The Afghan war is not a lost cause

Nolan Peterson Freelance War Correspondent
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Americans have lost faith in the Afghanistan War because they don’t know what winning is supposed to look like.

In a recent national CNN poll only 17 percent of Americans questioned were in support of the war, down from 52 percent in December 2008. Dwindling public support has led some to argue that the war, launched in 2001 in retaliation for the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, has become the most unpopular in U.S. history.

U.S. and Afghan soldiers on the front lines challenge the pessimistic narrative with which most Americans are familiar, claiming that they’re decisively winning the war.

But they acknowledge that progress is still fragile, and the gains of the last 12 years threaten to crumble if the White House cannot articulate a clear definition of victory and Washington and Kabul can’t come to terms over a long-term security deal designed to keep U.S. forces in Afghanistan as advisors past 2014.

Despite the tenuousness of the bilateral security agreement negotiations and the vague objectives for which they fight, U.S. and Afghan troops remain optimistic, confident that the war is not a lost cause, pointing to the proven ability of the Afghan National Security Forces to unilaterally plan and conduct operations against the Taliban, as well as encouraging political and cultural trends in Afghanistan as evidence that the U.S. and its NATO allies will leave behind a country capable of defending itself.

This, the war-fighters say, is what winning looks like.

What winning looks like

“Do you mind if we make a stop before dinner?” the U.S. Army major asked as we stepped into the pitch-black night at U.S. Forward Operating Base Shank, leaving the Afghan National Army’s war room.

“Of course not,” I replied. “I’m here to observe. Do what you need to do.” Dinner can wait.

It was the night after the final day of a bloody, weeklong battle between the Afghan National Army (ANA) and the Taliban over control a nearby town called Charkh — a battle that the ANA had won decisively.

We drove to the base clinic — a mismatched collection of shipping containers filled with medical equipment, beds and patients, connected by plywood boardwalks. We had to use headlamps as we snaked through the shipping containers; FOB Shank is blacked out at night due to the constant threat of Taliban rocket and mortar attacks.

Alone in one of those containers was the district governor of Charkh, recovering from a sniper’s bullet to the abdomen that he took while defiantly walking with ANA troops through his town’s bazaar that afternoon.

The district governor was still unconscious, lying in the hospital bed under a white sheet. A mess of tubes and wires protruded from his body, and he was intubated. The whole scene was illuminated by halogen lights that made colors seem unnatural and alien. The governor’s brother, who is an Afghan Army soldier, was standing vigil at his side, clutching a Koran, tears in eyes. There was also an interpreter in the room and an American military nurse tending to the wounded man. The movie Fast and Furious was playing on a TV at the other end of the shipping container/recovery room.

The U.S. major went to the Afghan soldier and put a hand on his shoulder. “I’m so sorry this happened,” he said, speaking through the interpreter. “But I want you to know that the doctors say your brother will be all right.”

The Afghan soldier put down his Koran and shook the American’s hands — both of them at the same time. “Thank you so much for saving my brother’s life,” he said, referring to the emergency care provided by the U.S. Army. “He would have died without you.”

“Your brother is a hero,” the American continued, pausing after each sentence for the interpreter’s words to keep pace. “He is an inspiration to all of us. He is a hero to the Americans, and people like him give us hope for your country.”

The Afghan soldier slowly nodded his head after each of the interpreter’s delayed sentences. After they were over, he gave the major a hug.

“Tashakor,” he said, bowing his head, his eyes filled with tears. “Tashakor.”

The major and I left, slipping back into the night.

At that moment, fifteen kilometers away across a dusty mountain pass, the citizens of Charkh settled in for the night, enjoying freedom from Taliban oppression for the first time in more than two years.

This is what winning looks like.

Earlier that day, Dec. 7, 2013, the ANA 4th Brigade stormed into the village of Charkh, liberating it from more than two years of brutal Taliban rule in a weeklong operation named Khanjar I, which was entirely planned and executed by the Afghan Army without assistance from U.S. or NATO forces.

Even with FOB Shank only 15 km away, the Taliban had considered their grip on Charkh so tight that the militants brazenly renamed the village “Mir Ali,” after the notorious Taliban-controlled city in Pakistan, which is the headquarters of the Haqqani network — another notorious insurgent group.

The Afghan people in Charkh suffered while the Taliban stole their food, seized their homes, shut down schools and implemented harsh Islamist laws like banning music, prohibiting women from leaving their homes and requiring men to grow their beards a minimum length.

The penalty for violating the Taliban’s rules was often death.

But all that came to an end when ANA troops stormed into Charkh’s village center and tore down the Taliban flag, burning it in the street while the local citizens openly celebrated.

The operation ultimately resulted in 21 Taliban casualties, including 17 killed in action, while the ANA suffered 10 total casualties, including two deaths. Overall, the ANA was able to clear Charkh and 13 other nearby villages of Taliban insurgents.

The operation’s success dealt both a tactical military, and strategic propaganda blow to the Taliban in Logar Province by eliminating the insurgents’ stronghold in the dusty, mountainous region and proving that the adolescent Afghan Army, which was formed in 2002 following the U.S. invasion and fall of the Taliban government, is capable of operating independently from U.S. and coalition forces.

