by Michael C. Davies
In a testament to the hyperactive character of our present moment, it was only three months ago that The Washington Post broke a story that senior civilian and military officials in the U.S. Government have known that the war in Afghanistan was unwinnable for at least the past decade. As such, the recently signed agreement between the US and the Taliban is essentially a surrender agreement, allowing the US to withdrawal regardless of the consequences—a new Afghan civil war. The so-named Afghanistan Papers outlined how “senior U.S. officials failed to tell the truth about the war in Afghanistan throughout the 18-year campaign, making rosy pronouncements they knew to be false and hiding unmistakable evidence the war had become unwinnable.” The principal reason for this was a total lack of consensus on what the objectives were in Afghanistan, the disconnect between the stated political and military goals, and an inability to bridge this gap. Why was there no consensus on what the objectives were? Because the very notion of victory is contested. It is hard to win a war when no one knows what victory means conceptually, let alone in context.
Using a Freedom for Information Act (FOIA) request, the Post obtained more than 2,000 pages of primary interview data from over 400 individuals collected by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR). This organization was created in 2008 to provide oversight of the effectiveness, efficiency, and good order of the reconstruction project in Afghanistan. Its quarterly reports, along with its long assessment papers have been an invaluable trove of data, insight, telling quotes, and operational understanding throughout its time. In its most recent quarterly report, SIGAR stated that “Both overall enemy-initiated attacks and effective enemy-initiated attacks during the fourth quarter of 2019 exceeded same-period levels every year since recording began in 2010.” Simply: the Taliban and other groups are more operationally effective and active than at any time in the past decade, and that the US and its NATO allies and partners are losing the war if it has not already been lost.
There is a deeply intertwined issue of theory and practice in the story of the Afghanistan war that appears in the Afghanistan Papers that few have noted, let alone understood. The most stunning quotes of the reporting showcase just how astrategic the thinking was in Afghanistan precisely because few have a solid idea of what victory means. Take these key highlighted quotes as prime examples:
- Richard Boucher, State Department official for South Asia, 2006–2009: “If there ever was a notion of mission creep it is in Afghanistan… We are trying to achieve the unachievable instead of achieving the achievable.”
- Douglas Lute, Afghan War ‘czar’, Obama Administration: “We were devoid of a fundamental understanding of Afghanistan—we didn’t know what we were doing.”
- Bob Crowley, a retired U.S. Army Colonel and counterinsurgency adviser, 2013–2014: “There were a number of faulty assumptions in the strategy: Afghanistan is ready for democracy overnight, the population will support the government in a short time frame, more of everything is better.”
- An unnamed US Official serving as liaison to NATO: What were we actually doing in that country?… What are our objectives?…. It was never fully clear in our own minds what the establish goals and timelines were.”
These four comments loosely follow the goals of the Afghanistan War until the Trump Administration in chronological order. The war began as a retaliatory strike again Al-Qaeda for the terror attacks of September 11, 2001, that then turned into a nation-building exercise because the entire Taliban governing apparatus collapsed under the weight of a few hundred bombs and special operations raids in collaboration with Northern Alliance light forces. The Iraq War then radically cut the resources and forces available for both efforts as the goal now became to transform the region into a mini-America. With Obama, the goal turned to “a responsible end” via a troop and civilian surge to give the Afghan Government time to build its capacity. Finally, with Trump, the goal simply seems to “bomb the shit” out of anyone and everyone.
What these quotes, as they relate to the circumstances and declared goals coming from policymakers, show are the leading examples of why the existing literature on victory in war is so superficial and contradictory. Boucher’s comment is an example of those who think that military objectives equal strategic objectives. ‘Mission creep’ is a term used by those who cannot conceive of victory in political terms and that mission creep occurs because initial military objectives rarely satisfy even announced policy goals. Lute’s comments are in line with those who think that a good strategy is all that is needed to achieve victory; that simply by aligning ends-ways-and-means all will be right with the world. Crowley’s comments are an example of an execution gap—where the appropriately aligned forces and resources to do the job simply do not exist. While the NATO liaison’s comments show that just because political and military objectives have been stated, that does not mean they are applicable, effectual, or clear to everyone in theatre. Furthermore, reporting last year noted a conversation between a Pentagon official and an intelligence analyst whereby the official asked, “Are we winning?,” and the analyst said, after looking at a mountain of data and said, “I have no idea, sir,” This is the danger of thinking in terms of metrics.
In 2019, RAND produced a significant report on victory theory. While Afghanistan was not outlined in the case studies, the Iraq War was. The report noted that the United States and its allies achieved the overwhelming majority of its objectives in the war either at the level of ‘success’ or ‘some success.’ Only two objectives were coded as ‘no success’—“create a prosperous free Iraq; Create a peaceful, united, stable, and secure Iraq.” By these measures, the Iraq War was mostly a success. Yet, the U.S. Army’s own study on Iraq calls it an Iranian victory. Similarly, with Afghanistan, many other analyses already describe it as a strategic failure. Regardless of the terminology, definitions, and concepts used, whether in theory or in practice, nothing seems to work as intended. It is beyond time to recognize that there is a theoretical black hole —no one knows what victory means, let alone how to achieve it—and the war in Afghanistan is just its latest victim.
Michael C. Davies is a Ph.D. candidate in Defence Studies at King’s College London, focusing on the theory and practise of victory. He previously conducted lessons learned research at the U.S. National Defense University where he co-authored three books on the Wars of 9/11 and is one of the progenitors of the Human Domain doctrinal concept. He is also a Senior Editor with Strife.