What if They Gave a War and Nobody Knew Why? 

Obama still trying to define victory in Afghanistan

NEW YORK­--What if they gave a war and nobody knew why?

When the United States began bombing Afghanistan in October 2001, America's war aims were clear: capture or kill Osama bin Laden, overthrow the Taliban government, deny al-Qaida training camps and a safe haven.

Of course, two out of three of these goals were based on lies; both bin Laden and most of al-Qaida's camps and personnel were in Pakistan, not Afghanistan. There was also a fourth unmentioned war aim, a lie of omission: lay an oil and gas pipeline from Turkmenistan to Pakistan via Afghanistan. Still, the Bush administration deserves credit for articulating clear goals--metrics, in bureaucratese--against which success or failure could be measured.

President Barack Obama has rebranded Bush's Afghan War as his own. Afghanistan, Obama said during the campaign, was the war America should be fighting. And so we are. Obama has dispatched tens of thousands of additional troops to the "graveyard of empires," many redeployed from Iraq.

But, unlike Bush, he still hasn't told us why we're in Afghanistan.

When he took office, Obama's stated war aims were muddled: propping up U.S. puppet Hamid Karzai, training local Afghan police and reducing opium cultivation. The first two led to no clearly enunciated end; how long would they take? If we really cared about No. 3, we might as well have put the Taliban--who'd had some success in getting rid of opium--back in charge.

Obama reads the polls, which reflect increased skepticism about his Afghan war. So, in May, Obama attempted a reset. "We have a clear and focused goal," he assured a White House audience: "to disrupt, dismantle and defeat al-Qaida in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and to prevent their return to either country in the future."

In other words, back to Bush.

Here again, let's give Bush credit. He never floated war aims in a country--namely Pakistan--which we weren't actually fighting in.

Sure, the CIA is firing missiles from remote-control drone planes at every Pakistani wedding party in sight. But al-Qaida will never be defeated with air power alone. As things stand, Pakistan remains a heavily funded U.S. client state--not an enemy with which we are at war. There are no U.S. ground troops in Pakistan. Until that changes, Obama's aim in Afghanistan (and Pakistan) remains prima facie unachievable.

Leaders who clearly articulate the aims of a war--and secure domestic political support for those aims--may weather the inevitable ebbs and flows of warfare. FDR did this after Pearl Harbor, ensuring that Americans accepted the sacrifices required to defeat Germany and Japan during the difficult years of 1942 and 1943, when the outcome remained uncertain. A lack of clear, widely supported war aims, on the other hand, almost inevitably results in a collapse of interest--much less support--on the home front.

The stated aim of the Vietnam War--containing communism--was vague and contained no definable end. If you do define the goal posts, you're forced to concede defeat if you fall short: Bush's 2003 invasion of Iraq began with a clearer goal, getting rid of Saddam's WMDs, but turned sour when Americans discovered Saddam didn't have any. Bush was smart enough to declare "Mission Accomplished." It might have worked, too, if only he'd yanked out U.S. troops and blamed the ensuing chaos on unruly and ungrateful Iraqis.

Ten and a half time zones away from Washington, American soldiers are fighting and dying in Afghanistan. Afghan resistance forces are fighting and dying, too, protecting their homeland. And Afghan civilians are dying in the crossfire. But, eight years into this misbegotten war, "the Obama administration is [still] struggling to come up with a long-promised plan to measure whether the war is being won," reports The New York Times.

Proposals for such measurements range from the insipid to the absurd. The "number of operations in which Afghan soldiers are in the lead," for example, will be tabulated and reported to a typically credulous media. Whether said sorties are effective won't matter. Also being considered is "an opinion poll to determine Afghan public perception of official corruption at national, provincial and district levels." Never mind that most Afghans live in areas controlled by violent local warlords, who may not be big fans of free speech among their subjects.

When you can't tell whether you're winning or losing, you're losing.

Ted Rall, president of the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists, is author of the books To Afghanistan and Back and Silk Road to Ruin.

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