On my drive today, I caught an update on the situation in Afghanistan. For years now, it’s rather bothered me that we keep referring to the situation in Afghanistan as a “war”—and the idea that we’ve been “at war” in Afghanistan for about 12 years now.
The reason this bothers me has nothing to do with my opinion on the mission in Afghanistan per se. I think the Taliban was horrible, I’m glad they were removed from power, and I think the international community should actively support efforts to consolidate a democratic regime in Afghanistan. All of those are noble, worthwhile goals. I’ll go even further and suggest they’re goals worth fighting (and dying) for.
But I don’t think that constitutes a “war” the way we typically understand it. When I think of a war, I think of a conflict between two belligerent parties of equal status (though not necessary of equal capabilities). Two states can go to war with each other, then one surrenders (or is simply wiped out). I understand, of course, that the term “war” does cover a broader range. If you want to think simply about the difference between “peace” (the absences of violence) and “war” (high levels of violence), then we can talk about what’s going on in Afghanistan as a “war.” But by that definition, every major city in the world has been in a state of “war” for as long as we can remember. Eventually, a word covers so much space, that it becomes meaningless (this is what political scientists call “conceptual stretching”).
For me, the “war” in Afghanistan lasted maybe a year—at most. The regime in power was overthrown, and the last significant remnants of its organizational infrastructure were mopped up sometime in 2002. Sure, Taliban elements remained at large, but they were no longer a credible threat to the new regime. Since 2003, the Taliban has made a resurgence, but it’s been more of an insurgency. What US, NATO, Afghan, and other allied forces are doing in Afghanistan today is mostly trying to suppress an insurgent guerrilla movement.
It’s not much different from other insurgency suppression campaigns around the world, from Colombia (against the FARC), Peru (against Shining Path), or India (against Naxalite-Maoists). But it’s also not much different than historical examples like the Mau Mau rebellion (in British Kenya), the Viet Min rebellion (in French Indochina), or the Philippine Insurrection (in American-controlled Philippines).
I think the later comparisons are the ones that are troubling. None of these examples have been resolved to date. Colombia has been battling the FARC since the 1960s (and with roots in the previous civil wars, one could say the conflict began in the 1948-1958 civi war). Peru has been fighting Shining Path since the 1980s (with a respite in the 1990s). India has been fighting the Maoists since the 1990s. The other three cases didn’t end successfully (from the point of view of the dominant power). The Mau Mau rebellion lasted eight bloody years, and set the stage for the end of British imperialism in Africa. The “First Indochina War” lasted seven years, set the stage for the end of French imperialism in Southeast Asia, and set the stage for our own Vietnam War (or, as some call it, the “Second Indochina War”). The Philippine Insurrection is the exception. But in that case we (the United States) denied a country its own independence. Not something we normally celebrate (you won’t see many monuments to the brave soldiers who died to make sure Filipinos wouldn’t have their independence).
Now, I’m not trying to stir up trouble by arguing that what the US is doing is imperialism (at least not in any normatively judgmental way). Or equating the Taliban with other “freedom fighters” (I personally see nothing “liberating” about their ideology or goals). Nothing of the sort. But we can learn from the other cases of insurgencies—we can use some comparative perspective.
But it seems that we—policymakers, citizens, and the media—have latched on to a narrative that just doesn’t make sense. (Fortunately, the military doesn’t think of it this way, and perhaps we should start understanding that.) This is not a war. The US role in Afghanistan is as an enforcer—a “police action” in the purest sense of the term—in a foreign territory. We are trying to suppress a native insurgency in a far away place. We need to recognize two very hard truths: 1) This is an insurgency. 2) We are an occupying force. Once we do, we can start looking at our strategic options to deal with insurgencies, their costs and benefits. And we can start deciding whether we have the will to do that, knowing that there is no “victory” in sight, because we already defeated the enemy a decade ago.
Basically, we have to start thinking like cops. No matter how amazing a job the police in Chicago do, there will be murders and crimes next year. And the next. And the next. There will never be a “victory” against crime (organized or otherwise). There is simply the next year’s campaign. And the next. And the next.