The End of the Afghan War and a Battle of Semantics

For war-weary Americans who mostly want to know when the Afghan war is over, the answer apparently depends on what the definition of “is” is.

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In the last week alone, Americans have been told definitively that “Afghanistan is ready right now to take all security responsibilities completely” (Afghan President Hamid Karzai); that Afghans will take “full responsibility for security in 2014” (President Barack Obama); that the U.S. and its allies will shift to a support role next year and “won’t be in a combat role after 2014” (British Prime Minister David Cameron); and that U.S. officials are negotiating a “strategic partnership” agreement to allow U.S. troops to continue both supporting Afghan forces and conducting counter-insurgency “night raids” well beyond 2014. All of this after the public was assured just last month that U.S. forces would step back from a “combat role” in Afghanistan as early as mid-2013 (Defense Secretary Leon Panetta). Confused yet?

For war-weary Americans who mostly want to know when the Afghan war is over, the answer apparently depends on what the definition of “is” is.

Americans have tragically relearned the truism that wars are easier to start than to finish, and in part the tortured semantics reflect the difficulty of finding closure in a conflict as complex and long-running as Operation Enduring Freedom. Government officials are often speaking simultaneously to different audiences, trying to convey often contradictory messages of urgency and steadfastness (“The war is ending yet we remain committed.”) Officials also understandably want to leave enough rhetorical wiggle room to accommodate setbacks and the inevitable “unknown unknowns” of war, without being hoisted on the petards of their previous statements by the media.

Thus the slight semantic separation between “lead” and “full” is wide enough to drive an entire year of military operations through. As in, the current goal is for NATO to transfer the “lead” in operations to Afghan security forces in all provinces by the end of 2013. At their press conference last week Obama and Cameron stressed, however, that both nations remain committed to the “Lisbon Declaration,” which calls on Afghan forces to assume “full” responsibility for security across the whole of Afghanistan by the end of 2014.

Because no specific guidelines exist for the division of labor between “leading” versus “supporting” operations, there is no way to know the exact level of effort for allied troops as Afghan forces transition from “leading” all security operations by the end of 2013, and assuming full responsibility for security twelve months later. “Full responsibility” is also semantically ambiguous, as U.S. military officials concede that Afghan security forces will require significant U.S. and allied enablers such as airpower, logistics, command-and-control, and intelligence capabilities long after 2014.

Exactly where on the continuum between “leading” and “supporting” security operations do NATO troops cease to fulfill a “combat role”? Also unclear. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta got temporarily lost in that haziness early last month, when he made news by telling reporters that U.S. forces would step back from a combat role in Afghanistan as early as mid-2013, well over a year before the December 2014 deadline for most U.S. and allied troops to exit Afghanistan. When pressed on what that meant, Panetta stressed that it didn’t imply an end to fighting or, well, combat. “It doesn’t mean we’re not going to be combat ready; we will be, because we always have to be in order to defend ourselves.”

U.S. officials are also insisting in talks on a strategic partnership agreement that residual U.S. military forces in Afghanistan post-2014 be allowed to continue “night raids” against Taliban leaders and terrorists. Parse that however you like – and perhaps there’s a super-secret exemption for special operations forces – but such missions would seem to satisfy the generally accepted definition of “combat.”

The number of U.S. and allied troops it will require to partner with Afghan security forces as they assume the operational lead by the end of 2013, and to support them even after they’ve achieved “full responsibility” for security by the end of 2014, also seems elastic. As it stands now, the United States will have approximately 68,000 troops in Afghanistan after September, and last week President Obama said that the the upcoming NATO summit in May will determine the “next phase of transition.” The administration is reportedly considering pulling an additional 20,000 troops out by the summer of 2013, but that is only one of a number of options under review. Meanwhile, France and Britain have signaled that they may accelerate the transition of their own forces from a lead to a non-combat supporting role in anticipation of an earlier than expected exit, though they remain steadfast in their commitment to Afghanistan’s security.

What all that means in terms ending the Afghan war is not altogether clear. And that’s exactly the point.

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