Four days after the US invasion of Afghanistan, President George W. Bush appeared in the White House’s Eastern Conference room to address a nation frightened by the 9/11 attacks. While most Americans supported Bush’s decision to go to war, there was widespread uncertainty about how the conflict would develop and how long it could last.
Bush, 55, was in office for more than nine months at the time. That evening, 2001 On October 11, he tried to reassure the country that US officials had learned a great lesson from the past, that they were determined not to be depressed in an unimaginable war in a distant country.
“We learned a lot of great lessons in Vietnam,” Bush said. “This is a different kind of war, which requires a different approach, a different way of thinking.”
As for the expected course of the war, Bush did not give a final answer, but strongly promised to win. “This special front will last as long as it takes to hold al-Qaeda accountable,” he said. “It may be tomorrow, it may happen in a month, it may take a year or two, but we will prevail.”
But from the beginning, the US government never set the conditions for victory. On Wednesday, President Biden prepared to announce the complete withdrawal of US troops by September. The question of what his three White House predecessors imagined when they repeatedly promised to win the war is still unresolved.
The initial goal was to eliminate al-Qaeda to ensure that the terrorist group could not use Afghanistan as a base to launch another terrorist attack on the United States. But within six months, that goal was achieved. Al-Qaeda leaders were either killed, taken prisoner or fled Afghanistan.
Instead of ending the war, Bush expanded his mission. In April 2002, he announced new military-political goals.
According to him, the United States will help its Afghan allies to build a modernized country with a stable democracy, a strong national army, better medical care and a new system of public education for boys and girls. “We know that real peace can only be achieved if we give the Afghan people the means to achieve their own aspirations,” he said during a speech at the Virginia Military Institute.
Although the goals were honest and high-minded, Bush did not set any criteria for achieving them, nor did he specify how long US troops should remain. “We will stay until the end of the mission,” he said.
The next two warlords, Barack Obama and Donald Trump, find themselves in the same situation. They, like Bush, promised victory in Afghanistan by increasing their decisive military victory over the impending enemy.
But they neglected to clarify what that meant or what American troops should do before coming home. They also never made it clear who the United States was trying to defeat. The enemy was al-Qaeda. Or the Taliban? What about countless other Afghan militias threatening to disrupt the country?
Army Gen. Dan McNeill, who served twice as commander of US troops in Afghanistan during the Bush administration, said the final game was always opaque.
“I tried to make someone decide for me what it means to win, even before I left, no one could,” McNeill later told government interviewers. “Some people thought about ff epherson democracy, but it just won’t happen in Afghanistan.”
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As the war dragged on, US officials kept publicly claiming victory, even in the face of adverse evidence. In particular, they expressed serious doubts.
“Are we winning or losing in the fight against terrorism?” Minister of Defense Donald R. Rumsfeld wrote a secret memo to several senior Pentagon officials in October 2003. He concluded by saying: a long, tough slogan. “
In 2006, when the Taliban movement steadily resumed and the guerrilla campaign intensified, suspicions intensified.
“We are not winning in Afghanistan,” US Ambassador Ronald E. W. warned in Washington on August 29, 2006. Neumann to officials with a diplomatic cable. He added that there was a “broad Afghan perception that victory was leaving.”
But in front of the public, US officials continued to say the opposite.
“We are winning,” Lt. Gen. Carl Eikenbery told ABC News just two weeks after Noyan wrote his pessimistic report to ABC News. To the question whether the USA can lose the war, Aikenber answered. “Losing in Afghanistan is not an option.”
Two years later, US field commanders asked the Pentagon to strengthen them as they gave way to the Taliban, which they estimated had grown from 7,000 to 11,000 fighters. But U.S. military officials have struggled to reconcile their demands for troops with their repeated assurances of victory.
In September 2008, Army Major General Efri Schlosser, commander of US forces in eastern Afghanistan, was pressured by reporters over whether he thought his troops were still winning. “Let me just say that we are not losing a war here,” he said. “I think it is a slow victory.”
When Obama took office in 2009, US military officials acknowledged that they were facing a worsening insurgency. The new president has announced a comprehensive strategy to send thousands of additional troops to Afghanistan and spend tens of billions of dollars to form a still-fluctuating government in Kabul. “My message to the terrorists who oppose us is the same. We will defeat you, “Obama said in March 2009.
But once again, no one in his administration could say what winning meant.
