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Afghanistan’s Legacy: Emerging Lessons of an Ongoing War

Author: Stephen D. Biddle, Adjunct Senior Fellow for Defense Policy
June 1, 2014
The Washington Quarterly


The war in Afghanistan is not over. Nor is it ending any time soon. The U.S. role may end in 2016, in whole or in part, but the war will continue—and its ultimate outcome is very much in doubt. The conflict is now stalemated militarily, and will likely stay that way as long as outsiders pay the large bills needed to keep the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) in the field and fighting. The war will thus grind onward until this funding dries up or the two sides negotiate a compromise settlement, neither of which is imminent. Depending on how any talks unfold, historians in 2050 could thus look back on this war as a costly but tolerable outcome for the West, as a wasteful disaster, or as something in between; for now, all we know for sure is that it continues.

Yet, for many Americans the war is already receding in the rearview mirror. President Obama, for example, often suggests that by as early as 2014 "this long war will come to a responsible end."1 It will not, in fact, but Americans could be excused for thinking otherwise, given such framing. Nor is the President alone in this thinking, though many of his compatriots are taking a notably less optimistic tone in their retrospectives.

Among the most important of these pre-postmortems is an emerging debate on the war's lessons. Perhaps the most common position is that Afghanistan shows the futility of counterinsurgency (COIN). By contrast with the President's view, many now believe the war can already be deemed a failure in spite of massive investment.

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