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What Does "Victory" Mean?

Monday's op-ed by Anthony Cordesman is titled "How to Lose in Afghanistan." In it, he uses the word "victory" three times. He uses the word "win" four time. He also mentions losing, and defeat. But nowhere does he define what winning is, or what losing looks like. He's pretty clear that we want to win and we don't want to lose. And he's pretty clear that victory means giving Ambassador Karl Eikenberry and General Stanley McChrystal all the resources they request and all the authority they want and protecting them from "constant micromanagement from Washington or traveling envoys."

Cordesman and many others have certainly thought about this issue a lot and probably have working definitions of success. But there's been a peculiar unwillingness to define any of this very clearly. Richard Holbrooke, when asked, said, “we’ll know it when we see it.” The strategy is, presumably, a little more distinct when detailed in White House meetings. But it's hard to avoid the concern that these folks actually have a perfectly clear vision of success but recognize that it's sufficiently ambitious that they're unwilling to define it publicly. People like the idea of victory. But do they like the idea of trying to be the first country to ever successfully nation-build in Afghanistan?

By Ezra Klein  |  August 31, 2009; 3:19 PM ET
Categories:  Afghanistan  
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I've been thinking about 'quagmires' recently. In Vietnam, we didn't seem to know of a centuries long history of resistence of the Vietnamese to foreign dominance (although there was plenty of evidence of hatred for French colonialism and Chinese 'pressure' on their neighbors.) Anyway, this history was not a topic through most the the Vietnam conflict, and only with the Tet offensive (which the US 'won') did it sink in that we were not going to 'win'.

On the Afghan side, everyone sentient knew that the Afghans had a 'history'. They had just humiliated the Russians a few years beforehand. The Brits got both a broken nose as well as a bloody one from the Afghans in the 19th century. The lessons go all the way back to Alexander and the Persians.

With the willingness of the Soviets to feed bodies into the Afghan occupation and still get their asses kicked, why would any sane planner think we could do it better? We can't even bomb them back into the stone age, because that's where they already are, practically speaking.

Prediction: some Eisenhower (I will go to Korea and end the war) or Nixon (I will win peace with honor) will step up someday and end this US/NATO hopeless enterprise. I'm already reading the tea leaves that Obama is LBJ, defeated by the need to be publicly optimistic or be accused of being a doomsayer that betrayed our fighting forces.

Who says history never repeats?

Posted by: JimPortlandOR | August 31, 2009 3:43 PM | Report abuse

russ feingold is calling for a timetable for withdrawal from afghanistan.

it is almost september.
i remember listening to this song in december of 1967, in boston.
have we learned nothing?

Posted by: jkaren | August 31, 2009 3:45 PM | Report abuse

This is one of the problems with asking the military to solve a problem. The solution always involves war like actions and has no requirement of an end game...

Posted by: JkR- | August 31, 2009 3:54 PM | Report abuse

Aside from having egg on our face for going there in the first place, can anyone tell me why we shouldn't just pack up and go home? It's becoming apparent that we aren't going to "win" there, no matter how hard we try, so why should we try at all?

Posted by: NoBillary1 | August 31, 2009 4:32 PM | Report abuse

Military types always identify with the Afghanis becase they share the same values of toughness and honor. They think if they just deal warrior to warrior, and keep those pesky civilians at arm's length, that the political and religious differences can be overcome--although history teaches that they can't. Obama must recognize that the Generals are already falling for this illusion and keep them on a short leash. Unfortunately this isn't Obama's strong suit. We just have to hope he's up to the job.

Posted by: bmull | September 1, 2009 7:49 AM | Report abuse

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