“How do we know when it’s over?” How does it end? ” Senator Web Ames Webb, D-Va, 2009 During a congressional hearing in April, he asked Obama’s Deputy Secretary of Defense, Michel Florno, and Army Gen. David Petraeus.
Florno gave a complex and long-winded answer.
“I think the key to success is when the Afghans and the Pakistanis have the capacity and the will to overcome the rest of the threat on their own, so that the period of emergency intervention reaches a crossroads. “Long-term, normal development support relations with it,” he said. “For me, this is when they, when we reduce the threat, build that capacity locally to the point where they can be much more confident in managing this issue.”
Petraus added. “Well, I guess I would respond to that.”
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Obama administration officials have been embroiled in other controversies. On the one hand, they began to acknowledge that a clear military victory was impossible; the only practical way to end the conflict was to reach a “political solution” to the warring parties in Afghanistan.
On the other hand, as the number of American troops reached 100,000, Obama generals continued to subdue the Taliban instead of encouraging diplomacy.
“Our argument was that we have a revolt only because we do not have a political settlement. And if we do not address it, the military will not be able to do so, “said Barnett Rubin, a senior State Department adviser. But Rubin added that Pentagon և CIA officials see little reason to negotiate with the Taliban և and described the reconciliation as “we will be fine with surrendering people.”
In front of the public, some Obama administration officials began blocking their bets.
During a congressional hearing in June 2011, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates was asked whether the United States was winning or losing in Afghanistan.
He answered. “I have learned a few things in 4 1/2 years.” “And one of them is trying to stay away from loaded words like ‘winning’ or ‘losing.’ “What I am saying is that I believe we are successful in implementing the president’s strategy.”
One week later, in another congressional hearing, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton crossed the line.
“I do not think it is a matter of winning or losing,” he said. “I think the question is how we will measure our success in Afghanistan.”
But like the conditions of victory, no one defines success in any way.
Obama’s strategy depended on his plan to train 2 equip 352,000 Afghan troops և paramilitary police who could take over combat from US forces. For most of Obama’s presidency, his commanders expressed complete confidence in the approach, predicting that Afghan forces would win the war with US help.
In February 2013, the outgoing Commander-in-Chief of NATO և Marine General John On Allen promised that Afghan forces were ready to take control of the fighting. “This is a victory,” he said. “It simply came to our notice then. And we should not be bothered to use those words. “
The other generals accepted the same courage.
“I talk a lot about winning these days, I firmly believe we are on the road to victory,” said Allen’s successor, Marine General Joseph Ozef Dunford Jr., during a military ceremony in Kabul in May 2013.
Dunford Deputy Chief of Staff Mark Millly responded to his boss as he addressed the Afghan army during a parade.
“You will win this war, we will be with you every step of the way,” said Millie, who now serves as chief of staff. He stated that “they are on the road to victory, on the road to victory, on the road to a stable Afghanistan.”
Obama promised to withdraw all US troops from Afghanistan by the end of his second term. But he turned around and ordered about 8,400 troops to remain when it became clear that Afghan security forces could not escape the Taliban on their own.
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Until Trump moved to the White House in 2017, everything seemed vague. The Taliban had grown stronger during Obama’s eight years in office, with no more than 60,000 fighters under his command. The Afghan army and police suffered so many casualties that the government in Kabul kept the numbers secret so as not to demoralize them.
“We are not winning in Afghanistan right now,” Trump Defense Secretary Jim im Metis told the Senate Armed Services Committee in June 2017.
Such gloomy talk infuriated Trump, who made it clear to the Pentagon that he would not tolerate defeatist rhetoric.
In August 2017, he announced his new war strategy. Speaking in Fort Meyer, Virginia, he promised not only to end the 16-year-old conflict, but to win it once and for all.
“Our troops will fight to win,” Trump said. “From now on, the victory will have a clear definition. “Attack our enemies, destroy ISIS, defeat Al Qaeda, prevent the Taliban from invading Afghanistan, stop massive terrorist attacks before they appear.”
Trump escalated the war again, bringing the level of US troops to 14,000. He ordered an intensive air strike campaign that dropped more bombs, more rockets than at any other time during the conflict.
But Trump was not really playing for a direct military victory.
According to his strategy, US forces were simply trying to weaken the Taliban in order to gain political leverage for peace talks. In February 2020, the Trump administration reached an agreement with the Taliban, which laid the groundwork for the gradual withdrawal of all US troops from the country.
It finally broke all promises that the United States would win the longest war in its history.