This is what winning looks like.

Weddings, steel, and jobs.

The roads in Logar Province are lined with new construction projects. Semi-trucks loaded with wood, concrete and steel stream by endlessly. There are very few people loitering along the streets, most are on the move, en route to somewhere with something to do. Street vendors tout their goods, stores are open with crowds of shoppers lined up at the check-out counters.

Most Afghans hardly bat an eyebrow at the combined U.S. and Afghan military convoy passing by. They seem unfazed.

Women are out, alone and without male escorts. Quite a few are riding bicycles, fearlessly weaving in and out of traffic like their male counterparts. The women wear veils, but most do not wear the niqab, which covers the entire face.

The streets of Logar Province do not portend violence, or indicate a timid civilian populace hunkered down for war. The scene is of a bustling urban area in a developing country, very similar to what one might find in the periphery of India’s major cities.

Quantitative measures of Afghanistan’s revival validate these qualitative observations. United Nations officials stationed in Afghanistan report that Afghans are buying more steel and concrete to match a recent uptick in new construction. There is also a national surge in weddings, the officials said.

“People don’t build houses if they expect them to be destroyed in war,” said U.S. Army Lt. Col. Brian Beckno, commander of the 2nd Battalion, 87th Infantry Regiment, which is currently deployed to FOB Shank. Beckno added: “And people don’t get married if they have no hope for the future.”

Also supporting the claim that the Afghan people are beginning to look past the war and toward a future free of conflict is a December 2013 study by the Asia Foundation, a nonprofit international development organization that studies economic and political issues on the continent.

The study, which interviewed 9,260 Afghan men and women in all 34 provinces of the country, found that Afghans are increasingly more concerned about finding jobs than they are by the war. At the local level, according to the study, 27 percent of Afghans say unemployment is the biggest problem, compared with 14 percent who point to insecurity as their chief concern.

There is, however, growing concern in the country over the possibility for violence surrounding the upcoming 2014 presidential elections. Most Afghans still say that security is the country’s most pressing problem at the national level.

But, according to the study, the overall mood in Afghanistan is optimistic — 76 percent of Afghans say their economic situation is better now than during the Taliban period, and 57 percent say their country is going in the right direction. Three quarters of Afghans say they are satisfied with national government performance — up from 67 percent in 2008.

As a point of comparison, a Dec. 22 Rasmussen survey indicated that only 29 percent of likely registered U.S. voters felt their own country was moving in the right direction.

“Personally, I am very hopeful for Afghanistan. Our security has improved, and I feel our country is getting better and better,” said Said Rahman Abid, communications officer for the Khost-Paktiya Peace Council, speaking through an interpreter at FOB Clark.

There are other indicators that Afghanistan’s culture is evolving. About 80 percent of Afghans now own cell-phones, according to military officials. Kabul International Airport now serves multiple commercial airlines, offering international flights to destinations such as Dubai and New Delhi. Waiting at baggage pick-up, arriving passengers can check email on their smartphones using Kabul’s 3G network. The Coca-Cola soft drinks sold in Afghanistan’s street-side cafes are made and bottled by distributors in Afghanistan.

“A majority of Afghans continue to report that the country is going in the right direction,” the Asia Foundation study concluded. “Afghans express high levels of satisfaction with several basic services in their community, including education and drinking water. There is widespread awareness of the government’s reconciliation efforts, and most Afghans surveyed say these efforts can stabilize the country. A majority of Afghans report that they believe that elections in their country are generally free and fair, and that the upcoming election has potential to improve their lives.”

“Afghanistan is not hopeless,” said an aid worker for the United Nations Assistance Mission to Afghanistan (UNAMA), speaking on condition of anonymity. “There has been a lot of progress, but it is fragile and volatile. There are many bumps left in the road. But hopeless? No — far from it.”

Abid, 25, attended university in the eastern Afghanistan city of Khost, graduating with a degree in computer science. He said that Afghan culture places a high priority on education, and most Afghans aspire to achieve prestige through success in the classroom, not on the battlefield.

“Lack of education used to be a huge problem,” Abid said. “Yes, we still need better education, but literacy has improved. And now that people are more educated, they put more value in government and their future. They want to live the good life.”

On winning

The Afghan war has evolved over the past 12 years, leaving many Americans confused about the overall purpose of the conflict, and many military analysts to accuse political and military leaders of “mission creep.”

The war’s original intent of toppling the Taliban regime and bringing Osama bin Laden and his Al Qaeda terrorist network to justice evolved over the span of a decade into a counterinsurgency campaign dependent on propaganda and outreach programs (mainly infrastructure reconstruction) designed to inspire the Afghan people to trust U.S. forces and the budding Afghan government and turn their back on a revived Taliban insurgency.

