The Corner

Lessons from the Afghan War Review

Manton Eddy, commander of one of America’s finest corps during World War II, had a saying: “Things are not half as good or half as bad as the first reports into the command post suggest.”

Little surprise, then, that assessments of progress in Afghanistan wax and wane.

Clausewitz, the great 19th-century Prussian military theorist coined the term “fog of war” for a reason. Nothing in war turns out to be preordained or predictable. Armies often don’t know if they’re winning or losing until after the fact.

We’ve seen plenty of war fog from this administration. First, the president declared — before a concerted effort to turn things around had even gotten under way — that U.S. forces would leave en masse by 2011. Later, the White House started signaling that 2014 made more sense. Just days ago, a leaked intelligence assessment suggested things were bleak over there. Today’s military assessment is more optimistic, suggesting that, if operations stay on course, we can start drawing down troops next year.

The most important lesson shining through all this fog: Quit trying to fight the war while staring at a calendar. Let conditions on the ground dictate the course of the conflict.

Here is what we know for sure:

Winning is important. The president himself made the case today that al-Qaeda remains a real threat, and right now al-Qaeda and the Taliban are tied hip-to-hip. If left alone, they will happily kill us, our friends and our allies (see Sweden).

The enemy is not ten feet tall. While the news is not all good, there’s no question that the Taliban have suffered some sharp reversals since the uptick in NATO forces.

The will to win makes a difference. Since the White House backed off the 2011 end-date, our allies have been more supportive and our enemies more frustrated. The reality is: The less we worry about dates, the sooner we can get the job done and leave.

Afghanistan is going to take time. Getting the country to the point where it’s secure and can govern itself is no easy task. No one on any side of the debate thought it would be.

The takeaway from today’s report: The war can be won, and winning it is darned important. That’s reason enough to stick it out.

No, we can’t expect only smooth sailing ahead. Americans should prepare for progress in fits and starts with the occasional setback. NATO operations will have to continue to adjust to conditions on the ground and hopefully keep our side one step ahead of al-Qaeda and the Taliban.

It’s not pretty, but that’s how it always is on the way to winning a war.

– James Jay Carafano is director of The Heritage Foundation’s Center for Foreign Policy Studies.

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