When a war does not have a defined objective that can be equated with victory, it is easy to fudge its definition of defeat. This is the case in Afghanistan.
The US' "peace with honor" in Vietnam was, by any measure, a defeat. The Vietnamese won their unified state and the US won nothing. In Iraq, also, continued waves of terrorism and a slide back into civil war was not by any measure a success, Saddam Hussein's death notwithstanding.
Now the US is proposing peace talks with Afghanistan’s Taliban, with Afghan President Hamid Karzai also saying he is looking forward to negotiating with his "brothers". Whether or not there a "peace agreement" is negotiated, Afghanistan’s future is only as certain as the allied withdrawal scheduled for December next year.
Foreign troops will depart, the Afghan National Army will collapse, and Afghanistan will revert at least for a while to a bloodier and more retributive version of what it was before the allied invasion. At least some Taliban will be out for vengeance, and there will be a continued commitment to assist their Islamist brothers, be they al-Qaeda, any one of a dozen of Pakistan’s domestic Islamist terrorist groups or more than 30 Pakistani trans-national terrorist organisations.
For himself, Karzai will not remain long. No matter what assurances he might receive before the allied withdrawal, he is seen as an illegitimate, deeply corrupt and fairly brutal US puppet, which is a broad but not inaccurate summation of his political qualities.
When the Soviet Union left the "bear trap" of Afghanistan in 1989, its puppet, president Mohammad Najibullah, clung to power for three years of civil war before hiding in the UN mission headquarters for a further four years. After winning the civil war, the Taliban took Najibullah from the UN, castrated him and then dragged him behind a truck through the streets, finally hanging his corpse from a lamp post.
Najibullah also tried a process of "reconciliation". But Karzai will be keenly aware of Najibullah’s fate, and his travel agent will be lining up many departure options.
With the date of the allied withdrawal so public, the Taliban has in effect already won. It is just waiting for the clock to tick over.
As with the Soviet Union and Najibullah, the US will support the Karzai regime, at least for a while. But that assumes Afghanistan’s soldiers don’t immediately desert in the face of the obvious. At best, those identified as the Taliban’s enemies will be hoping to be able to make good an escape before the door slams shut.
Of those who do manage to flee, more than a few will end up as "irregular arrivals" in Australia. One wonders if the new minister for immigration will still be using the line that they should not be seeking asylum as there is no more war in their country, which is used for some Iraqi and Sri Lankan refugees.
For the architects of the Afganistan war, however, the withdrawal will be cloaked in something akin to "peace with honour". They will know, however, that regardless of what agreements might or, more likely might not, be reached with the Taliban, there will be no peace in Afghanistan until one side -- undoubtedly the Taliban -- has again cemented its rule over the country. There will be no "honour" in any of it.
But by then, the West’s regional security concerns in that part of the world will have locked onto Pakistan. Afghanistan is so last year; Pakistan is the focus of longer-term strategic planning.
If you had to guess the number one spot for terrorism worldwide, what would you guess? Afghanistan?
According to a new document from the defence and security intelligence and analysis group IHS Janes, first prize for terrorist attacks belongs to Syria. Putting aside the pedantic untidiness of who the terrorists actually were, Syria certainly suffered a lot of grief over 2012, with 2670 attacks, more than 10 times the number of attacks in 2011. No aspect of the war there is going well.
There would be a reasonable expectation that, putting aside this definitional anomaly, Afghanistan would slot securely in at number two, given the war still rages there. But the number of terrorist attacks in Iraq has increased 10% to 2296 following the conclusion of the war.
As more than a few pundits have observed, if the war in Iraq was a success, you’d hate to see a failure. Coming second in motorcycle racing is referred to as being "first of the losers", which seems particularly apposite in this context.
In a recent conversation with a foreign affairs colleague who was a survivor of one of the Afghanistan attacks, I suggested that Pakistan was really the centre of the anti-Taliban war now, rather than Afghanistan. The terrorist attack figures in Pakistan bear that out, with 2206 attacks, also up around 10% on 2011. Pakistan is a seriously dangerous place, and not one to be visiting any time soon for a holiday.
Try as Afghanistan (or some people there) might, it did not make the podium, in part due to an overall decline in attacks, from 1821 to a much more modest 1313. One might assume that this reflects the success of the International Security Assistance Force strategy there and the ultimate defeat of the Taliban. Or one might be a little more realistic and assume that the Taliban is dropping the tempo of its attacks until after the ISAF withdraws next year, at which time it will return in full force.
India is a surprise inclusion at fifth place, with almost three times as many attacks as Somalia in sixth, just ahead of Israel, which also suffered an increased number of attacks, in seventh place. Israel only just outpaced Thailand, which comes close to averaging an attack a day. Almost all of these attacks are in the troubled Muslim south.
What the HIS Janes figures show is that, if there really is a "war on terrorism", it has not been particularly successful. Overwhelmingly, things got worse, globally, rather than better.
If there is a positive side to any of this, at least very few terrorist attacks occurred in developed Western countries, which is where we live. We are safe, so long as we are careful about where we travel, for the time being.
It is reasonably widely accepted that Osama bin Laden was able to stay in the Pakistan town of Abbottabad because he had the protection of Pakistan’s military, in particular its powerful Inter Services Intelligence organisation. It would have been all but impossible for bin Laden to have stayed in one place in Pakistan without the ISI knowing, implying it at least tolerated his presence. More likely, the ISI’s involvement was more active than mere tolerance.
The question is, then, no longer whether bin Laden had the active support of the ISI but why Pakistan’s premier intelligence organisation – from a country which is long-time ally of the United States – would host the US’s number one enemy on its soil. At risk is not just the defence relationship with the US but, more importantly, the major strategic deterrent to Pakistan’s principle enemy, India. It also risks the important, $7.5 billion, US aid budget to Pakistan.
For every Australian tired of bad news – disasters, political disputes and public people behaving badly – here is some good news. While nobody was noticing, late last year Australia pipped Norway to achieve the highest standard of living in the world.
The leaking of more than 91,000 US military intelligence files on the war in Afghanistan via the whistleblower website Wikileaks has, in all, told us some of what was known, much of what was suspected and all of which was feared by citizens of the states that are contributing to the war.
What might have been hoped for in yesterday’s newspapers was at least an outline of the leaks’ key findings, as reported internationally. This is of particular relevance given the Australia is a party to the war and sustains – and causes -- casualties.
Some of the key elements of the Afghanistan Wikileaks include that, at more than 91,000 documents, it vastly overshadows the 1971 Pentagon papers (a little over 4000 documents) and provides a near complete synopsis of how the war has been conducted between 2004 and the end of last year.
You wouldn’t expect a surgeon to recommend Chinese medicine to his patients. His advice usually involves a scalpel and some nasty cutting. Similarly, it would be surprising for military men to advocate political solutions to global conflicts. It’s not their area of professional expertise. By default they lead with their strongest suit – organised violence - not geopolitics or diplomacy.
Like economists and market forecasting, the consistent failure of military options in the modern world is rarely a deterrent, or even disheartening, for men with guns. Victory is always only just another battalion or squadron away. However, after eight long and costly years, it is increasingly obvious to most Australians that there are no military solutions to Afghanistan’s complex social and political problems. The Taliban, even without aircraft, satellites or armour, are unlikely to be defeated by either Western troops or their local proxies.