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Saturday 19 Aug 2017 | 17:57 | SYDNEY
Saturday 19 Aug 2017 | 17:57 | SYDNEY

Afghanistan: The language of lost wars

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14 June 2012 13:34

Winston Churchill once described 'success' as the ability to 'go from failure to failure without the loss of enthusiasm'. By that standard, the Afghanistan war might have been considered a pretty successful venture, at least until recently, when everyone lost enthusiasm. By any other measure, it's been a disaster.

With Western leaders scrambling to justify their dash for the exit, last month's NATO summit in Chicago was, unsurprisingly, all about saving face. After all, what is there to show for 11 years at war? Beyond the rag-tag Afghan army, itself unaffordable at levels needed to deny a Taliban resurgence, the reality is that very little has been achieved, and certainly nothing commensurate with the costs. The only mitigating factor is that, because Afghanistan never mattered much in the first place, the geopolitical ramifications of its abandonment in 2014 are likely to be similarly inconsequential.

In paving a way to the exit, an expanding range of deceptive language is being deployed with increasing regularity. Earlier mantras like 'clear, hold and build' have all but disappeared, replaced with more passive, value neutral or euphemistic phrases designed to obscure the reality of failure or at least make it appear more palatable. 'Transition' and 'political solution' are two talking points we'll be hearing more of as the Afghanistan war ends.

When the US and its allies lose the stomach for small, futile wars in out-of-the-way places – think Vietnam, Iraq and now Afghanistan – two things generally happen. The first is that a local force is set up to inherit the mess and facilitate withdrawal, which becomes the overarching objective of the whole enterprise.

'Transition' becomes code for managing defeat: the culmination of a process by which the bar for success is continually lowered as previous objectives are recognised as unattainable or unnecessary and scaled back accordingly. The beauty of arriving at 'transition' is that the bar can't get much lower. The only remaining metric for success, the number of Afghans that can be fitted out for a uniform, is completely unattached to any war-fighting outcome, though of course not without its own practical difficulties.

The second tendency, probably the most exasperating for strategic types, is that Western officials begin loudly proclaiming the need for a 'political as opposed to just a military solution'. This is not so much wrong as a banal truism and, as Anton Kuruc points out, a sure-fire indication that whoever is uttering it hasn't kept up with their Clausewitz. War is defined by a contest to shape the resulting political solution, so simply arriving at a political solution, any political solution, is next to meaningless.

What matters is the nature of the solution and whose interests it reflects, which in turn depends on which side has prevailed in war. If one side loses a war or finds itself in retreat, as the West is in Afghanistan, the political solution is imposed by the enemy to reflect their own interests, ambitions and concerns. Calling for a 'political solution' thus needs to be seen for what it is: an indirect way of conceding defeat and a tacit and admission of failure.

Prevarication is understandable. It legitimises and expedites withdrawal, and it's better than being sucked further into the morass. But there are also dangers in too readily accepting the latest talking points at face value. Governments, militaries and societies almost always find it easier to sugar-coat their strategic failures than confront them head-on. In so doing, they can defer taking responsibility, fail to recognise their mistakes, ignore hard lessons, and avoid making corrections that might preclude similar failures down the track.

Photo by Flickr user Marco Vossen.

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