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Losing what we never owned to begin with

An op-ed in Wednesday's New York Times asks, "Are We Losing Afghanistan Again?" The article was written in response to the president's announcement last week that the U.S. would keep nearly 10,000 troops in Afghanistan through most of next year and more than 5,000 indefinitely thereafter, both decisions reversing his repeated promise to extract U.S. military forces from Afghanistan by the end of 2016.

The word "again" in the op-ed's headline, however, implies that somewhere back in the shadowy depths of the fourteen years since we first intervened in Afghanistan, we actually won that war, or at very least were winning it. For those of us who have closely followed events in that unhappy country, locating that magic moment would itself be a trick.

It's true that, by December 2001, Kandahar had fallen to Northern Alliance forces supported by U.S. CIA and Special Forces elements, and following the battle of Tora Bora, both the Taliban government and Osama bin Laden had fled the country for neighboring Pakistan's tribal territories. 

At that point, not a single U.S. soldier had yet died from hostile fire, and with an anti-Taliban interim government installed in Kabul, the U.S. might have declared victory and reverted to a narrowly targeted anti-terrorism effort against Bin Laden and his al Qaeda organization. Instead, snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, we decided it was our job to remake Afghanistan into a Jeffersonian democracy.

Even then, calling the war against the Taliban "won" would have been a stretch. Anti-Taliban forces might have held the major cities, but the countryside remained a patchwork of unreconciled insurgents and tribal militias, some of the latter more hostile to each other than to the Taliban and none fully committed to Afghanistan's interim government.

Still more was that true after the election in 2002 of President Hamid Karzai, a deeply divisive Pashtun leader whose relations with his cabinet, Afghanistan's shaky parliament, other tribal groups, and NATO commanders progressively worsened. Security efforts suffered commensurately, while U.S., allied, and Afghan security force casualties mounted. 

Meanwhile, in March 2003, even as security in Afghanistan deteriorated, the U.S. decided to invade Iraq and depose Saddam Hussein. The resulting diversion of attention and resources did nothing to help Afghanistan's beleaguered security forces. Instead, throughout the remainder of President G.W. Bush's presidency and into Barack Obama's, U.S. troop levels never rose above 38,000, and key military assets from overhead sensors to armored vehicles remained in increasingly inadequate supply. 

Throughout that period, any suggestion that we and our allies were winning would have been ludicrous. On the contrary, despite exaggerated claims of progress that brought back unhappy memories of similarly specious claims during the Vietnam War, both NATO and indigenous security forces' control of the countryside steadily diminished.

Whence President Obama's reluctant decision in December 2009 to deploy an additional 30,000 troops to Afghanistan for 18 months, this on the explicit assurances of his senior military leaders  including some who now criticize him  that the period in question would suffice to turn the war around. 

It didn't. Instead, according to CBS News, the surge saw 74 percent of the U.S. military fatalities suffered during the entire war. And yet, today, Afghanistan is no more clearly secure than before the additional forces were committed. On the contrary, recent reports suggest that more than 30 provincial districts have reverted to Taliban control, and as many as half of the remainder are threatened. If that's victory, it's hard to know what defeat would look like.

Of course, those conditions are blamed by the administration's critics on the president's insistence on drawing down U.S. forces in accordance with the timetable on which he originally agreed to deploy them. But no persuasive evidence whatever has yet been offered to demonstrate that retaining them at full strength would have accomplished anything more than increasing the U.S. casualty count.

Nor does any data released thus far explain how leaving 9,800 troops in Afghanistan for another year will accomplish what ten times their number were unable to achieve in the previous six years, still less how leaving 5,500 troops in place thereafter will do more than furnish a larger target set for Taliban attacks.

When you find yourself in a hole, the old saying goes, it's time to stop digging. For going on 15 years, all that our military efforts from Afghanistan to Syria have managed to achieve is to enlarge what originally was a relatively localized group of Islamist fanatics into a near-global rebellion against Enlightenment values in general and the liberal West in particular.

For years after revolutionary leader Mao Tse-tung's victory over China's Chiang Kai-shek and the expulsion of his nationalists to Taiwan, American politicians and pundits flailed each other over "Who lost China." Of course, none did. China was never ours, either to win or to lose. Neither is Afghanistan.

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