Ten years ago tomorrow, President Bush announced that “the United States military has begun strikes against al Qaeda terrorist training camps and military installations of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan.”
In his announcement, Bush told us that “These carefully targeted actions are designed to disrupt the use of Afghanistan as a terrorist base of operations, and to attack the military capability of the Taliban regime.” He continued, “By destroying camps and disrupting communication, we will make it more difficult for the terror network to train new recruits and coordinate their evil plans. Initially, the terrorists may burrow deeper into caves and other entrenched hiding places. Our military action is also designed to clear the way for sustained, comprehensive and relentless operations to drive them out and bring them to justice.”
The initial operations succeeded brilliantly, quickly ousting the Taliban from power in Kabul and killing scores of senior al Qaeda leaders. Afghanistan has long stopped being the nexus of global terrorism. Yet, the United States and its NATO allies remain enmeshed in a war with no victory in sight but with a planned handover to not-yet-existent competent Afghanistan forces by the end of 2014.
Speaking to the warriors of America’s armed forces, Bush promised, “Your mission is defined; your objectives are clear; your goal is just.” I don’t believe any of us listening to that speech a decade ago had any inkling that we’d be in Afghanistan more than a few months before moving on the other fronts in the larger war on global terrorism. However clear the mission and goals were then, they soon blurred.
The only hints at the mission creep which would follow were the operation name–“Enduring Freedom”–and Bush’s promise that “the oppressed people of Afghanistan will know the generosity of America and our allies. As we strike military targets, we will also drop food, medicine and supplies to the starving and suffering men and women and children of Afghanistan.”
The mission dragged on throughout the rest of Bush’s presidency with the country’s attention distracted by the bigger, bloodier war in Iraq. Only 12 Americans died in Afghanistan in 2001 and the toll those next few years was at a trickle that seemed to go unnoticed: 49, 48, 52, 99, 98. Bush’s last two years saw an uptick in that cost, with 117 and 155 Americans lost in battle. And then-Senator Barack Obama and other Democratic candidates to succeed Bush in office charged that the administration had taken its eye off the proverbial ball in Afghanistan, “the necessary war,” because of Iraq, “the war of choice.”
Obama almost immediately made good on his promise to double down in Afghanistan, more than doubling the annual death toll as a consequence. In his first two years in office, 317 and 499 Americans died in Afghanistan; another 355 have joined them so far this year.
There’s undeniably been some reward for that terrible investment although the most tangible victories during that span, such as the killing of Osama bin Laden, have taken place in Pakistan, not Afghanistan.
Joshua Foust, a fellow at the American Security Project and New Atlanticist contributor, has attempted to gauge the results more systematically in a new paper titled “Measuring Success: Are We Winning?“
He most telling takeaway is that, “10 years after U.S. forces invaded Afghanistan, we still lack the means to tell whether the war is being won or not.” While the Taliban insurgents “do not need to win large tactical victories in order to win the war: they are not fighting a symmetric war” and therefore gain ground with every successful attack that shakes confidence in the Karzai government, “ISAF reporting on its activities seems more concerned with establishing a running tally of operations — relying on insurgent body counts to underscore progress in the war, publishing data only on deadly attacks, tangible measurements of progress like counting the number of community shuras it hosts,and counting how many soldiers finish basic training.”
Foust points to the three goals that Obama and his team have emphasized over and again: “deny al Qaeda safe haven, prevent the Taliban from overthrowing the government, and build up the Afghan security forces and the government so they can take responsibility for their country’s future” and observes that two of these are “defined by absence rather than by achievement” and that the last is “not really definable in concrete terms.” I’d add that, for all intents and purposes, the first and most important of these goals was achieved in 2001.
James Joyner is managing editor of the Atlantic Council.