Defining Success in Afghanistan

What Can the United States Accept?

The original plan for a post-Taliban Afghanistan called for rapid, transformational nation building. But such a vision no longer appears feasible, if it ever was. Many Americans are now skeptical that even a stable and acceptable outcome in Afghanistan is possible. They believe that Afghanistan has never been administered effectively and is simply ungovernable. Much of today's public opposition to the war centers on the widespread fear that whatever the military outcome, there is no Afghan political end state that is both acceptable and achievable at a reasonable cost.

The Obama administration appears to share the public's skepticism about the viability of a strong, centralized, Western-style government in Kabul. But it does not think such an ambitious outcome is necessary. As U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates observed in 2009, Afghanistan does not need to become "a Central Asian Valhalla." Yet a Central Asian Somalia would presumably not suffice. Success in Afghanistan will thus mean arriving at an intermediate end state, somewhere between ideal and intolerable. The Obama administration must identify and describe what this end state might look like. Without clear limits on acceptable outcomes, the U.S. and NATO military campaign will be rudderless, as will any negotiation strategy for a settlement with the Taliban.

In fact, there is a range of acceptable and achievable outcomes for Afghanistan. None is perfect, and all would require sacrifice. But it is a mistake to assume that Afghanistan is somehow ungovernable or that any sacrifice would be wasted in the pursuit of an unachievable goal. Afghanistan's own history offers ample evidence of the kind of stable, decentralized governance that could meet today's demands without abandoning the country's current constitution. By learning from this history and from recent experience in Afghanistan and elsewhere, the United States can frame a workable definition of success in Afghanistan.

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