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Defining Victory: The U.S. and Victory in Afghanistan
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By Zachary K. Ochoa


What does victory in a war look like? Is it achieved by the total abdication of one side to the other? Is it victory in every major battle of the conflict? Can you declare victory while the enemy still lives? Can victory be declared without one side surrendering to the other? These are very important questions to ask in regards to warfare, because the answer will inevitably determine how history views the conflict. Nowhere is this more evident than in the United States’ War in Afghanistan, which is still ongoing since its start in 2001.

The War in Afghanistan has gone on for over a decade, and as it stands now there is still no consensus on whether or not the United States has achieved victory since it toppled the Taliban government in Kabul and drove them their strongholds. Since the American’s started their occupation of the Central Asian country, the war is still ongoing with no conclusion in sight. The Taliban have returned to Afghanistan and today wage war against the Coalition forces across most if not all of Southern Afghanistan. War has even found its way back into the northern regions of the country for the first time in years. The Obama Administration has conducted a surge of forces since coming into power which does not appear to have significantly turned the tide of the conflict. In response to these developments, there is a general mood that the United States is failing in its mission to stabilize Afghanistan and remove the Taliban as a threat to the U.S. However, to simply say that the United States has lost the War in Afghanistan because the Taliban have not been defeated and Afghanistan is not a stable nation ignores the reasons the U.S. went to war in the first place.

The concept of victory in war being reflected by the destruction of the enemy and pacification of their homeland reflects an outdated concept of warfare that has not been adapted to relevance in modern times. Since the turn of the century and start of the new millennium, interstate wars have erupted much less frequently than they have historically, giving way to intrastate wars that are fought within a nation’s borders by loosely-organized groups. Instead of two professional armies fighting on the battlefield where objectives are clear and the enemy visible, guerilla groups blend in with the civilian population and do not operate in a clear and directional way. War has evolved, combatants have evolved and as a result our concepts of victory and defeat need to evolve as well.

If we observe the War in Afghanistan through the old lens, it makes sense to the say that the United States has lost. The Taliban are still around and fighting just as hard as the day they were expelled from Kabul, Afghanistan is on the verge of becoming a failed state and American troops are still dying in combat. Using the outdated point of view, this is at worst a military defeat and at best an ongoing war that has yet to reach a conclusion. However, if we update our concept of victory to reflect the way that war has evolved in the past two decades, we reach a far different conclusion.

If the United States had gone to war in order to crush the Taliban and build a stable Afghan State, if the defeat of the Taliban was even the reason that America went to Central Asia in the first place, then the old window through which we view war may have applied. However, the United States did not go to war because of their opposition to the Taliban government, it did not go to war in order to ‘liberate’ Afghanistan from oppression, it did not go to war for any of the historical and conventional reasons that states go to war, nor does it even wage war in the conventional sense of the word.

The Changing Face of War

The War in Afghanistan is a very unconventional war. It is not a war between two states, between two armies or even two cultures. This war is being waged between a professional military force representing the interests of a sovereign nation-state and a small, loosely-organized group of guerillas that represents only its own interests. The war is not fought on established battlefields, where generals organize strategies and movements like the pieces on a chessboard. The insurgents do not wear uniforms, they do not conduct operations and they do not wear a flag. They look just like anybody else, and sometimes it’s impossible to spot one until he either detonates a suicide vest or starts shooting at Coalition Soldiers. Victory against the Taliban and Al Qaeda is not measured by success in battle or enemy casualties, but by the level of stability in each region.

These facts provide evidence for the earlier claim that this particular war cannot be defined or analyzed by looking through the same window that one would use to look at a more conventional war, such as World War Two. Society traditionally measures success in war from an infrastructural perspective: the status of the opponent’s military, economy, leadership and territorial integrity. However, for a war such as this, it is necessary to develop a mindset of warfare that is less infrastructure-focused and more goal-oriented. What is noteworthy is that this doesn’t change much in regards to the way history will look at wars in the past. The defeat and pacification of Nazi Germany and its military was of course the goal of the United States during World War Two, so a change to this way of thinking would not change the way we look at most of the wars of the past. What will change, however, is the way we look at unconventional warfare.