The conflict’s most recent evolution has been to a new mission labeled “advise and assist,” which put an end to U.S.-led combat patrols, leaving Afghan forces in charge of nearly all combat operations — except for low-profile U.S. special operations raids, which are still conducted unilaterally. This shift in strategy has dramatically scaled back U.S. participation, leaving conventional combat operations almost entirely to the Afghan military and relegating deployed American forces to the role of trainers and mentors.

“We all have memories and impressions of how things were on other deployments and that’s hard to overcome,” said Lt. Col. Robert Marshall, 4th Battalion, 25th Field Artillery Regiment (4-25 FA) battalion commander, speaking from FOB Clark in eastern Afghanistan. “We’re making a clean break from what we did in the past.”

“We should have started doing this in 2003 or 2004,” said Army Capt. Michael Lavelle, currently stationed at FOB Clark with the 4-25 FA, referring to the advise and assist mission. “But that’s when the war in Iraq kicked off.”

The soldiers and diplomats I spoke with in Afghanistan acknowledged that significant challenges still remain for the country, and that the upcoming presidential election in April 2014 will be a tipping point for its future. But when U.S. and Afghan soldiers sit around at chow, talking casually and truthfully about their “boots on the ground” perception of how things are going, they all seemed to agree on one thing — they’re winning.

Many military personnel with multiple previous deployments to Afghanistan admitted that they were surprised by how much the ANA had improved since their last deployments, and that things are going much better now than they were a few years ago.

“Years ago this wouldn’t have been possible,” Beckno said, referring to the success of Operation Khanjar I and the ANA’s successful retaking of Charkh from Taliban control. “This is an operation that they did on their own. They planned it, executed it and won it without our help. The only thing we provided was the emergency care for the district governor. At this point, the ANA knows better than we do how to take the fight to the enemy.”

A Navy SEAL lieutenant, who asked to not be named for security reasons, assigned to advise and assist an Afghan special operations unit in Logar Province, said that he noticed “huge” advances in the capabilities and discipline of the Afghan soldiers in the two-year interval since his last deployment to Afghanistan.

“I spent a whole year with them last time,” the SEAL Lt. said. “And to see where they are now, after where they’ve been — it’s incredible.”

Even military training programs preparing U.S. soldiers to deploy to Afghanistan to train Afghan soldiers have not yet adjusted to the rapidly improving skill level of the Afghan military. U.S. soldiers report that they arrive in Afghanistan with pre-conceived ideas of a bumbling, ineffective Afghan Army, but what they end up finding is a tough, battle-hardened military force that knows how to fight, but still lacking in institutional traditions and logistical know-how.

“[The ANA] are way more efficient than we were led to believe in training to come here,” said Army Capt. James Lambright, an intelligence officer assigned to the 4-25 FA, speaking during a joint U.S.-Afghan military briefing at Matun Hill, outside the city of Khost. “Our training is way behind where they’re at.”

The American people, however, know little about the recent advances of the Afghan Army or the changing tide of the war in its favor. And it’s not the fault of the school teacher in Colorado or the factory worker in Detroit for not caring about the war or being flippant about its consequences, it’s because the war’s advances are usually only transparent to those who are intimately familiar with the conflict.

It’s difficult for military leaders to articulate to civilian journalists and the American people the significance of the nuanced, incremental victories that indicate the conflict is moving in the right direction. And western media outlets, largely reporting out of enclaves in Kabul, have mostly focused their attention on recent squabbles between President Hamid Karzai and U.S. officials over the terms of the bilateral security agreement.

But the story of the Afghanistan is much more complex and layered than just the bickering between Washington and Kabul.

“I think our idea of what victory is has evolved,” said Army Maj. Norman Stephenson, operations officer for the 4-25 FA, speaking from his office at FOB Clark. “It’s a big falsehood that you can just kill the Taliban and win this war. You’re gonna leave this country with some problems, there’s no way around that.”

Stephenson paused, and then added, “But it’s looking like we will probably leave behind a country that can deal with its own problems.”

“The progress we’ve made in Afghanistan is undeniable,” Beckno said, talking as he rode through Logar Province on a military convoy en route to a meeting with the provincial governor at his compound in Pul-i-Alam. “And the American people should be proud of that. There is a bond between the U.S. soldiers and the Afghans that is eternal. It is much different than Iraq.”

Beckno pointed to the ANA’s recent victory in Charkh as evidence of their ability to independently plan and conduct missions against the Taliban — and win.

“Khanjar proves that the Afghans are willing to get after the enemy, and they have the skills to do so,” Beckno said. “They definitely have the capability to fight on their own, now it’s a matter of shoring up their weaknesses.”

“I think our mission in Afghanistan has already succeeded,” said Army 1st Lt. Coggin Duncan, deputy team leader for SFAAT Hybrid Team 4 currently stationed at FOB Clark. Duncan’s job involves advising and assisting ANA units as they conduct operations against the Taliban. He interacts with Afghan soldiers on a day-to-day basis, developing personal relationships with many of them, and frequently traveling to “shura” meetings between the Afghan defense forces and area political leaders.

“We give the ANSF [Afghan National Security Forces] a lot less credit than they deserve,” Duncan continued. “Their level of ability is extremely high. They are definitely able to provide for their own security. The U.S. media hasn’t been reporting on that.”

