America “won” in Afghanistan years ago, but the analysts in think tanks, the press, and the intelligence agencies missed it. Sound confusing? Let me explain. The Afghan security forces and their leadership have always been the key to victory, and the winner of the war was decided when the U.S. and NATO decided to make a long-term investment in a professional security sector—that happened in 2002 and 2003. But claiming an ultimate American or NATO victory has never been important to the war effort.

Victory Shown in the Afghan People and the ANDSF

The Afghan people are the only ones that can assign victory or defeat to this war. They do so by sustaining human rights and democratic principles while constantly building a secure environment for education, healthcare, and other societal advances to occur. This is all enabled by the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF). The ANDSF is the foundation for a peaceful Afghanistan—it always has been.

I saw another evergreen headline recently, celebrating the strength of the Taliban movement, and its ability to “outlast a superpower” in Afghanistan. This demonstrates clearly that the pundits never understood the mission in Afghanistan, and unfortunately that has not allowed American citizens, or Afghans, to fully understand it. This has never been about America or NATO versus the Taliban; it’s about the Afghan people versus those who commit violence and crime in their nation.

The war in Afghanistan was never America’s to win. It has always been the Afghan people’s victory to achieve. The analysts and critics of the war have been vainly trying to prove that America could never win the war in Afghanistan. The war in Afghanistan was technically won by the U.S. the moment it decided that building the Afghan security sector was the path to helping the Afghans achieve victory. The United States is the supporting actor in this war. The Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF) are the lead actor and are the path to victory, if it can be found. Analysts need to focus on the Afghan and Taliban efforts to determine the ultimate winner.

When did I realize that the key to victory was the success of the ANDSF? In 2002, when the U.S. started its first formally named Security Sector Reform mission in Afghanistan beside the Interim Afghan government and empowered by the United Nations.

I recalled on my journey home from Afghanistan in 2003, the time a visiting Pakistani delegate in Kabul told my boss, “don’t waste your time building a large Afghan army, it won’t matter.” That 2003 Pakistani comment was the second time I realized the ANDSF was the path to victory for the Afghan people. In South Asia, whatever Pakistan suggests you do for Afghanistan should be seen as the opposite of sensible. The creation of and 19 years of mentoring and fighting beside the ANDSF has been the most essential act of the war for peace in Afghanistan.

Stepping Back in Time

In 2001 when the U.S. entered Afghanistan about six weeks after the September 11th terrorist attacks on Americans, the mission was to find and destroy Al Qaeda in Afghanistan and anyone that aided them. That goal was achieved quickly. Al Qaeda in Afghanistan was killed, hid, or ran towards other nations. The invasion and campaign against terrorists in Afghanistan clearly didn’t stop terrorism worldwide, but it shut down AQ in Afghanistan as a headquarters.

But that wasn’t the entire U.S. mission in Afghanistan. America had three major goals:

  1. Find and end AQ in Afghanistan, ensuring they didn’t use Afghanistan as a headquarters in the future
  2. Remove the illegitimate Taliban regime from power in Kabul
  3. Assist a new Afghan government until they were able to lead their people and secure themselves

Headlines today seem to have added a 4th U.S. goal, “Fighting the Taliban until the last Taliban member is dead.” This was not and is not a U.S. goal. The 3rd American goal negated that idea from the start. The U.S. was clear they were there to help Afghans, to be able to help themselves to ward off the Taliban and any other anti-Government or anti-Afghan enemies. The main effort in Afghanistan from 2002 onwards was the 3rd US strategic goal.

I got to Afghanistan in 2002 and was on MG John R. Vines staff as an engineer. I sat in the operations meetings daily. Our mission at the 82nd Coalition Task Force was to hunt and kill terrorists and their allies. I flew around Eastern Afghanistan ensuring infrastructure was in place to support that mission for a few months. After we finished the airfield at FOB Salerno, I was picked to join MG Karl Eikenberry on the other U.S. mission, to help build the new Afghan National Army and other security organizations.

As I left MG Vines team, he gave me a handshake and friendly punch, and said “you are now joining the main effort, Jason. Building the Afghan Army is how we end our fight.”

I didn’t fully appreciate his words. I was a lieutenant at the time, but I would soon figure out what the press and pundits and many military leaders never seemed to. But those confused military commanders luckily didn’t write U.S. policy; the three major U.S. goals in Afghanistan remain unchanged today.

At MG Eikenberry’s side for the next 10 months, we worked with the Afghan government to reform their entire security sector (military, police, courts etc.) and build the first corps-sized element of the Afghan Army (a division in U.S. terminology). MG John Vines would return shortly, replacing LTG Dan McNeill, as the senior commander in Afghanistan, and then he joined us in meetings with Afghan leaders as we built their security forces. A year later, when I left Afghanistan in 2003, I looked at the Afghan security sector that had been created, and it was pretty good for a one-year-old military…much better than the U.S. Army on its first birthday.

That 3rd part of the U.S. policy —to help the Afghans to help themselves, became the main effort in 2002 and although most failed to notice it, that was the only part that mattered when you look forward to how the war will end.

The ANDSF Success Leads to Taliban Peace Talks

The Afghan security forces, known today as the ANDSF have grown in capability and professionalism since the first battalion was created in 2002. They grew so large and capable that in 2014, NATO agreed with the Afghan government and determined the ANDSF were strong enough to take over the full leadership role of the fight against Afghanistan’s enemies in 2015.

Since 2015 began, the NATO mission, with America making up the bulk of the force, has switched to a supporting role while the Afghans themselves became the main effort. This is exactly in accordance with the original strategy for Afghanistan. If historians are looking for the moment when the U.S. goals were met, it will be this hand-off in the war. Until this moment, the Americans (and the NATO-plus coalition) on the ground had fought Afghanistan’s enemies, sometimes alone, but often beside their Afghan partners. These U.S. operations were meant to give the Afghans the precious time they needed to build their force up.

