After nearly a decade at war in Afghanistan, the United States still has not defined the terms of the conflict. Seven months after President Barack Obama's administration released its wide-ranging strategic review of the war, basic questions remain. Who is the enemy? What are the objectives? Is counterinsurgency meant to achieve the goal of counterterrorism (beating al Qaeda), state-building (bringing stability and democracy to Afghanistan), or both? What would "victory" in Afghanistan even look like? And how will the war stay won, after the United States leaves?
Without knowing the answers to such questions, the United States has no way of determining whether it is succeeding. And as long as it continues to conflate military and state-building objectives, the United States will always appear to be losing. But by focusing on stamping out al Qaeda with a light military footprint and accepting an Islamist government in Afghanistan, the United States has an opportunity for unqualified success.
Indeed, by most military standards, the United States has already achieved numerous victories. In early October 2001, a small number of U.S. personnel working in tandem with sympathetic Afghans punished al Qaeda and the Taliban regime that harbored the terrorist group. Although it hasn't met its goal of capturing Osama bin Laden, the United States has still seriously degraded al Qaeda's global capabilities -- a major win.
But perceptions have lagged behind reality. Many U.S. policymakers, defense officials, and prominent opinion leaders still tend to lump al Qaeda (a loose, transnational jihadist network responsible for the Sept. 11 attacks) together with the Taliban (an indigenous Pashtun-dominated movement with no shadowy global mission). Because of this conflation, the suppression of al Qaeda is not seen as the victory it is -- and disproportionate focus is placed on suppressing the Taliban.
However, the Taliban and other parochial fighters, such as the Haqqani network, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar's Hezb-e-Islami group, and other indigenous Pashtun militants, pose little threat to the sovereignty or physical security of the United States. Therefore, waging a counterinsurgency campaign against these militants is not a pressing national security interest. In fact, the effect of prolonging the large-scale U.S. military presence and artificially expanding the number of enemies risks uniting these otherwise irrelevant guerrilla groups against the United States.
An Islamist regime such as the Taliban -- if it can be encouraged to moderate its more militant fringes -- can be an acceptable U.S. ally. Consider Somalia, a country where Washington once also conflated al Qaeda with a local nationalist regime. In 2006, Somalia's moderate Islamic Courts Union (ICU) expanded from its bases in the capital, Mogadishu, to command most of southern and central Somalia. Although the ICU's enforcement of sharia law made some Western observers uncomfortable, the regime's widespread public support and effective governance meant it was in fact the best chance for lasting stability that Somalia had had in decades.
But George W. Bush's administration didn't see things that way. A handful of al Qaeda operatives had sought refuge in remote Somali villages, and in response, the U.S. military launched several raids, killing at least two of the operatives. Under Bush, Washington seemed incapable of viewing the ICU separately from these al Qaeda refugees. Defeating terrorism in Somalia also meant destroying the ICU. In retrospect, it seems that the Bush administration sacrificed an opportunity for peace in Somalia on the altar of the war on terrorism. In December 2006, Washington provided key logistical, military, and diplomatic support to neighboring Ethiopia as that country launched a mechanized invasion of Somalia that briefly unseated the ICU and resulted in a bloody, two-year war -- a war that did nothing to boost anti-al Qaeda operations. In fact, the disastrous, U.S.-supported invasion only stoked anti-Western sentiment in Somalia and empowered the country's major insurgent group, al-Shabab.
In time, the ICU and other insurgent groups fought off the Ethiopians. The resurgent ICU subsequently subsumed a U.S.-backed secular "transitional government" this January. The ICU is now back in charge in Somalia, albeit under the transitional government's name, and has regained some of the momentum it had before the Ethiopian invasion.