Although Afghan military leaders initially resisted the scaled-back role of U.S. combat forces, they now claim the move has defused a propaganda tool frequently used by the Taliban to build popular support among the Afghan population, turning the tide of popular opinion against the insurgency and in support of the Afghan government.

One of the Taliban’s most potent recruiting tools while U.S. forces had the lead in combat operations, was the symbolic presence of non-Muslim foreign soldiers on Afghan soil fighting a war against Muslims who branded themselves as holy warriors fighting a jihad. And as nearly a decade of U.S. efforts to garner the Afghan people’s trust through provincial reconstruction projects proved, no dam, highway, or new school could decisively convince the Afghan people to trust a foreign army, which they also knew would be leaving one day.

But now that Americans are mostly off the battlefield, that familiar Taliban recruitment slogan of “fight the foreigners” has been turned upside down. The Afghan Army runs a propaganda campaign using radio stations positioned throughout the country to inform the people that the Afghan National Army, their own countrymen, are now fighting on their behalf against an army of Taliban foreigners who were trained in and are supported by bases in Pakistan. Basically, the ANA is beating the Taliban at their own game.

“The Taliban is dependent on Afghans for support,” ANA Capt. Abdul Rashid said, speaking through an interpreter at Camp Parsa, an ANA base in Khost Province. “But now that Americans are no longer on patrol, they can no longer point to having infidel soldiers in Afghanistan as reason to support the Taliban.”

“The less that we’re out there, the less the Taliban can make us the story,” said Army Maj. Sean Morrow, operations officer for the 2nd battalion, 87th Infantry Regiment, speaking from FOB Shank. “The advise and assist mission’s intent is to leave Afghanistan [with] a professional army that the people can trust. The ANA can now be the face of the Afghan government.”

Stephenson echoed Morrow’s assessment: “The distrust of foreigners has shifted from the U.S. to the Taliban, since most of the Taliban are foreigners coming from Pakistan. They don’t see U.S. troops walking around anymore, and that let’s them know the ANA is in charge.”

According to the Asia Foundation study, 88 percent of Afghans say they have confidence in the ANA. Approximately one-third, 35 percent, said they had a little or a lot of support for the armed opposition.

Marshall cautioned, however, against premature declarations that the tide of the war had decisively turned: “It’s still too early to tell if coalition forces pulling back has led to the civilian population turning a corner as far as supporting the government goes.”

But even if progress in the propaganda war is still debatable, military officials uniformly agree that the ANA has the Taliban on its heels on the battlefield  — by all accounts 2013 was a disastrous year for the insurgents.

“The enemy won’t fight us face-to-face anymore,” Rashid said. “They only plant IEDs and then run off to Pakistan. The ANA is very strong, and the Taliban knows it.”

“The ANA defeated the Taliban in 2013, and the Taliban recognizes that they lost the fight,” Morrow said, adding that the war will likely grow more violent in 2014 as the Taliban tries to regroup and disrupt April’s presidential election and the ANA looks to capitalize on the momentum of its victories in 2013.

Morrow also said that the Taliban has recognized the turning tide of the propaganda war, and has escalated the intensity of its attacks and foregone the traditional winter off-season from combat to try and diminish the newfound prestige of the ANA.

“This year there was no winter off-season from combat — it went from being an offseason to a pre-season, in anticipation of a very intense fighting season next summer,” Morrow said, adding: “But I don’t see an escalation of American commitment, no matter what happens next spring.”

No man’s land

The difficulties that military leaders face when trying to explain progress in Afghanistan is a product of the nebulous, intangible no man’s land over which this war is fought.

The challenge stems from the fact that advances in the Afghan war are not made in the mountains of the Hindu Kush or in the barren deserts of Helmand Province — they exist in the minds of the Afghan people.

Progress in the Afghanistan War is measured in trust, not miles. Terrain is irrelevant. What really matters is the perception of the people as to whether or not the government of Afghanistan and its security forces are going to last longer than the Taliban insurgency. The people have no real attachment to the Taliban, and recent polling indicates that the vast majority of Afghans think their lives are better now than they were during the Taliban period. But that doesn’t mean that they are willing to risk their well-being or their safety to openly back or endorse an Afghan government that cannot protect them from the insurgents in the long run.

That was the problem, after all, with U.S. efforts over the past decade to secure the Afghan people’s trust. Afghans knew that the United States, like countless other foreign armies that have come and gone through this ancient land, would one day leave. And no matter what temporary advantage an Afghan civilian might gain by supporting the U.S. campaign against the Taliban, they feared the eventual reckoning they would face when the U.S. departed and they were once again left on their own to face the enemy. And the Taliban are not known to forget or forgive those who have opposed them.