Today, the ANDSF is confident and highly capable, and they are responsible for over 90% of the ground attacks against the Taliban and the terrorists in Afghanistan. Their Air Force is the last force the U.S. helped to create, yet they are now flying the majority of the attack missions.

Historians can also mark in their notes the moment the Afghans, through their ANDSF champions, defeated the neo-Taliban movement, that returned shortly after the American/United Front forces ejected them in 2001. That moment was when the Taliban publicly admitted they would enter a peace process with the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan. That was the moment the Taliban quietly admitted to themselves that they cannot defeat the ANDSF militarily, so they better try a diplomatic strategy.

Decision Time for the United States

Now that the U.S. goals have been met in Afghanistan, they have a decision to make. It is much like the decisions in the early 1990s when the U.S. partnered with Afghan “Mujahedeen” to drive out a violent regime. The U.S. faltered after helping to force out the Soviet-backed communist regime from Kabul. The U.S. decided to leave the region and decrease the funding to the Afghans before the nation was stabilized.

As the U.S. (and NATO) remove advisory and other forces, they must decide if they are going to continue to fund their ANDSF allies for the next few years at full strength so they can make sure the current peace process finds a durable peace. The risk of cutting all funding off quickly, is that the Taliban, supported by Pakistan, may be able to gain enough strength to destroy the fragile peace that may appear in the next few years. Funding the ANDSF might also include funding a South/Central Asia regional counterterrorism and SOF center of excellence in Kabul. That is another decision on the table for Afghan partners.

So, America can finish helping the Afghans win their war against the Taliban movement, or walk away and pay the price later if the terrorist groups in the region once again make Afghanistan their home base. The ANDSF have earned our trust, they have bled beside us, and for the last five years, they have fought the Taliban until the Taliban movement did the unthinkable—enter peace talks with the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan.

The choice seems clear for every partner of Afghanistan today: win the peace through long-term economic, security, and diplomatic engagement or set the region ablaze again and pull too much support from the Afghan government and people.

What to assess to understand the Afghan War

So, when the pundits tell you the Taliban are just about to win the war, ask them why the Taliban haven’t done it already? The Taliban and Pakistan will tell you, if they are honest, that the ANDSF is too large and too capable. The pundits might tell you that the Taliban have cities surrounded, as if that means they could actually take, hold, and govern the population centers of Afghanistan. The evergreen analyst view of the Afghan war is that the Taliban are always building strength, and they have the ANDSF surrounded. That is stated as if it means the Taliban are some highly-capable force that is well trained for urban combat and has the logistics capability and reserve fighting forces to take and hold a large city.

How would you assess a thief that has sat in his car outside a mansion for 19 years claiming that he could break in and rob them blind anytime he wants to? You could say he is a master-thief just waiting for the right moment. You might also have to admit, he is an amateur with a good PR firm that can’t seem to find the will or capability to actually jump the fence and enter the house.

If you want to know who will win the war in Afghanistan, it is better to look at the indicators of long-term capability. Until a peace agreement is reached and a comprehensive ceasefire is enacted, these are some areas worthy of study.

Communications, Training, and Trust

The Taliban has an excellent propaganda machine. The Islamic Republic of Afghanistan is struggling to match them. As morale wins wars, this is a useful thing to study. Can the Republic convince the right number of Afghans to stop supporting the Taliban dream? Only time will tell. The Islamic Republic of Afghanistan must at least improve its ability to make public statements in the Western Press (where the development funding comes from). I am always dismayed by how quickly the Taliban can get its messages into the AP or NYT, while the Afghan government struggles to quickly write and publish a simple Op-ed.

The ANDSF must continue to recruit, train, and deploy forces across the nation to stop Taliban, criminal, and terrorist activities. The Taliban must also continue to grow and sustain its militias. While many are angry that they cannot easily access the ANDSF numbers that might help see the future of force generation, they should be working equally as hard to look at the Taliban data on this topic. At the moment, the ANDSF seem much more capable of turning civilians into proficient war-fighters. In the end, the ability to stay on the battlefield will determine victory. It would be beneficial to the ANDSF to make their numbers more publicly available. Although some of the negative ANDSF statistics will be used in Taliban propaganda, the possibility of future foreign funding of the ANDSF will hinge on their progress. The Islamic Republic of Afghanistan must open the books to show donors how they are doing.

Earning the trust of the people is another critical assessment topic. Surveys about this topic by the Asia Foundation are very illuminating. At the moment, the Afghan people surveyed (they surely didn’t interview as many in the Taliban strong holds) trust the ANDSF much more than the Taliban. The constant focus of the ANDSF to respect their citizens human rights and to be their guardians, and not their masters, has had an effect. If the Taliban continue their trend of daily war crimes against Afghan civilians and allowing other terrorists to target Afghan women and children, I don’t expect the trust of the people in the ANDSF will be decreasing any time soon.

There are many other ways to assess the progress in and the future of the Afghan war. It’s important to move beyond labeling the Afghan war as an American or NATO victory or loss, and it needs to be the first step taken in discussions regarding the war. Look at the ANDSF and Taliban force generation, where the Afghan people place their trust, and who is winning the public relations and propaganda battles daily.

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Jason spent 23 years in USG service conducting defense, diplomacy, intelligence, and education missions globally. Now he teaches, writes, podcasts, and speaks publicly about Islam, foreign affairs, and national security. He is a member of the Military Writers Guild and aids with conflict resolution in Afghanistan.