The surge in Afghanistan was supposed to change the incentives of the Taliban so that they would choose to join the government rather than fight it.
That was how the Iraq surge of 2007 worked to end the civil war there, and that was the main objective in Afghanistan. But it didn’t succeed. The great bulk of the Taliban are still in fighting mode, and negotiations with the insurgents are nascent at best.
President Barack Obama’s decision to speed up withdrawal confirmed what was already clear to most observers. The Taliban have relatively little to gain by negotiating now because the eventual withdrawal of all U.S. troops will put them in a better position to dictate terms for the country’s future.
So how can President Obama say the U.S. has achieved most of its goals in Afghanistan? The answer is hiding in plain sight: Obama is aiming, as he said in his Afghanistan speech, to “refocus on al-Qaida” ― that is, to redefine the struggle in Afghanistan not as a fight against the Taliban, but as a war against al-Qaida.
This reframing is not only politically necessary, but strategically necessary. The war against al-Qaida ― at least in its original form as created by Osama bin Laden ― is one that the U.S. can plausibly claim to have (almost) won. The war against the Taliban is one that, the Taliban can plausibly claim, the U.S. has (almost) lost.
It was always a serious mistake for the U.S. to claim for itself a “war on terror,” much less a global one. Terror is a technique, not an enemy. And the globe is a very large place.
As for al-Qaida, it didn’t even need to start its own local chapters because it was a decentralized, nongovernmental entity. Jihadi entrepreneurs could create terrorist cells, then simply start using the al-Qaida brand. The various franchises ― al- Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb and so forth ― have relatively little organizational connection with the mother ship. They certainly don’t take orders. After all, how could such orders be enforced?
The upshot is that it will never be possible to eliminate all terrorists who call themselves al-Qaida. It is, however, possible to disrupt and even defeat the core group that initially formed around bin Laden and that has been on the run or in Pakistan and its environs since 2001.
Getting bin Laden himself was, of course, the symbolic key. It enabled the U.S. to claim victory over those who perpetrated the 9/11 attacks. Lest we forget, those are the people against whom Congress authorized the use of military force ― not terrorists generally, not terrorists everywhere, but those who “planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on Sept. 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons.”
The Taliban certainly harbored bin Laden (after the U.S. encouraged the government of Sudan to expel him). It wasn’t, in principle, impossible to defeat them. They fled quickly after the initial U.S. bombings in Afghanistan and took some time to regroup across the border in Pakistan and establish a classic insurgent strategy alternately striking and melting away.
Counterinsurgency, though, is extremely difficult in the absence of a functioning, legitimate state to whom fighting and administration can eventually be transferred. The U.S., even expending vast resources, has been unsuccessful in creating such a state in Afghanistan.
It is a matter of debate whether the objective of a stable Afghan state was ever reachable ― after all, the nation has no tradition of strong central government. That debate is now strictly historical. Shifting responsibility for fighting and administration to the local government is the aim of any counterinsurgency fought by a foreign power. I know of no expert on Afghanistan who would say with confidence that the U.S. can hand over war-fighting and governance within the next two years and expect a good result.
More to the point, the Taliban don’t think that the government of President Hamid Karzai is likely to rule the country or fight the insurgency successfully on its own. Their strategic interest is to wait us out: to weaken Karzai and make ready for the final push, which can take place after U.S. troops are gone.
What is, perhaps, most frightening is that Karzai seems already to be planning for this moment by trying to reposition himself with his own population as anti-American. That is the only explanation for his recent histrionic suggestions that the Afghan people should deal with the U.S. as an occupying power.
Given this situation, Obama is acting creatively and wisely in trying to recast our decade of involvement in Afghanistan as though it had been about bin Laden all the time. It will certainly be bad for U.S. interests if the Taliban re-emerge as the government of Afghanistan. It will be very bad for ordinary Afghans too.
Yet it would be even worse for the U.S. if al-Qaida and its affiliates could credibly claim that they defeated the U.S. in a global jihad. Bin Laden himself cited the U.S. withdrawal from Somalia as a reason to assess us as a weak enemy.
So the U.S. can’t afford to be perceived as having lost to the forces of jihad. But failing to establish a successful, U.S.-friendly government in Afghanistan isn’t quite so bad for our interests. We would simply be joining the list of imperial powers that didn’t manage to subdue the fractious country. The U.K.’s failures in Afghanistan didn’t bring down its empire, nor did the Soviet Union’s defeat there bring the “evil empire” to its knees, whatever bin Laden may have fantasized.
Obama, then, is providing the script for the coming years of gradual withdrawal and Taliban re-encroachment: We didn’t lose in Afghanistan. We got the people we came for ― those responsible for Sept. 11. This may not represent the whole historical truth. But global politics is about the future.
By Noah Feldman
Noah Feldman, a law professor at Harvard, is a Bloomberg View columnist. The opinions expressed are his own. ― Ed.