If society switches to a goal-oriented view of war and abandons the infrastructural concept of victory, then the War in Afghanistan makes a lot more sense. After all, how much sense does it make to define an unconventional, nontraditional war with conventional and traditional terms? To do so would be inefficient, misguided and in the end unsuccessful. Recognizing the difference and uniqueness present in the Afghan War will inevitably make the war easier on the textbooks. There will no longer be extensive debates and questions about what victory in Afghanistan will look like, because the qualifications for victory become clear. It makes the question of whether or not the Unites States has lost the war a question that is possible to answer. America did not wage war in Afghanistan in order to defeat a foreign power, nor did it declare its goals to be peace and reconstruction. The United States invaded Afghanistan, toppled the Taliban regime and now occupies the region for one reason and one reason only, to retaliate against an organization that had conducted an assault upon the American homeland and capture or kill its leadership, preventing Afghanistan from being used as a base from which to launch attacks on U.S. soil ever again.

The Invasion of Afghanistan

In order to discern whether or not the United States has lost the War in Afghanistan, it is important to understand the circumstances that led to the war in the first place and the goals that the United States cited when launching their invasion. On September 11, 2001, the United States was attacked on its own soil. Islamic Fundamentalists hijacked several airliners and crashed them into New York’s Twin Towers as well as the Pentagon. The attack killed more than three thousand American citizens and forever scarred the psyche of America’s national identity. It was later discovered that this attack had been orchestrated by a group of Islamic terrorists: Al Qaeda. Al Qaeda was and is a group of radical fundamentalist Muslims led by a radical named Osama Bin Laden that seeks to attack the civilian and military infrastructures of the United States, inflicting as many casualties as possible against any and all American citizens. They target the United States as an answer to the mindset that the American military presence in the Middle East is a foreign occupation, and that the United States seeks to impose its own values and culture on the Middle East in contradiction to Al Qaeda’s interpretation of Islam.

Although Al Qaeda has successfully attacked the United States before 9/11, bombing both the USS Cole and World Trade Center, September 11 was their largest, most successful and most deadly operation that they had ever conducted on U.S. soil. Once it became clear that the United States had been attacked by a foreign entity and that Al Qaeda was the instigator behind said attack, it stands to reason that the immediate national goals of the United States were to find those who had attacked them, eliminate them, and ensure that they could never perform such an action ever again.

This is very significant because it identifies what the original and primary goal was of the United States, to find and decimate the group that had attacked its citizens. Therefore, the destruction of Al Qaeda can be identified as the primary goal of the War in Afghanistan. It was within this mindset that the United States set its sights on Afghanistan. Afghanistan was the country from within which Al Qaeda was primarily operating. It was where the movement was originally born during the Soviet occupation of the country, and was where the group’s leader, Osama Bin Laden, was known to have been operating. This is when the group known as the Taliban came into the focus of the U.S. Al Qaeda was known to have been operating from within Afghanistan, but the country itself was at the time being ruled by the Taliban Islamic Fundamentalists. Accordingly, the United States went to the Taliban to demand that they seize Osama Bin Laden and hand him over to the U.S. to answer for the 9/11 terrorist attacks. While no one can truly know what the mindset of the Taliban was at this point, it stands to reason that they did not find the idea of obedience to the United States an appealing one, and rejected the United States’ demands. To their credit, they offered to try him for the attacks themselves inside Afghanistan, but the national passion of the United States in the wake of the attacks could not be abated. When it became clear that the Taliban were not going to surrender Bin Laden to the Americans on their own, the United States took things into their own hands and invaded the country.

What is noteworthy is that the Americans did not invade Afghanistan with the goal of defeating the Taliban the Taliban had been in power for years before the war began and the United States had never threatened it with invasion. The Americans attacked the Taliban because they had placed themselves between the United States and its primary goal, the defeat and destruction of Al Qaeda. Therefore, removing the Taliban took its place as a secondary goal in the War in Afghanistan, and was established purely as a stepping stone to Al Qaeda, the real objective.