But the recent shift in the U.S. mission in Afghanistan to the advise and assist operation has changed the calculus of the Afghan people. There is, for the first time in the conflict, a sense among the people that there is an alternative to the Taliban that might actually last. They see the ANA taking the fight to the Taliban and winning time and time again. They don’t see U.S. forces on patrol anymore, but they see their own countrymen, in the green and black Afghan uniforms, routing the enemy and taking control of cities that had fallen under Taliban control while the U.S. was still in charge. Now, according to many Afghans, the Taliban are considered the foreigners, and the Afghan Army has become the symbol of a renewed nation shaking the chains of foreign interference.

Every inch of advance in the Afghanistan War is measured in trust. Do the people trust the government, do they trust the Afghan Army to defeat the insurgents, and do they trust the Afghan National Police to maintain the peace and rule of law? Does the Army trust the government in Kabul? Does Kabul trust the Army? Does the Afghan Army trust their American advisors, and vice versa? Can the Taliban ever be trusted enough for negotiations?

“The outcome of the war depends on the Afghan people trusting in their government,” said ANA Brig. Gen. Abdul Raziq, commander of the 4th Brigade and a former mujahideen fighter from the war against the USSR. “The Army is very strong and can defeat the enemy at any time. But a good government is like a good heart — the rest of the body cannot be strong without it.”

“You cannot wash blood with blood,” added Abid, who works on an outreach program to reintegrate former Taliban soldiers back into Afghan society. “Making the people trust the government is the most important way to win the battle against the enemy.”

Trust is the metric for winning. But it is messy, not easily explained, and hidden beneath layers of cultural misunderstandings carved by millennia. It is a difficult message to translate for the American people.

Victory is in the eye of the beholder

There will be no flag raising over Mt. Suribachi, no signing of an unconditional surrender on the deck of the USS Missouri, no jubilant sailor sneaking a kiss on an unsuspecting nurse in New York City, no crumbling Berlin Wall or toppled statues of Vladimir Lenin — not even helicopters evacuating diplomats from an embassy roof in Saigon. There will not be a clean, symbolic end to the war in Afghanistan.

So when is it over?

Despite the perception that the U.S. and its allies are winning the war, many military personnel in theater, including commanders, struggled to articulate the definition of victory.

Searching for a definition that I could use for the series of dispatches I planned to write while embedded with U.S. and Afghan forces, I ended every interview during my time in Afghanistan with the question, “When do you know that you’ve won?”

Many of the military personnel I spoke with struggled to come up with an answer. For some, it seemed like it was their first time considering the question. The responses I received were varied, and usually came after awkward moments of silence and far-off gazes while the interviewee searched for a response.

“We’re not here to make a country,” Stephenson said after taking a moment to collect his thoughts. “The long-term goal is to have the ANSF provide the people’s most basic need, which is security. And a government able to give its people a voice and the rule of law.”

“Winning is when Americans don’t have to be involved anymore,” Morrow said. “But I don’t think we will be able to say whether we won or lost this war on the day the last American troop leaves Afghanistan.”

“In most other wars there is a clear victor and a clear loser,” Beckno said. “As long as the Afghan people are happy with their government and military, and they have trust in those institutions, then that is victory.”

“Victory? It’s already happened,” Duncan opined, the captain sounding a more decisive tone. “The coming months will just solidify that the Afghans can do everything on their own.”

“Victory will be leaving Afghanistan in better shape than when we came and to achieve our national interest of eliminating a sanctuary for terrorism,” said Army Capt. Nick Dubaz, a public affairs officer serving at FOB Clark in Khost Province. “But our success won’t be measured in 2014; it will take much longer than that for the ultimate verdict on what we’ve done here.”

The fact that military personnel in theater struggled to define their objective indicates a failure of U.S. political leaders to precisely articulate the reasons for which they’ve endorsed the use of military force.

The U.S. military knows how to be winning — they are experts at that. But without clearly articulated objectives from civilian leadership, they don’t know how to win.

While U.S. commanders were able to cobble together various definitions of victory, lower-ranking personnel were quick to admit that the U.S. mission in Afghanistan did not have a clearly defined end objective.

“We don’t know what the hell we’re doing here,” said one Army Sgt. 1st Class stationed at FOB Shank, who asked to not have his name released. “They just said, ‘Go over and advise and assist.’ What does that even mean? There’s no clearly defined mission here. No one can even tell you what victory is.”

“I trained all my life to be good at killing people, and now I’m supposed to be a diplomat,” said another Army Sgt. 1st Class at FOB Shank, who also asked not to be named for this article. “Do I sound like a fucking diplomat to you?”

Marshall, a battalion commander, had a different take: “I know exactly what my mission is here, there is no question what I’m supposed to do. Whether it works is another question.”

The training wheels are off

The ANA’s casualty rate spiked following their takeover of combat operations from U.S. and coalition forces in 2013, sparking cries from some U.S. politicians and media outlets that U.S. forces have abandoned their Afghan allies to face the enemy alone.

Although Kabul no longer releases total Afghan casualty statistics, U.S. and Afghan military officials said 2013 was the deadliest year for Afghan forces since the U.S.-led war kicked off in 2001.

