Will the U.S. Win in Afghanistan?

We ask several leading foreign policy thinkers about America's prospects in the conflict.

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PA U.S. army soldier rests on a chair next to a doorknob made out of remains of a rocket. Reuters

Last fall, a two-part question circulated throughout the Pentagon: Can the United States win in Afghanistan? Will the United States win in Afghanistan?

In this case, "win" meant accomplishing the strategic objectives of U.S. involvement in Afghanistan, as presented in President Obama's December 2009 speech at West Point: disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan through "a military effort to create the conditions for a transition; a civilian surge that reinforces positive action; and an effective partnership with Pakistan."

The consensus among civilian and military staffers and officials was that while roughly half thought the U.S. military could win in Afghanistan, almost nobody believed that it would. This disconnect has created an uncomfortable situation where some of the people who design, refine, and implement U.S. strategy in Afghanistan simply do not believe it will ultimately succeed.

Today, the Obama administration acknowledges setbacks, such the increase in attacks by Afghan security forces on U.S. and ISAF troops, the Taliban's suspension of the negotiating process with the United States, and the alleged murder of sixteen civilians in the Kandahar province by an Army staff sergeant. Nevertheless, the White House affirms that its Afghanistan strategy is working. Two weeks ago, General John Allen told the House Armed Services Committee, "I am confident that we will prevail in this endeavor." On Saturday, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta proclaimed: "In Afghanistan we've also made a turning point. The level of violence has gone down...We've seen the Taliban weakened so that they've been unable to establish and organize efforts...The bottom line is it's working."

Public opinion polls show that the American public is increasingly skeptical of the U.S. war strategy in Afghanistan and the likelihood of its success. The majority of Americans think the United States is not winning the war in Afghanistan (62 percent), that the war is going "somewhat" or "very" badly (68 percent), and that all U.S. troops should be withdrawn earlier than the 2014 (55 percent). The vast majority of Americans now oppose the war (72 percent), an increase of 21 percent since President Obama entered the White House.

With less than twenty months until U.S. troops are scheduled to be withdrawn, we asked several foreign policy experts who focus in Afghanistan to address this question:

"The Obama administration's stated objectives in Afghanistan are to deny al-Qaeda a safe haven, prevent the Taliban from overthrowing the government, and build up Afghan security forces in order to transition U.S. combat forces out of the country by 2014. Based on the current strategy, do you think that the Obama administration will achieve its goals?"


  • Andrew Exum, Senior Fellow, Center for a New American Security

I may lose my think-tanking license for writing this, but my honest answer to the question is that I simply do not know. I have been traveling to and studying Afghanistan for a decade now, and the more I learn about the country and the conflict there, the less confident I am in my ability to know anything certain about what will or will not happen as a result of U.S. actions.

I believe Afghanistan may be a case in which the president's policy will succeed but not the strategic goals associated with that policy. It may be possible, in other words, to continue to disrupt and dismantle al-Qaeda while failing in the effort to create a stable Afghan government.

The question asked specifically if the United States could prevent the Taliban from overthrowing the government, and the answer to that question is probably yes. My suspicion, which has been unchanged since 2009, is that the people of Afghanistan will suffer for the foreseeable future from a proxy war fought between elements supported by United States and its allies on the one hand and elements supported by Pakistan's security services on the other hand. The United States can ensure the Taliban and its supporters across the Durand Line do not win that war. But it will be very difficult to minimize the suffering of the Afghan people, who have surely already endured more than their fair share of pain.

The Obama administration's (and America's) ability to meet those goals will depend in large part on the decisions that President Obama makes in the coming months. If he follows the reported advice of Vice President Biden and others in his administration who favor an early announcement of additional troop withdrawals in 2013, the strategy will be seriously compromised. With the surge forces that the President sent to Afghanistan in 2009 and 2010 set to return home by the end of this September, our commanders on the ground are already being forced to make do with lower force levels than they would have preferred.

In the coming months, we will see if the gains that have been achieved at great cost in American lives in areas like Helmand and Kandahar hold as we hand over more control to Afghan security forces. The situation in the east along the border with Pakistan remains uncertain and the administration does not appear to have a coherent Pakistan strategy that would enable success in Afghanistan.

Presented by

Micah Zenko is a Fellow in the Center for Preventive Action at the Council on Foreign Relations, and author of Between Threats and War: U.S. Discrete Military Operations in the Post-Cold War World. He writes regularly at Politics, Power, and Preventative Action.

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