Assessing the Afghan War on Its Tenth Anniversary

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The tenth anniversary of the war in Afghanistan today is certainly not generating the fanfare that the tenth anniversary of 9/11 did earlier this year in either the U.S. or Afghan press (9/11 "was a far more significant date than 10 years of fighting in Afghanistan because, really, when you look at the 10 years, you're looking at different levels of forces, different levels of attention given to Afghanistan," a U.S. commander told reporters on Thursday).

Still, several valuable retrospectives (including this interactive timeline and photo collection) and assessments of the war have surfaced. After a decade of fighting, 2,700 NATO troops have died, Osama bin Laden has been killed, the Taliban-led insurgency is very much alive, and fledgling peace negotiations with the Taliban are in tatters. Let's take a look at the main points experts are making about the state of play in Afghanistan, as the U.S. prepares to pull its 33,000 surge troops out of the country by the end of 2012 and the remaining 68,000 by the end of 2014.

  • Halfway Point: Stanley McChrystal, the former commander of coalition forces in Afghanistan, said on Thursday that the U.S. and its NATO allies are only "a little better than" halfway to achieving their military goals. "We didn't know enough and we still don't know enough," he told the Council on Foreign Relations, according to the BBC. "Most of us -- me included -- had a very superficial understanding of the situation and history, and we had a frighteningly simplistic view of recent history, the last 50 years." His statement's particularly striking considering we've been fighting the war for ten years.
  • Messy Metrics: At The Atlantic, Joshua Foust argues that the U.S. lacks "coherent and measurable" metrics for assessing the success of President Obama's three goals in Afghanistan: 1) degrading al-Qaeda, 2) preventing the Taliban from returning to power, and 3) empowering the government and its security forces. Foust adds that the metrics focus on military goals even though the Taliban is "fighting a fundamentally political war."
  • Mixed Success: Jim Maceda at NBC News points out that the Taliban "has been largely driven from and defeated in [its] former strongholds by U.S. military 'surges' in 2009 (Helmand) and 2010 (Kandahar)," enabling a degree of normal life to return to those areas. At ABC News, Nick Schifrin and Tom Nagorski add that women are now able to study, work, vote, and run for office, more children are attending school, and people have greater access to health care, though they add that all these gains are fragile. And Maceda notes that in "provinces and districts beyond those security bubbles, especially in the north and west of the country ... Afghan government and security officials are killed or kidnapped almost daily. In the capital of Kabul, the Taliban seems to be able to strike at will."
  • Taliban Hold the Keys: "History teaches us that all insurgencies end, eventually, with dialogue, negotiation and political compromise," writes James Fergusson at CNN. "Even the Pentagon acknowledges that there can be no purely military solution to the impasse. Few Western leaders any longer doubt that the Taliban will return to political power in some form or other. The only remaining question is what form." Negotiations with the Taliban, however, have become vastly more complicated in light of the recent assassination of High Peace Council chief Burhanuddin Rabbani and deteriorating relations between Pakistan, Afghanistan, and the U.S.
  • Afghan Government Holds the Keys: Scott Worden at Foreign Policy notes that a "democratic transition to a more inclusive Afghan government"--something that has eluded Afghan politicians throughout the country's history- "may be the only way to avoid a civil war once most international troops withdraw. This means a democratic transition of power in 2014 should be the highest political priority in Afghanistan over the next three years." That requires substantial political reform, he adds.
  • Afghan Security Forces Hold the Keys: "How will Afghan military and police forces function and fight independently of NATO trainers, mentors, and indirect support?" asks Andrew Exum at Foreign Policy. "This is the question, absent some kind of political reconciliation between Afghanistan's warring parties, that will determine the success or failure of the U.S. and allied transition in Afghanistan--not to mention the size and capabilities of the force the United States and its allies leave behind after 2014."
  • US Requires Reflection: At The Atlantic, John Arquilla, Andrew Bacevich, James Fallows, and Gary Hart seize on the tenth anniversary of the war in Afghanistan to call for an independent, nonpartisan investigation into America's long wars. The authors argue that the commission should ask tough questions about issues like the design of U.S. combat forces, America's global military footprint, and the country's sprawling national security apparatus.

In a prime example of the difficult task ahead, Afghans staged a protest in Kabul on Thursday against the U.S.-led war, on the eve of its tenth anniversary:

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.