I disagree with Max Fisher's argument last Thursday that the U.S. has basically lost in Afghanistan.
"After 16 years of war in Afghanistan," Fisher says, "experts have stopped asking what victory looks like and are beginning to consider the spectrum of possible defeats."
Fisher makes his case for defeat by presenting analysts who agree with him as a unitary collective, as if all dissenting voices are either delusional freaks or utterly worthless. According to the Times columnist, "All options involve acknowledging the war as failed, American aims as largely unachievable and Afghanistan’s future as only partly salvageable. Their advocates see glimmers of hope barely worth the stomach-turning trade-offs and slim odds of success."
Still, my real issue is not what Fisher says is likely to happen in Afghanistan, but how he presents those outcomes. Because I actually think his suggestion that the U.S. will have to make compromises away from its original 2001 agenda is quite accurate.
I simply believe the U.S. has already accepted those compromises and reformulated them into a new, credible notion of what "victory" actually might look like.
Take, for example, Fisher's argument that the U.S. will have to accept Taliban empowerment in outlying provinces.
He's right. But the U.S. had already accepted this strategic reality four years ago. In the eastern insurgent strongholds of Kunar, Nangarhar, and Paktika provinces and the southern Helmand province, U.S. adversaries are the evident dominant force. And instead of the huge U.S. footprint of 2009-2011, U.S. Army and Marine Corps convention formations have been replaced by small special operations units and embedded Afghan army training teams.
To be sure, this doesn't mean that the U.S. is no longer taking casualties. On the contrary, the Trump administration's escalated combat focus has put more U.S. troops in harm's way than the Obama administration did in 2015 or 2016.
It's just that the new approach is escalation with a viable strategic objective: to degrade Taliban command and control capabilities so as to prevent the group's expanded influence, its ability to carry out atrocities in cities like Kabul, and so as to provide space for Afghan security, infrastructure and governance development. It's about keeping the Taliban off balance so that the organization continues to split between those who seek compromise and those who seek the unrealistic prospect of a national takeover (that's unrealistic because most Afghans despise the Taliban).
However, the U.S. continues to allow the operation of Taliban sub-governance structures, and its patronage-smuggling relationships with various Pashtun tribes. This is realism, not Obama's anti-strategy, nor any form of left-wing surrender.
It's a compromise between input costs and realistic outcomes. Moreover, it takes place alongside a U.S. administration that is finally taking Pakistan to task for its continued malevolence in Afghan politics. This new dimension offers unprecedented potential for a regional consensus about what kind of Afghan end state we might realistically end up with. One that the Pakistanis grudgingly buy into, rather than constantly attempt to undercut.
Ultimately, though, the new U.S. strategy is about playing for a longer-term assessed victory. By signaling commitment to Afghan partners, holding some areas while ceding others, and building more capability, the U.S. is earning greater influence towards Afghanistan's future political development. If we want to leave the nation able to stand on its own two feet, and prevent its collapse into pockets of al Qaeda or Islamic State safe havens, the current approach is the right one.
And even if messy, it's the best possible recipe for a more realistic victory — not defeat.