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No ‘Victory’ to Be Had in Afghanistan. Good.

President Obama should be commended for his reality-based presentation of what the United States is after in Afghanistan:

ABC’S TERRY MORAN: Define victory in Afghanistan, or maybe that’s not the right word.

OBAMA: I’m always worried about using the word “victory” because, you know, it invokes this notion of Emperor Hirohito coming down and signing a surrender to MacArthur.

You know, we’re not dealing with nation states at this point. We’re concerned with al-Qaeda and the Taliban, al-Qaeda’s allies. So when you have a non-state actor, a shadowy operation like al-Qaeda, our goal is to make sure they can’t attack the United States.

Now I think that’s going to require constant vigilance. But with respect to Afghanistan, what that means is — or Pakistan, for that matter. What that means is that they cannot set up permanent bases and train people from which to launch attacks. And we are confident that if we are assisting the Afghan people and improving their security situation, stabilizing their government, providing help on economic development so they have alternatives to the heroin trade that is now flourishing.

There is and should be a debate over whether whether that goal is in the national interest; whether that goal is achievable; whether that goal is achievable under the current counterinsurgency strategy; and, if those first three questions are affirmatively satisfied, whether that goal is properly resourced. But there shouldn’t be any debate over the fact that seeking “victory” is a category error in this context. al-Qaeda will not surrender or be made to surrender. We are not at war with either Afghanistan or Pakistan. The goal is to erode the capabilities of al-Qaeda so that it no longer threatens the United States or its allies. Therefore, as people who what they’re talking about on Afghanistan observe, because the path to eroding al-Qaeda’s capabilities runs through the active support of the Afghan and Pakistani people, stuff like the widespread corruption of the Afghanistan government is a strategic challenge to U.S. goals. Is “victory” a useful concept when applied to anti-corruption?

There is nothing defeatist or blinkered about this perspective. On the contrary. It’s the beginning — not the end, but the beginning — of strategic thinking about the war in Afghanistan.

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