This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.
In January 1863, President Abraham Lincoln’s charge to a newly-appointed commanding general was simplicity itself: “give us victories.” President Barack Obama’s tacit charge to his generals amounts to this: give us conditions permitting a dignified withdrawal. A pithy quote in Bob Woodward’s new book captures the essence of an emerging Obama Doctrine: “hand it off and get out.”
Getting into a war is generally a piece of cake. Getting out tends to be another matter altogether—especially when the commander-in-chief and his commanders in the field disagree on the advisability of doing so.
Happy Anniversary, America. Nine years ago today—on October 7, 2001—a series of US air strikes against targets across Afghanistan launched the opening campaign of what has since become the nation’s longest war. Three thousand two hundred and eighty five days later the fight to determine Afghanistan’s future continues. At least in part, “Operation Enduring Freedom” has lived up to its name: it has certainly proven to be enduring.
As the conflict formerly known as the Global War on Terror enters its tenth year, Americans are entitled to pose this question: When, where, and how will the war end? Bluntly, are we almost there yet?
Of course, with the passage of time, where “there” is has become increasingly difficult to discern. Baghdad turned out not to be Berlin and Kandahar is surely not Tokyo. Don’t look for CNN to be televising a surrender ceremony anytime soon.
This much we know: an enterprise that began in Afghanistan but soon after focused on Iraq has now shifted back—again—to Afghanistan. Whether the swings of this pendulum signify progress toward some final objective is anyone’s guess.
To measure progress during wartime, Americans once employed pins and maps. Plotting the conflict triggered by 9/11 will no doubt improve your knowledge of world geography, but it won’t tell you anything about where this war is headed.
Where, then, have nine years of fighting left us? Chastened, but not necessarily enlightened.
Just over a decade ago, the now-forgotten Kosovo campaign seemingly offered a template for a new American way of war. It was a decision gained without suffering a single American fatality. Kosovo turned out, however, to be a one-off event. No doubt the United States military was then (and remains today) unbeatable in traditional terms. Yet, after 9/11, Washington committed that military to an endeavor that it manifestly cannot win.
Rather than probing the implications of this fact—relying on the force of arms to eliminate terrorism is a fool’s errand—two administrations have doggedly prolonged the war even as they quietly ratcheted down expectations of what it might accomplish.