What constitutes victory in war is a slippery concept that is yet to receive a universally accepted definition. True enthusiasts of military operations cannot escape being in awe of the German Blitzkrieg and Squad tactics during World War II. However, the brilliant field accomplishments of these tactics could not deter the Allies from achieving strategic victory. About 25 years later, the United States had similarly won all the battles in Vietnam. Yet, when Colonel Harry Summers mentioned this fact to a North Vietnamese officer, the latter called it an “irrelevant” fact. Irrelevant, it certainly was, since the North Vietnamese emerged victorious in the war. In both the cases, victory had evaded the tactical and battlefield geniuses.


The uneasiness of encountering strategic losses in the face of battlefield victories has led many to the conclusion that military outcomes are meaningless if political outcomes remain unachieved. During the Gulf War I, superior US military capabilities were televised across the world. The US’ victory in the Arabian deserts were symbolic of an emerging unipolar world order. Yet, even in defeat, Saddam called it a victory so long as the Ba’athist regime survived. Closer home, the 1971 war is perceived as a decisive victory for India. At the military level, an unconditional surrender of the Pakistani troops had been achieved. At the political level, the Shimla peace agreement was signed on Indian terms. Yet, many would argue that military victories had not translated into a political/strategic victory since an opportunity to settle the Kashmir issue was lost. Hence, if winning a war could mean ‘no victory’, and losing a war could mean ‘no defeat’, how does one understand victory in a place like Afghanistan where the US’ war aims have been oscillating frequently?


Without much academic engagement of the question, a simple working understanding of the term “victory” would entail achievement of the objectives for which the campaign was initiated. Victory should be “interpreted and expressed as a range of gradations that signal the extent to which the outcome is consistent with the states’ objectives.” In Afghanistan, therefore, victory would mean achieving the objectives that were set for the Operation Enduring Freedom. These include capture of al-Qaeda leaders, destruction of terrorist training camps, and the decimation of the Taliban regime that provided safe havens for the terror groups. Even as late as 2010, the war objectives remained denying al-Qaeda safe havens and the Taliban the ability to overthrow the Afghan government. As far as these remain the fundamental objectives of the war, the Americans are clearly far from achieving victory. Nineteen years after the war commenced, Afghanistan still remains a fertile home for terrorist groups like al-Qaeda and the Islamic State. On 23 September, Asim Umar, the chief of al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS) was killed in the Helmand province signalling that the key members of al-Qaeda are still at large in Afghanistan. What has then curtailed an American victory in Afghanistan after so many years of efforts?


Like Vietnam, there is no dearth of American tactical achievements in Afghanistan. Hollywood has already produced a few dramas centred on US special operations in the Afghan theatre, and many more can be expected in the future. But the concern is the strategic picture. Not only has the Taliban been undefeated, it has also managed to pull the US to the negotiating table. What has kept the Taliban’s quest for victory over a superior military power alive? It is here that the expression of victory will have to be perceived through the prism of “reputation”. Abu Musab al-Suri, a Syrian al-Qaeda intellectual, has recounted that Osama drew his conclusion that a reputational damage to the US would automatically lead to the collapse of regimes in the Arab world. In fact, even the fight for Afghanistan was presented in reputational terms when Osama called Afghanistan the 21st century Medina. Given the reputational stakes in the war in Afghanistan, strategic victory is “a positive assessment of the post-war political situation in terms of achievement and decisiveness that is acknowledged, sustainable, and resolves underlying political issues.” In their assessment of the war, the Taliban and the al-Qaeda have never been made to feel that the political situation is unfavourable to them.


The origins of the American failure are not so much in the military’s efforts in Afghanistan, as much as they are in the political expressions in Washington. The first causal factor for the American defeat is the inability of Washington to muster the political will to cross the Durand Line where the true bastion of terror survives. Osama was found in Abbottabad, while his son Hamza bin Laden was killed just a couple of months ago on the Af-Pak border, proving that the fulcrum of terror is not limited to Afghanistan. However, as far as this article goes, there is another critical factor that has been crucial in deciding the American failure and the enemy’s will to keep the fight going. That is, the US’ repeated pronunciation of “withdrawal”. The trend of timetabling the war began with Obama and has survived under President Trump. Timetables may sound tenable political instruments but have disastrous consequences on military operations. Trump has realised this belatedly and has understood that the US troops “may never leave”.


“You have the watches, but we have the time”, said a Taliban commander to Rick Hillier, Canada’s former Chief of Defence Staff. The killing of Osama Bin Laden revealed that the slain terrorist leader had a detailed plan for Afghanistan, post-withdrawal. One should not mistake the Taliban’s patience as an indication of the group’s resilience alone. Should the American forces withdraw from Afghanistan with the Taliban still in place, it will be an addition to the long-held perception that the Islamist warriors are invincible. The defeat of the Soviet Red Army in 1989 has strongly been etched in the Islamist’s memory as the defeater of a superpower. This pride goes even back to the Afghans’ victory in the 20th century Anglo-Afghan wars. If the Americans withdraw in the face of a Taliban resilience, whatever be the American definition of victory, the reputational costs in the Islamic world will be heavy. It would be costlier for the groups within Afghanistan who have staked their future in the hopes of US’ protection. 


In such a scenario, how could the US shape its war in Afghanistan? First and foremost, a peace with Taliban needs to be out of question. Trump’s assertion that “we don’t want to talk to the Taliban. We’re gonna finish what we have to finish,” is absolutely right. As adamant as this proposition may seem, the Taliban has provided no evidence of reformation to warrant a negotiated settlement. Medieval justice methods still prevail, violence during electoral periods are predominantly observed in Taliban controlled areas, and most importantly, treatment of women is abysmal. The latter is most important in creating a violence free ecosystem, at least, in the next generation. The biggest challenge in controlling recruitment of terrorists, mostly in Pakistan, has been women romanticising the notion of shahadat (martyrdom) of their sons. Hence, girls’ education is a fundamental reform required to transform the Afghan society. Fawzia Koofi, the only female Afghan Parliamentarian present at the peace negotiations in Moscow unsurprisingly prayed for a slow withdrawal and a prolonged international presence in Afghanistan.


Second, the objective of denying the Taliban the ability to overthrow legitimately elected Afghan governments is best achieved by simultaneously punishing Pakistan and strengthening the capabilities of the Afghan security forces. To this end, it is beneficial to consider working along with New Delhi. India must realise that an Afghanistan without the Taliban in control is in its best interest and work with the US towards fulfilment of this objective. It has just taken the first step in managing the Kashmiri problem, which should enable it a greater role in Afghanistan and Central Asia. New Delhi must communicate to Washington the costs of withdrawal and assure the latter about readiness to embrace greater security responsibilities provided the logistical and connectivity problems inhibiting an Indian involvement in Afghanistan can be addressed. Until then, Washington needs to stop uttering the word “withdrawal”, for every time it is uttered, it is undoing a vast chunk of military accomplishments. Failing to do so, Trump or the next President would surely have exorcised the ghosts of Vietnam because the disaster of Afghanistan will undoubtedly remain unmatched by Vietnam.


Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the view of Manipal Advanced Research Group.