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Is Afghanistan a U.S. Win or Loss?

Steven Metz makes the case for the win column, arguing along lines I've long agreed with: when viewed through a narrow prism of striking back at al-Qaeda and running out the Taliban, the U.S. did succeed in Afghanistan. It is only in light of the expanded goals of state building and waging a counter-insurgency that the U.S. has fallen short. Here's Metz:

For a while it appeared that the United States might attain this more ambitious outcome. But American strategy quickly floundered on flawed assumptions: that it was possible to build an Afghan government which shared American priorities and objectives; that it was advisable to build a centralized Afghan state in which the national government controlled all national territory; and that it was possible not only to defeat the Taliban decisively, but to eradicate them. None of these assumptions proved true. The regime of Afghan President Hamid Karzai had very different priorities and objectives than its American allies. A national government in full control of Afghanistan was an historical rarity unlikely to be recreated. And so long as the Taliban had sanctuary in Pakistan, it could not be eradicated.

Joshua Foust isn't buying it:

It is difficult to see how one avoids the conclusion that the U.S. mission in Afghanistan has failed. That doesn’t mean it is a defeat, per se, but our original objectives, several times over, have proven impossible to meet. In the aftermath, however, we should be pondering how to manage that failure to avoid defeat. Assisting Afghanistan in the security transition post-withdrawal, encouraging them to reconcile the political elements of the Taliban, and cracking down on Pakistan’s sponsorship of terrorist groups inside Afghanistan all require continued presence, attention, and — yes — even troops. It will be a far cry from the idealist goals President Obama initially came into office with, but it would not be a total defeat somehow redefined as a success.

Managing failure is a far cry from simply declaring success and walking away. By arguing for just that, Metz is doing the war, and the very real challenges it poses to the future security of the region and the U.S., a disservice.

I think Foust is right that "managing failure" is a more accurate description, but his I think his description of what needs to be done reveals why folks like Metz are looking for a way to ease America's exit from the war.

To wit: what if the U.S. can't reconcile "political elements" of the Taliban with a U.S.-aligned government in Kabul? What if Afghan forces cannot stand on their own after 2014? What if "cracking down on Pakistan" doesn't work? Is the U.S. fated to fight a proxy war against Pakistan inside Afghanistan for decades? Why is that in the U.S. interest?

By 2014, the Afghans will have had over another year of training. If they cannot adequately hold their own against the Taliban, what is the rationale for continued investment in U.S. blood and treasure?

What I take Metz to be saying is that, when viewed through the prism of keeping the U.S. safe from terrorism, the U.S. has done just about all it can do in Afghanistan. The threat isn't completely gone, as Foust notes, and waiting around until it is is an unreasonable standard. It doesn't take much for a small group of people to organize a killing spree - no matter where they are.

If the U.S. is reluctant to dump tens of thousands of U.S. troops into Mali, or Yemen, or Somalia to combat jihadists, it makes no sense to sustain such a huge presence in Afghanistan for so long. An abrupt exit and complete cessation of all aid next month would be counter-productive, but Afghanistan has to be relegated to the ranks of countries - like Yemen - that pose a manageable risk to the U.S. and not a fetish object because it just so happened to be where bin Laden found a place to live for few years.

We also, really, need context. The threat that any American will die from terrorism - from Afghanistan or anywhere - is infinitesimal. At a certain point, a basic cost/benefit analysis has to kick in.