistan, here’s what we know. At least 2,300 Americans died in Afghanistan. Taxpayers invested $822 billion into Afghanistan’s infrastructure, economy and institutions, with almost nothing to show for it. As a veteran, it is hateful to me to see American honor and prestige diminished by low-level foes, who fight on mopeds with AK-47s older than they. Meanwhile, the Taliban is stronger now than at any point since 2001. With up to 85,000 full-time fighters, it controls one-fifth of the country and continues to launch attacks.

Did we win? Lose? “Not win”? Let the finger-pointing begin. Look for three camps:


The Deniers. A few people believe we have won, or at least “not lost” — whatever that means. They have Stockholm syndrome with Afghanistan, and many are veterans and civilians who have invested substantial chunks of their souls into Afghanistan, only to see it crumble. Often, it is easier to rationalize failure than to confront it. But they stand alone. Three years ago, most Americans believed the war in Afghanistan had “mostly failed.” Today, I wager they would promote that war to “fully failed.”

The Dreamers. These people believe we must double down our commitments to Afghanistan to make it a better place. This is textbook insanity: Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. For example, Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamHouse to advance appropriations bills in June, July The unflappable Liz Cheney: Why Trump Republicans have struggled to crush her  The Memo: The GOP's war is already over — Trump won MORE (R-S.C.) called Biden’s decision “dumber than dirt” because it “canceled an insurance policy against another 9/11.” It ignores the obvious. First, al Qaeda left Afghanistan long ago, in 2002, and now operates across 18 countries. Should we also invade and occupy all those countries? No, of course not. Second, terrorists never were an existential threat — despite how terrible and tragic 9/11 was. For existential threats, see Cuban Missile Crisis, where the world was 30 minutes away from nuclear annihilation. By contrast, some angry guys 12 time zones away, driving Toyota Hiluxes and shooting small arms in the air, are not a serious threat to the United States of America. Furthermore, our 2018 National Defense Strategy rightly (and belatedly) pivoted our military away from counterterrorism and toward “great power competition,” such as Russia and China, who possess nuclear weapons. 

The Doubters. After 20 years of flailing and mostly failing, doubters reasonably ask: How many more years must we stay in order to demonstrate ‘patience’? Another 20 years in Afghanistan,  nicknamed “The Graveyard of Empires,” will not buy us a different result. The doubters understand that you cannot nation-build where no nation existed before. Afghanistan is not post-war Germany, and the Bonn Conference is no Marshall Plan. Instead, our Afghan project was a monument to Western hubris, paid for in U.S. blood, treasure and honor. Time to focus elsewhere.

Everyone knows what will happen after the U.S. leaves: bedlam will ensue. At the conclusion of the Vietnam War, Henry Kissinger often reiterated that the U.S. wanted to leave with an “honorable peace.” When a reporter pulled him aside and asked him what that meant, Kissinger allegedly responded that it’s the “interval between withdrawal and the rape of the first virgin.” And so it was. North Vietnam swept down and brutally captured the South, despite its treaty obligations not to do so. The country fell into a pall from which it only now is emerging. The same thing happened in Afghanistan after the Soviets’ exit, in Operation Magistral. The Taliban then moved into the house. We move full circle.

Anytime David wins, Goliath’s explanation is always the same, whether it’s Vietnam, Iraq or Afghanistan: “We didn’t win, but we didn’t lose.” Gen. William Westmoreland, the commander of U.S. forces in Vietnam, summed it up for a generation: “Militarily, we succeeded in Vietnam. We won every engagement we were involved in out there.” The U.S. military says the same thing today about Iraq and Afghanistan.

This is the myth of bifurcated victory — that one can win militarily, yet lose the war. But this is like the old joke: “Doctor, the operation was a success, but the patient is dead.” Victory and defeat have meaning only in political terms. Failure to translate military victories into political ones equals defeat, and this is how big militaries lose. 

Sean McFate is the author of five books, including “The New Rules of War: How America Can Win — Against Russia, China, and Other Threats” (2019). He is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, professor at Georgetown University, and an adviser to Oxford University’s Centre for Technology and Global Affairs. He served in the U.S. Army’s 82nd Airborne Division. Follow him on Twitter @seanmcfate.