According to a September 2013 Wall Street Journal report, which referenced data provided by the U.S.-led coalition, the ANA is losing 34.8 percent of its manpower every year due to battlefield deaths, injuries, desertion and discharge. The Wall Street Journal also reported that during the 2013 summer fighting season, Afghanistan’s combined national security forces were losing more than 100 personnel a week to insurgent attacks, with 300 injured  — a casualty rate on par with U.S. losses during the Vietnam War.

U.S. casualties in Afghanistan in 2013, however, were at their lowest point in five years.

But U.S. and Afghan military commanders in theater uniformly pushed back against suggestions that U.S. forces have abandoned the Afghan military.

The best explanation for the increase in Afghan casualties, commanders from both countries agreed, is that the ANA is now at the tip of the spear, unilaterally taking command of all conventional combat operations. They also argued that the Taliban have ratcheted up the pace of combat following the U.S. pullback from the field, intent on proving to the Afghan people that the ANA is weak and the government is unable to provide security for its people. Therefore, military officials argued, the ANA casualty rate spike correlates with their increased presence on a battlefield that is escalating in intensity.

“The media got it all wrong,” said Army Sgt. 1st Class Jeffrey Martin, speaking from FOB Shank. “Of course the ANA is taking more casualties — but it’s because they’re out there taking the fight to the enemy. The media says we’re abandoning the Afghans, but what do they expect us to do? Stay here forever and fight their war for them? These guys (ANA) can fight, they’ve proven that, and they don’t need us to hold their hands anymore.”

Commanders from both countries agreed that the transition to an ANA-controlled battle-space is a painful process — but one that has to happen if the U.S. ever hopes to leave Afghanistan in a position to provide for its own security.

“We had the training wheels on, then we had the hand on the back of the bike, and now we’ve taking that hand off,” Marshall said. “And there’s going to be skinned knees.”

“Their greatest obstacle is us,” Morrow said, explaining the reluctance of the ANA to divorce itself from U.S. support. “They (ANA) don’t need us anymore, but they’re afraid to take the leap. They keep wanting to hold our hand. There’s an inevitable cutting of the umbilical that is going to have to happen. It will be a little painful at first, but the more help we keep giving them, the harder it will ultimately be for them to operate after we leave.”

Duncan echoed Morrow’s assessment: “The biggest issue American advisors face is how to wean them [the ANA] off of our help.”

Duncan admits, however, that it is hard to turn down requests for assistance in the heat of battle from Afghan soldiers he considers friends.

“We’ve been asked for medevacs for guys who are going to die, and we have to tell them no,” Duncan said. “We have to look them in the eye and say no. That can be tough. But unless we stop providing these capabilities for them they will never be compelled to develop them for themselves.”

“It’s difficult for any soldier to watch a fight,” Morrow added.

Verdict: U.S. needs to stay

Despite the recent success of handing over combat operations to Afghan forces, both U.S. and Afghan military officials agree that maintaining a long-term U.S. presence in the country is necessary to defeat the Taliban insurgency and keep Afghanistan from collapsing under the weight of interference from Iran and Pakistan.

“We’re about 80 percent there, but we need a little more help,” Raziq said. “Even if coalition forces do not participate in operations any more, they still help us with planning and logistics. That is a huge help.”

Washington and Kabul have been butting heads over a long-term security deal meant to keep a limited number of U.S. military trainers and advisers in Afghanistan after the formal cessation of combat operations scheduled for the end of 2014.

The bilateral security agreement, or BSA, is crucial for the U.S. military because it would grant troops immunity from prosecution under Afghan law.

A national council of tribal elders and regional leaders — the Loya Jirga — endorsed the agreement last month, but Karzai scuttled the deal, announcing final approval should wait until after April’s presidential elections. U.S. and NATO officials have since pressed Karzai to move forward on the agreement, but he so far he has refused.

Military officials point to successful operations like Khanjar I as evidence that the Afghan Army has proven itself a capable fighting force, but it still lacks the institutional traditions and logistical know-how to sustain itself in the long-run without continued U.S. money and advising. In addition to developing it’s logistical infrastructure, some of the most serious challenges remaining for Afghanistan’s combined defense forces include the development of an Air Force, a larger and better-trained cadre of medical personnel, and improved education and literacy standards for its soldiers.

The ANA also faces problems related to the good order and discipline of its forces, including factionalism among soldiers of different ethnic and tribal backgrounds, high desertion rates, and rampant drug use — about one-third of Afghan military pay goes toward buying drugs, U.S. military officials report.

“I don’t ask or need the Americans to go door-to-door fighting with me,” Raziq said. “But I do need better education for my soldiers, I need air support, doctors and better logistics. It’s hard to build an army while you are fighting a war.”

“The ANA can fight, there’s no question about that. But it’s not about the short term,” Stephenson said. “It’s obvious the Taliban are determined to continue their operations for a long time. There will always be something going. The question is whether or not the ANA can sustain itself over time.”

“We need Americans to stay in Afghanistan,” added Rashid, responding to whether the U.S. should maintain a presence in Afghanistan after 2014. “If they leave, it will not be good. We cannot stand on our two feet yet.”

