Afghanistan was rightly called a forever war. At nearly 20 years, it more than doubled the time of America’s combat action in Vietnam and was five times longer than American fighting during World War II.
At least part of the problem in Afghanistan arose from the vague definition of victory. Dealing with insurgents and global terrorists rather than nation-states, it was unlikely that representatives of al-Qaeda and the Taliban would someday surrender on the deck of a battleship.
But even under those constraints, the terms of victory were unclear, with many ancillary political goals like promoting democracy and women’s rights distracting our focus from the more achievable goal of internal peace. Even though the initial intervention in 2001 was fully justified after the September 11 attacks, Afghanistan had many of the same dynamics as Iraq once the conflict became a simmering insurgency unifying various factions against America’s presence.
Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign argued that Iraq was a distraction from the “good war” in Afghanistan. When Obama announced a temporary surge in 2009, the goals were amorphous and relied upon metrics of success to be determined (and potentially mismeasured) by insiders.
“When I announced this surge at West Point,” Obama said, “we set clear objectives: to refocus on al-Qaeda, to reverse the Taliban’s momentum, and train Afghan security forces to defend their own country.”
At what point would any of these objectives be achieved well enough to call it a day? And to what end were they being sought?
Having not defined victory—or even progress—very clearly, the war dragged on. Commanders came and went, each announcing that his tour was successful, but that there was more work to be done. All that was necessary were grit, resources, and time.
As many admitted in private, Afghanistan was no safer in 2015 than it was in 2005, its government no more capable of guaranteeing security or the loyalty of the people. Fighting ebbed and flowed but, in the end, the Taliban had the momentum.
From the start of his presidency, Donald Trump announced his intention to leave and set in motion a withdrawal, but Pentagon officials dragged their feet. When Joe Biden followed through, he deviated from the deadline the Trump administration reached with the Taliban, and the withdrawal ended up being completely chaotic.
Flawed withdrawal or not, if we had stayed, Afghanistan would have likely remained the same simmering cesspool it had been between 2001 and 2021.
Another Open-Ended Commitment
The failure to think clearly about victory and what it requires matters for the current Russia-Ukraine conflict. The United States is currently a belligerent in all but name, providing substantial financial and military assistance to the Ukrainians. Any form of diplomatic compromise appears to be wholly anathema. Instead, Biden has recently requested $33 billion in additional aid to Ukraine. The president has even said—in remarks quickly walked back by government officials—that Russian President Vladimir Putin could not remain in power. So, is the goal regime change? Total Ukrainian victory?
In spite of the aid already received, Ukraine appears to be slowly losing the war. The Russians, having started the war with an overly ambitious strategy have since scaled back their operations to something more realistic. Russia’s logistics problems seem to have been sorted out. Russians have already retaken the city of Mariupol. And there is now a genuine main effort in the Donbas.
Russian forces are now fighting inch by inch and pounding the substantial mass of Ukrainian forces in the East with their extensive artillery. Two months into the war, Ukraine has not engaged in any substantial counterattack.
So will the United States support Ukraine until it is ground into dust? In order to avoid needless human suffering, we could push Ukraine towards some reasonable accommodation with Russia roughly similar to what prevailed from 2010 to 2014. While it would be painful for Ukraine to lose territory, such concessions have ended many other wars before, including the Irish rebellion of 1916 and the recent war between Ethiopia and Eretria. These are not uncharted waters.
But instead of such realism, we have official silence regarding any diplomatic terms and increasingly aggressive talk from Biden, Secretary of State Tony Blinken, and members of Congress in both parties. As in Afghanistan, our leaders have embraced a vague and completely fanciful notion of victory that does not allow any evaluation of or reduction of efforts.
Advocates promise that more weapons, more money, and more time will yield progress, but we were told the same thing about Afghanistan until its government and military completely and rapidly collapsed.
Perhaps, as in Afghanistan, the goal here is not “victory” as the term is normally understood. One likely possibility is the most obvious one: We are using Ukraine to weaken Russia, so Ukraine’s lack of victory and extensive self-destruction through a war of attrition would also maximize the costs imposed upon the Russians.
As with the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s, prolonging the fighting is sometimes not a bug, but a feature in foreign policy. While weakening Russia has been an obvious goal of the West since the early 2000s, our dimwitted Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin let the cat out of the bag by saying so explicitly on a recent visit to Ukraine.
Surely no one can be unaware of the ways the Ukraine war benefits the military-industrial complex. For every Javelin, tank, airplane, or other weapon given away from Western arsenals, there is now a slot in which a defense contractor can sell a modernized and more expensive replacement.
Long, indeterminate wars allow a continual stream of income to the highly consolidated defense industry, while also empowering host country officials responsible for disbursing the largesse. In Afghanistan, the huge amounts of American money sloshing around worsened Afghanistan’s already rampant corruption, undermining the government’s effectiveness and legitimacy in the eyes of ordinary Afghans. Since Ukraine’s reputation for financial and political rectitude is little better than Afghanistan’s, why does everyone assume that giving them tens of billions of dollars in equipment and aid will not enrich the corrupt leadership class at the expense of Ukraine’s people?
As we know, this corruption has extended to our own political class, which is knee deep in Ukrainian intrigue. Even the president’s son got in on the act to the tune of $50,000 a month. But there have been almost no objections about the likely losses of these resources to corruption, nor any public discussions about mechanisms to keep Ukraine accountable for the vast sums of money and weapons they’re receiving.
Whatever happens in Ukraine, it will not be a Russian defeat. Russia will not abandon Crimea, nor the Donetsk and Lugansk Republics, which it has recently recognized. Ukraine, even with vast numbers of NATO-supplied weapons, cannot prevail on the battlefield. So the longer the war goes on to “weaken Russia,” the more Ukraine and its people will be weakened, killed, and impoverished by the fighting.
While putting up a tough fight might enhance their negotiating position and increase their respect on the world stage, this has already been achieved. Eventually, the matter will have to be resolved with a compromise. The alternative for Americans and the Ukrainians is chasing an elusive, vaguely defined victory much like the strategy that resulted in a fruitless 20-year American commitment in Afghanistan.