The New York Times headline “U.S. General Says Allies ‘Not Winning’ Afghan War” grabbed my attention. After all, the Atlantic Council issued a widely-cited report fourteen months ago which began, “Make no mistake, the international community is not winning in Afghanistan.”

But we followed that with, as the report’s title suggested, “an appeal and plan for urgent action.” Now, it seems, some key NATO players are conceding the possibility that losing is an option.

Gen. David D. McKiernan’s assessment echoed that of President Obama who said in an interview that the United States was not winning the Afghan war and who raised the possibility of the American military reaching out to moderate elements of the Taliban, much as it did with Sunni militias in Iraq.

In an interview published in the French newspaper Le Figaro on Monday, the French foreign minister, Bernard Kouchner, took the idea further, saying the West should accept a pro-Taliban leadership if Afghans choose such an administration in elections set for next August. “In Afghanistan, there will not be an exclusively military solution,” he said, adding: “We should accept the result of the forthcoming elections whatever it is.”

He said there was “no question” of making Afghanistan a Western-style democracy. “If nationalist-minded Taliban come to power through the ballot-box and respect the constitution, that is the Afghans’ business,” he said. “What we reject is support for international jihad,” he said, using an Arabic term meaning struggle or holy war.

If the Taliban’s return to power is an acceptable outcome, what the hell have our forces been fighting and dying for these past seven years?

We entered into war in the wake of the 9/11 attacks with an immediate aim of toppling the Taliban government that had given aid and comfort to the al Qaeda leadership who planned them and a wider purpose of creating a stable Afghanistan that would no longer be a safe haven for terrorists.  

To be sure, as in Iraq, the rhetorical excesses of democratic leaders in persuading their publics that the sacrifices of war were worthwhile lead to grandiose statements and a bit of mission creep.  But, surely, even the most modest definition of “success” has to include keeping the Taliban out of power?

Yes, the Western tradition calls for the people to choose their government.  But an election that put the Taliban in control would be a classic case of “one man, one vote, one time.”

One presumes the Obama administration disagrees with Kouchner on this matter, since it has ordered an additional 17,000 American troops into harm’s way there.  As I wrote yesterday, while the idea of reaching out to moderate Taliban sounds absurd on its face, it’s actually perfectly sensible if construed properly. 

While it may be demoralizing to say that we’re “not winning” after all this time, with over a thousand allied dead (including 25 from France and excluding untold Afghan casualties) McKiernan’s assessment is a call to action.  He goes on to say, “More has to happen along multiple lines of operation in order for anybody by any metric to say that the Afghans are winning or the efforts of the coalition are winning.”

He is quite right.   And Kouchner is right, too, that we have to be realistic about what we can accomplish there.  Anything that can reasonably be called “success” is likely to take years, if not decades more.

As unappealing as that might be, however, it’s better than washing our hands of it and letting the Taliban take over.

James Joyner is managing editor of the Atlantic Council.

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