U.S. officials also said that Afghanistan’s defense forces communicate poorly with each other, adding to confusion in the battle-space and distrust between the different defense branches. Communication problems between military and police units also make it difficult to consolidate gains and maintain control of conquered territory, allowing the militarily inferior Taliban to regain lost ground and stay in the fight.

“The Afghans have more than enough combat power to secure the people and allow them to worry about other things like governance,” Morrow said. “The next big step is how the army can integrate with the police. That would be the real tipping point — unity of effort among all government functions.”

To help grease the wheels of communication, U.S. military officials currently sit in on official meetings between representatives of Afghanistan’s security forces and the political leaders of the provinces within which they operate. The official role of U.S. officials, however, is only to observe the meetings and allow the Afghans to run their own operations. U.S. officials say the different branches of Afghanistan’s defense forces have made significant progress in developing more efficient channels of communication, but there is still some concern that if U.S. representatives stop attending the meetings the Afghans will stop showing up as well.

Despite the ongoing tension between Washington and Kabul over the BSA, local Afghan political and military leaders and U.S. military commanders generally have warm relationships. A December 10th meeting between the governor of Afghanistan’s Logar Province and the region’s senior U.S. military commander, Lt. Col. Beckno, highlighted that rapport.

“The people want the BSA,” Governor Amir Mohamad Niazi told Beckno during the meeting. “The people trust the United States. We have to have to mutual trust, we both have important interests here.”

“I’m proud to be on your team,” Beckno replied. “You have my loyalty.”

Back at ANA Camp Maiwan on FOB Shank, Raziq, a top Afghan National Army general and a Pashtun (the same ethnic group as Karzai), met with a group of U.S. military commanders representing the U.S. Army and a Navy SEAL team working to train Afghan special operations commandos in Logar Provice. In front of his American counterparts, Raziq strongly supported a long-term U.S. presence in Afghanistan, expressing his desire for a resolution to the BSA debate that would ensure prolonged U.S. financial and logistical support for the ANA, which he argued is vital to sustaining the fight against the Taliban.

“It is very important that we sign a strategic plan with the Americans,” Raziq said.

Beckno, who also attended the meeting with Raziq at Camp Maiwan, agreed that long-term U.S. support is needed to ensure the Taliban’s defeat, comparing the future need for U.S. support in Afghanistan to the semi-permanent U.S. presence in South Korea.

“Their [ANA] progress has been undeniable, and Americans should be proud of that,” Beckno said.  “But I still see this as being the next Korea — Afghanistan needs long-term U.S. support to be successful.”

One issue that loomed heavy on the minds of both U.S. and Afghan military officials was the recent collapse of the security situation in Iraq. The U.S. failed to reach a bilateral security agreement with the Iraqi government when U.S. ceased combat operations in 2011. Many U.S. and Afghan military officials point to the current violence in Iraq as a bellwether for what will likely happen in Afghanistan if Washington and Kabul cannot find a compromise.

“We see what is happening in Iraq,” Raziq added, referring to rising sectarian violence in Iraq that claimed 8,868 lives in 2013, according to UN estimates. “We know that if America leaves, the terrorists will be back.”

There is also another looming threat to the survival of Afghanistan’s tenuous democratic government that both U.S. and Afghan officials claim is likely more dangerous than that of the Taliban — intervention from other countries such as Pakistan, China, and Iran.

“We are facing Iran, Pakistan, Russia, China — we are not only facing the Taliban,” Raziq said. “If all American forces leave, the army we have is not enough. The country will collapse.”

In addition to the scourge of Taliban training camps that populate Pakistan’s largely ungoverned tribal areas and Waziristan region, recent Afghan media reports indicate that the Pakistani government is funding a new round of construction projects in Khost, Paktiya, Paktika and Ghazni Provinces — a move that both U.S. and Afghan officials interpret as an attempt by Pakistan’s government to establish leverage in internal Afghanistan affairs in anticipation of a power vacuum left by the complete withdrawal of U.S. forces.

China has also thrown its hat into the ring. Chinese companies have acquired rights to extract vast quantities of Afghanistan’s estimated $1 trillion worth of unexploited minerals, and secured the first oil exploration concessions granted to foreigners in decades. China has also shown interest in Afghanistan’s lithium deposits.

Rashid, an 8-year veteran of the ANA and graduate of the Afghan Military Academy, said that Chinese officials actively recruit ANA soldiers to attend special forces and commando training programs in China. He claimed to have personally attended a special forces training program in China in 2013 along with 86 other ANA soldiers. U.S. military officials acknowledged that they have heard similar stories, but were unable to confirm Rashid’s comments.

And in December, Karzai signed a joint cooperation agreement with Iran, claiming the deal would boost regional security. After the pact’s signing, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani called for the removal of all foreign soldiers from Afghanistan.

Karzai’s rapprochement with Iran and the new round of Chinese and Pakistani investment and involvement in Afghanistan’s internal affairs has both U.S. and Afghan military officials on edge.

“We need America to protect us from the influence of Pakistan and Iran and other foreign countries,” Raziq opined, referencing reports that foreign countries were running covert programs to create tensions within the ANA.

