America’s war in Afghanistan is now in its 16th year, the longest foreign war in our history. The phrase “no end in sight” barely covers the situation. Prospects of victory—if victory is defined as eliminating that country as a haven for Islamist terrorists while creating a representative government in Kabul—are arguably more tenuous today than at any point since the US military invaded in 2001 and routed the Taliban. Such “progress” has, over the years, invariably proven “fragile” and “reversible,” to use the weasel words of General David Petraeus who oversaw the Afghan “surge” of 2010–11 under President Obama. To cite just one recent data point: The Taliban now controls 15 percent more territory than it did in 2015.
That statistic came up in recent Senate testimony by the US commanding general in Afghanistan, John “Mick” Nicholson Jr., who is (to give no-end-in-sight further context) the 12th US commander since the war began. Appearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee, he called for several thousand more US troops to break what he optimistically described as a “stalemate.” Those troops would, he added, serve mainly as advisers and trainers to Afghan forces, facilitating what he labeled “hold-fight-disrupt” operations.
As to how long they would be needed, the general was vague indeed. He spoke of the necessity of sustaining “an enduring counter-terrorism (CT) platform” in Afghanistan to bottle up terrorist forces, so they wouldn’t, as he put it, hit us in the “homeland.” Indeed, the US military considers what it has begun to speak of as a “generational” war in that country “successful” because no major attacks on the United States have had their roots in Afghanistan since September 11, 2001. And that certainly qualifies as one of the stranger definitions of success in a perpetual war that lacks a sound strategy.
Of Stalemates and Petri Dishes
You know America is losing a war when its officials resort to bad metaphors to describe its progress and prospects. A classic case was the infamous “light at the end of the tunnel” metaphor from the Vietnam War years. It implied that, although prospects might appear dark–that “tunnel” of war—progress was indeed being made and, in the distance, victory (that “light”) could be glimpsed. Contrast this with World War II, when progress was measured not by empty words (or misleading metrics like body counts or truck counts) but by land masses invaded and cities and islands wrested from the enemy. Normandy and Berlin, Iwo Jima and Okinawa are place names that still resonate with Allied heroism and sacrifice. That kind of progress could be seen on a map and was felt in the gut; metaphors were superfluous.