As has been established by this analysis of the events leading up to the war, the United States invaded Afghanistan with very clear goals. The primary goal was and remains to this day: the defeat of Al Qaeda. As a result of establishing itself as an obstacle to achieving this goal, the removal of the Taliban became a secondary goal designed to ease the accomplishment of the first. When looking at the war with this mindset, the terms for victory are not the defeat of a country, nor even the defeat of the Taliban, but the removal of Al Qaeda as a direct threat to the United States. Therefore, victory in the War in Afghanistan is determined not by the state of Afghanistan or the Taliban, but the state of Al Qaeda.

Waging War against Al Qaeda

Because the United States originally launched the War in Afghanistan with the primary goal of decimating Al Qaeda, then the state of this terrorist organization should be the primary independent variable that determines victory or defeat in the war. Unfortunately, Al Qaeda’s existence as a loosely-organized group makes it difficult to measure its stability and capabilities. Therefore, it becomes necessary to develop a model for the measurement of Al Qaeda’s stability. This model takes the form of the structural integrity of its leadership as well as its ability to wage war. A primary resource of an organization like Al Qaeda is human capital. Brain power is the true power behind a guerilla group the intelligence necessary to plan, coordinate and execute attacks while in high pressure conditions. There are not many men around who possess these capabilities, and the ones that do inevitably rise through the ranks to leadership positions within a terrorist group’s infrastructure. As a result, the death or capture of any of these men would represent a significant loss for the organization. This line of thinking was reflected by the United States’ pursuit of Al Qaeda leaders since the beginning stages of the war.

The justification for the invasion of Afghanistan from the very beginning was the pursuit of Osama Bin Laden, the leader of Al Qaeda. The capture or killing of Bin Laden was seen as such a critical objective for victory over his organization that the United States was willing to invade a sovereign nation in order to accomplish it. This reflects a mindset within the American leadership that sees victory over Al Qaeda as the destruction of its leadership. Therefore, measurement of victory over the group can simply be measured in how much human capital the U.S. has cost the terrorist cabal.

In the beginning of May 2011, President Obama of the United States made a live unscheduled announcement late on a Sunday night. Speculation was running rampant about what his speech would address, and everybody knew what it was probably going to be. That night, President Obama announced that the United States Military had conducted an operation inside Pakistan that had resulted in the death of Osama Bin Laden, the leader of Al Qaeda. Within minutes crowds were gathering all across the country, most notably in New York City and Washington D.C. Why did the death of this particular man result in such fervor and excitement? It did so because in the minds and hearts of the men and woman celebrating in the streets, the war effort had been a success.

They celebrated in the streets for the same reasons that Americans celebrated in New York City after Japan surrendered, because the national mission had been accomplished. The United States had been capturing and eliminating Al Qaeda senior leadership since the start of the War in Afghanistan, and now the leader of the group, the reason the U.S. invaded Afghanistan in the first place, had been assassinated. When viewing the war through a lens that focuses on goal-setting when defining victory, it appears that the United States has achieved its primary objectives and thus won the war. However, the war is clearly still ongoing and the public mood does not see the war as over and done with. This is possible because since the beginning of the war, the national mood has shifted from waging war against Al Qaeda to waging war against the Taliban, reflecting a comeback from the infrastructural conception of warfare.

The Shift to the Taliban

If the war was won after the death of Bin Laden, then why is the war still ongoing? Why hasn’t the United States Government declared victory in Afghanistan, withdrawn its soldiers from the region and moved on? The answer is that if the war is analyzed within the mindset of infrastructural war, then the War in Afghanistan is far from over. The Taliban were the rulers of Afghanistan, they have not been eliminated by the United States military and are still waging war against Coalition Forces to this day. Ergo, it stands to reason that the war is nowhere near over because there is still fighting going on.

The Taliban is still waging violent war against American forces in Afghanistan. They are currently operating from within their strongholds in the tribal regions of Western Pakistan, and wage war against the International Coalition mainly within Southern Afghanistan. As was stated earlier in this paper, victory against an insurgency is measured by the stability of its leadership as well as its ability to wage war. Every year, the insurgency launches a new series of attacks which has been dubbed the Spring Offensive. While there have been peace talks, there has been no public announcement of a deal within sight and there is no expectation for peace between the United States and the insurgents. Clearly, the Taliban still possesses the ability to wage war, its defeat is nowhere within sight and as it stands the structural integrity of its leadership remains strong.

