What will victory look like in Afghanistan?

Published: Sunday, August 1, 2010 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, July 30, 2010 at 4:51 p.m.

Listen, I get the whole aversion to cutting and running.

But, here's what I don't get after the best part of a decade of occupation in Afghanistan.

Even granting that we ought to stay the course until victory is achieved.

How will we know when we've won?

What will victory look like?

A formal surrender by the Taliban? Or at least a peace treaty?

Do we even know who the Taliban are?

Last Tuesday in The New York Times, Andrew Exum, an Afghanistan combat veteran and now a fellow at the Center for a New American Society, wrote: "Often what appears to be a two-way conflict between the government and an insurgency is better described as an intertribal rivalry. And often an intertribal rivalry is worsened or overshadowed by the violent trade in drugs."

So, will we win when the "right" tribes prevail? When the drugs stop flowing?

Truth is, we haven't had a clear win since World War II.

Virtually all of our conflicts since then have been ambiguous affairs that more or less wound down without benefit of articles of surrender.

With the possible exception of Grenada. We pretty much won that one.

But here we are again, another ambiguous war.

Will we have won when the Afghan people finally elect a corruption-free government?

When the Afghan army tells us they no longer need our soldiers to fight their battles?

When Pakistan stops helping both sides?

Must we win the hearts and minds of the Afghan people?

First, we'll have to stop accidently killing them in remote-controlled drone attacks.

Will victory be achieved when Osama bin Laden is finally captured and sent to the gallows, like Saddam?

For that matter, is victory in Iraq at hand?

Granted, suicide bombers are still doing their deadly work there.

But mostly, they're killing civilians, not American soldiers. Does that count as a win?

The release by WikiLeaks of thousands of classified military documents indicating that things in Afghanistan are going badly really told us nothing we didn't already know.

A recent Harris poll indicates that just one in 10 Americans think the situation in Afghanistan is improving.

What we're learning in Afghanistan is the same lesson we learned in Vietnam.

The same lesson that mighty nations have learned again and again since the dawn of warfare.

It's relatively easy for a strong nation to conquer a weak nation.

It's hard for the strongest nation to occupy the weakest nation indefinitely.

And it's virtually impossible for the occupiers to win over the conquered to the extent that they can safely declare victory and go home.

President Barack Obama's deadline for withdrawal begins next summer.

Will we call it a win then?

If so, why wait for an arbitrary deadline?

Let's just declare victory now and have done with it.

Ron Cunningham is editorial page editor of The Sun. He can be reached at voice@gvillesun.com or at 352-374-5075. Read his blog, Under The Sun, at www.gainesville.com/opinion.

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