Remember Barack Obama’s speech on 1 December 2009, in which he announced his troop surge for Afghanistan? The US president was mocked and derided by neoconservatives for failing to use the word “victory” even once.
In an interview in today’s Times (£), General Sir David Richards, the Chief of the UK’s Defence Staff, has no such reservations. He doesn’t use the word “victory” either but makes it very clear that he thinks we’ll be triumphant in Afghanistan and “come out of it with our heads held high”.
But, he adds a rather important if bizarre caveat:
At the end of the day, we won’t know [if it has succeeded] until 2018, ’19, ’20.
Well, that’s that then. A nice get-out. The war in Afghanistan may look, feel and sound like a disaster right now, with soldiers dying on a weekly basis, but – hold on! – wait 10 years, it’ll all look fine then. Can you imagine Winston Churchill telling the British in 1940: “We will fight them on the beaches and I promise you, come 1950, it’ll look like a victory?”
The biggest issue with Afghanistan, of course, is how you define victory. Is it the obliteration of the Taliban? An end to the threat from Al Qaeda in Afghanistan? The protection of women’s rights? The elimination of the drug trade? Liberal democracy from Kabul to Kandahar?
I’m always reminded of how the late Richard Holbrooke once compared the difficulty in defining success in Afghanistan to recognising pornography. Addressing a panel in August 2009, Obama’s envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan was asked about how he saw victory occurring in Afghanistan, and what he would do to bring about such a victory.
Holbrooke replied that the US had to be “clear about what our national interests are” but that, ultimately, success would require taking “a ‘Supreme Court test’: we”ll know it when we see it”.
Holbrooke’s reference was to a famous line attributed to US Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart about how to identify pornography!