The leader and founder of the Taliban, Mohammad Omar, is still at large. Omar’s name doesn’t have anywhere near the notoriety of Osama Bin Laden within the United States, possibly reflecting the lack of a connection felt between the American public and their Taliban foe. This is important because in war it is typical to be able to readily identify who an opponent is. Imagine the American public going through World War Two without knowing who Adolf Hitler was, fighting in Korea without ever having heard of Kim Il Sung, intervening in Vietnam without recognizing Ho Chi Min or occupying Iraq without knowing Saddam Hussein? It’s surreal to consider. So why is there a disconnect with the Taliban and its leadership?

Two Wars Under One Name

The disconnect between the American Psyche and the Taliban can be explained by reviewing this paper’s analysis of the beginning of the War in Afghanistan. In a nutshell, the Americans fought the Taliban not because they were seeking war against the Taliban, but because the Taliban had placed themselves firmly in between the United States and its war against Al Qaeda. They removed the Taliban from power in Afghanistan because that was where Al Qaeda was operating from the Taliban did not intend to play ball. Since then, the United States has used Afghanistan as a base from which to launch attacks against the foe that attacked it on its own soil, eliminating its leader and picking away at what hierarchy is left. The man whose organization was behind the attacks on the United States is dead, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the man who planned the attacks is in Guantanamo Bay, and news is still rolling in of new Al Qaeda commanders that have been assassinated by the Americans. In regards to the goal-oriented war that the United States declared in 2001, the goals have been met and the war against Al Qaeda is won. However, the War in Afghanistan is not over, and that is because alongside the goal-oriented war, an infrastructural war has been born.

While it cannot be nailed down in terms of a date, at some point after the United States invaded Afghanistan and removed the Taliban from power in order to freely hunt down Al Qaeda, the United States adopted another set of goals that included preventing the Taliban from re-conquering Afghanistan and building a stable, democratic Afghan State. Those goals are infrastructural in nature and can be measured by territorial integrity, leadership stability and military success. At that point, the War in Afghanistan became an umbrella term that included two wars: The goal-oriented nonconventional war against Al Qaeda, and the infrastructural war against the Taliban that stemmed from it.

Since the original intent behind the war was to remove Al Qaeda as a threat and eliminate the men who orchestrated the 9/11 attacks, it can be said that this war is over. Therefore, in a sense, the first stage of the War in Afghanistan has already been won, and the United States is currently engaged in the war’s second stage that is still ongoing.


This paper has identified two different concepts of warfare: goal-oriented war and infrastructural-oriented war. Infrastructural War defines victory in the traditional sense: control over territory, stability of the leadership hierarchy as well as victory in battle. Goal-Oriented War defines victory based on the accomplishment of national goals within the conflict. In 2001, the United States was attacked by agents of Al Qaeda on its own soil. As a result, the immediate goals of the U.S. were to retaliate against the terrorist organization that had attacked the Pentagon and Twin Towers. In the pursuit of these goals, they tracked down Al Qaeda to Afghanistan and demanded that the Taliban, then the rulers of Afghanistan, hand over Al Qaeda’s leader. When they refused, the United States invaded the Central Asian nation in order to pursue Osama Bin Laden freely.

These circumstances and justifications reflect a war that was very goal-oriented, and was not pursued for the historically traditional reasons. Later, with the death of Osama Bin Laden, arrest of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and continued elimination of Al Qaeda’s central leadership, it can be said that this first phase of the war was a resounding victory. However, since the war began the Taliban have been attempting to stage a comeback, seeking to return Afghanistan to their rule. When that happened, an infrastructural war was introduced to the conflict that is still ongoing. What this analysis reveals is that when considering the question of whether or not the United States has lost the War in Afghanistan, the answer is clearly no. The War in Afghanistan is an umbrella term for two different wars, the War against Al Qaeda and the War against the Taliban. With one war’s objectives being complete and the other still underway, it’s simply too early to declare the War in Afghanistan a victory or defeat. As it stands today, the United States is planning to withdraw its combat troops from Afghanistan in 2014, what happens between now and then as well as what happens after will determine how we view America’s performance.

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