“Declare victory and get out”?

In 1966, in the middle of the Vietnam War, the late Senator George Aiken of Vermont famously recommended that the United States simply "declare victory and get out." With the benefit of hindsight, that seems like pretty good advice. Today, it is more or less what the Obama administration is trying to do in Afghanistan. ...

Walt-Steve-foreign-policy-columnist20
Walt-Steve-foreign-policy-columnist20
Stephen M. Walt
By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.
TONY KARUMBA/AFP/Getty Images
TONY KARUMBA/AFP/Getty Images
TONY KARUMBA/AFP/Getty Images

In 1966, in the middle of the Vietnam War, the late Senator George Aiken of Vermont famously recommended that the United States simply "declare victory and get out." With the benefit of hindsight, that seems like pretty good advice. Today, it is more or less what the Obama administration is trying to do in Afghanistan.

The president has already made it clear that he intends to withdraw virtually all U.S. troops by the end of 2014. But because Americans don't like to admit defeat and no administration likes to acknowledge mistakes, they have to pretend that their Afghan policy has been a great success. In particular, the administration would like us (and the world) to believe that their decision to escalate the war in 2009 was a game-changer that broke the back of the Taliban and enabled us to build an independent Afghan security force that will carry on the fight after we've left. As we head for the exits, therefore, get ready for a lot of upbeat stories and well-orchestrated spin.

The only problem with this story is that it isn't true. The Taliban hasn't been defeated, the Karzai government isn't more effective or less corrupt, Pakistan hasn't stopped backing its various proxies, and efforts to train competent Afghan security forces haven't worked very well. The Afghan government can't even afford to pay its troops' salaries, so they'll have to stay on the Western dole for years to come. I don't know exactly what will happen after the United States and its NATO allies leave, but the outcome won't be much better than what we could have expected back when Obama took office. By that standard, the 2009 "surge" was a failure.

In 1966, in the middle of the Vietnam War, the late Senator George Aiken of Vermont famously recommended that the United States simply "declare victory and get out." With the benefit of hindsight, that seems like pretty good advice. Today, it is more or less what the Obama administration is trying to do in Afghanistan.

The president has already made it clear that he intends to withdraw virtually all U.S. troops by the end of 2014. But because Americans don’t like to admit defeat and no administration likes to acknowledge mistakes, they have to pretend that their Afghan policy has been a great success. In particular, the administration would like us (and the world) to believe that their decision to escalate the war in 2009 was a game-changer that broke the back of the Taliban and enabled us to build an independent Afghan security force that will carry on the fight after we’ve left. As we head for the exits, therefore, get ready for a lot of upbeat stories and well-orchestrated spin.

The only problem with this story is that it isn’t true. The Taliban hasn’t been defeated, the Karzai government isn’t more effective or less corrupt, Pakistan hasn’t stopped backing its various proxies, and efforts to train competent Afghan security forces haven’t worked very well. The Afghan government can’t even afford to pay its troops’ salaries, so they’ll have to stay on the Western dole for years to come. I don’t know exactly what will happen after the United States and its NATO allies leave, but the outcome won’t be much better than what we could have expected back when Obama took office. By that standard, the 2009 "surge" was a failure.

But if pretending that we’ve won some sort of victory makes it easier for us to do the right thing and get out, then shouldn’t commentators like me suspend our judgment and help sell the story? Nope. Because if we tell ourselves a lot of politically expedient untruths about the Afghan campaign, we’ll learn the wrong lessons from the experience and we’ll be more likely to repeat this sort of debacle in the future.  

Specifically, the idea that the 2009 surge led to a significantly different outcome reinforces the idea that counter-insurgency in societies like Afghanistan is something we’re good at, once we get the right generals in charge and adopt the right tactical menu. It encourages us to think that if we just keep trying, we’ll eventually get really good at social engineering in war-torn societies that we don’t understand very well. And the more we think that doing this sort of thing is just a question of mastering the right techniques, the easier it will be to convince ourselves that we’ve learned how to do it and that next time everything will be different. Except that it won’t.

I don’t really blame the Obama administration for trying to spin this one as best they can; that’s what the politics of the situation demands. But if we want to avoid learning the wrong lessons, it will be up to scholars, journalists and other independent thinkers to give us a more objective appraisal of America’s longest war.  

Stephen M. Walt is a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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