“The pressures from Iran and Pakistan are a serious problem,” Beckno said. “How do you fight against 25,000 madrasas in Pakistan? Every day this country is in a fight against outside actors.”

To make reply and reason why

There are tough questions to face at the end of any war, especially one with an objective as nebulous as the war in Afghanistan.

Is the war worth another American life? Has the war been worth its cost in blood and treasure? Is it still worth fighting?

Extended counterinsurgency campaigns like the Afghanistan War strain the resolve of a civilian population for whom the war is a nothing more than a remote series of events that have little to no impact on their daily lives.

Even military commanders begin to adopt more conservative metrics for risk management in the closing stages of such a conflict.

“My number one concern is force protection and making sure preventable losses don’t happen,” Marshall said, outlining his priorities as a commander for the 4-25 FA’s current deployment. “It’s not like it was in 2008 or 2006.”

Despite the American people growing tired with the conflict, the general attitude of U.S. soldiers in the field is that the war is still worth fighting until Afghanistan is in a position where it can sustain itself and provide for its own security.

When pressed to answer whether the conflict was still worth risking the lives of his men, Lt. Col. Marshall replied: “I care a lot about these guys — a lot.” The battle-hardened commander paused, collected himself, and then added: “But our nation asked us to come here to do a job, and we’re going to do it.”

When asked about their opinion of the U.S. war effort in Afghanistan, many Afghan soldiers expressed gratitude for the sacrifices made by U.S. soldiers.

“Everyone in the Army appreciates what America has done,” Raziq said. “We never forget that a lot of American soldiers have died to protect Afghanistan, and America has spent a lot of money to help us.”

Soldiers don’t determine the justice of a war by whether or not they are losing the fight. They assume that by virtue of them being on the battlefield their political leaders have already made that decision for them. As Lord Tennyson wrote in “The Charge of the Light Brigade,” Theirs not to make reply, / Theirs not to reason why, / Theirs but to do and die.

Civilians and their counterparts in the media, on the other hand, are much more inclined to judge a war based on whether their armies are winning or losing.

History ultimately will render its verdict on the justice of the Afghanistan War based on whether or not the U.S. and its coalition partners achieved victory — whatever that might prove to be.

And while the definition of victory may remain elusive, there are two other definitions that I was able to confidently glean from my time in Afghanistan.

First, the U.S.-led coalition and the ANA are winning the war. The Taliban are constantly on the defensive on the battlefield, public opinion is shifting to increasingly support the ANA and the Afghan government, and the combined Afghan National Security Forces have demonstrated that they are able to independently plan and execute successful operations against the enemy. That is what winning looks like.

Second, if Washington and Kabul cannot sign a long-term security deal to keep U.S. advisors in Afghanistan past 2014, the war will be lost. While all markers of progress in the Afghanistan War are trending in favor of the U.S. coalition and the ANA, that progress is still fragile, and will almost certainly collapse if Afghanistan is left on its own to fight the Taliban insurgency and the destructive meddling of neighboring Pakistan and Iran. The collapse of the Soviet-backed Republic of Afghanistan government after financial support dried up following the collapse of the USSR and the recent collapse of the security situation in Iraq are warnings for what will likely happen to Afghanistan if Washington and Kabul are unable to reach a deal. That is what defeat looks like.

Despite the clarity with which winning and defeat can be articulated, victory remains an enigma. And in the end, the ultimate definition of victory should not rest in the keystrokes of one journalist, or in the opinions of a military commander at some dusty outpost. That definition is the sole responsibility of the commander in chief of the U.S. armed forces. And this is a critical time in the war for such a definition to be precisely articulated.

As long as politicians consent to having U.S. troops on the battlefield, military leaders and the soldiers they command will find justifications for the effort. They will find a way to be winning. That’s their job. Deciding when those soldiers have won will ultimately rest in the hands of those responsible for sending them to war.

Parting thought

Despite all the nuance required to measure success in Afghanistan, the reasons why individual soldiers fight remain simple and precise. For the military, the ultimate value of the conflict is not found in the ebb and flow of winning and losing through which civilians and the media are more prone to look.

The military’s desire not to pull out of the war before Afghanistan can defend itself is founded on a sense of pride and work ethic that does not easily translate to a civilian audience.

“We need to ensure that no matter what responsibilities we assume we follow through and finish things because that’s the right thing to do,” Marshall said. “It’s easy to question things, but at the end of the day when you sign the nation up for war, we need to follow through. We are on the international stage, and all eyes are on us.”

One Army Captain, who had previously deployed to both Afghanistan and Iraq, spoke with me over a hamburger at the FOB Clark chow hall. He told me about the typical questions people asked him prior to deploying.

“They never asked me how things are going, or if we’re winning,” he said. “They just ask, ‘Why do you have to go back? What’s the point?'”

He shook his head, exasperated, and then talked about how the media has painted an inaccurate picture of the war, and how people back home have tuned out and don’t know what’s really going on.

I asked him what he told people when they asked him why he had to go back.

He didn’t miss a beat.

“Because it’s my job.”