There's a great deal of hand-wringing over whether the US "won" or "lost" in Afghanistan.
Sometimes ... it's not about winning. I know that sounds pale and empty.
I believe that the war went on far too long, and for many, many poor reasons. Chief among them was that any withdrawal would end up much as this one has. But a failure to withdraw was simply delaying the inevitable, at tremendous cost.
Some 2,000 years ago, a young leader intent on demonstrating to both the home crowd and foreign adversaries his leadership and capabilities, engaged in a military expeditionary incursion into what was then an ungoverned and ungovernable wilderness in the middle of a continent to which numerous previous empires had failed to extend their own power.
Julius Caesar built his bridge across the Rhine, marched into what is now called Germany, demonstrated that he and his army could go where they wanted, when they wanted, and cross barriers impenetrable to others in doing so. Then he withdrew and dismantled his bridge, returned to Rome, and established himself as pontifex maximus
: the greatest bridge-builder.
The United States, after being attacked by forces on its mainland home territory for the first time since 1812, had a an absolutely valid causus belli
to retaliate against Al Qaeda, their Taliban hosts (who'd been given terms and refused them), and the Afghan state, such as it existed. This is true under all accepted modern international standards of self-defence and justified military response.
Note that justified
are not identical.
The nature of Afghanistan as an only-partially-functional state (itself a large part of the reason by which Al Qaeda were operating there) made defining objectives inherently challenging. Afghanistan as a keystone to Asia, standing between numerous other regional powers (Iran, Pakistan, China, and within the spheres of interest and influence of Russia, India, and Saudi Arabia) means that its internal matters are often dominated by external influences. (Al Qaeda were themselves among these external influences.)
Smashing the Taliban's effective control was fairly trivial. Eradicating Al Qaeda, itself a small, shadowy, and fluid organisation with substantial foreign (largely Pakistani) support, proved more difficult, though the challenge involved virtually no domestic threat to the US. The problem wasn't force --- this is a classic case of killing a flea with a bulldozer --- but the finesse in applying it (something the US ultimately prevailed in).
Leaving the question of what to do with Afghanistan itself. And I'm not going to even remotely pretend to have a solution to that problem.
I do have comments on the current discussion.
Many of the critics of the US withdrawal would be critical regardless
of what was done or how it was executed. The specific complaints bear very little weight as a consequence. They're neither coherent nor made in good faith. Many of the critics of the US withdrawal are in fact its architects, or alligned with them: the previous Orange Seditious Traitorous Puppet Usurper administration. There's a credible argument that the present withdrawal was engineered specifically to make his successor appear weak and incompetent. And numerous previous administrations bear culpability for the creation and endurance of the mission, not least of all George W. Bush whose failure to either clearly define or focus on the mission, and Barack Obama who on achieving the principle objective, failed to end it.
A substantial portion of the criticism comes from the Military-Industrial-Complex (MIC), which benefits from a prolonged conflict and mission. Again, these critics and their concerns must at best be considered highly biased and questionable, if not dismissed entirely.
There are credible international voices who argue that the US mission in Afghanistan did
accomplish much goood. For the first time since the 1970s, Afghans in at least larger cities experienced something approaching a modern 20th century standard of living and rule of law, with democratic institutions and participation in the global economy. This came at enormous costs and with great corruption, and was quite arguably not self-sustaining (QED), but it did exist. For a region that's seen nearly 50 years of virtually unbroken warfare, that was a ray of light.
The US might have been wiser to look at the strategy and tactics of other powers influencing Afghanistan. (And mind: it may well have been so, I have very limited insight.) Direct confrontation is expensive and complicated. (A major part of the expense and fragility of the US presence in Afghanistan, and what's making the withdrawal so fraught and difficult, is the logistics and security infrastructure.) Other powers have exerted influence in Afghanistan through relatively small infusions of money and arms, typically supporting small guerilla groups, which themselves have served to attack soft targets either within the Afghan civillian sector, or of the US logistical pipeline.
The US could adopt a similar strategy in needling other powers, effecively bringing the conflict, or at least some of its pain, to them. This needn't necessarily be strictly military, and the US is
a skilled practitioner of soft power, propaganda, and economic warfare. The US could also operate a carrot/stick programme (and in large part did), through promoting economic opportunity. A chief challenge of this latter is that any substantial investment or infrastructure itself becomes a target of attack. Commerce and industry do exceedingly poorly in low-trust and high-risk environments.The US achieved its primary objectives in Afghanistan long ago.
Al Qaeda were destroyed, the Taliban driven from power, and the threat posed to the US mainland eliminated. And the US demonstrated that it could cross oceans and mountains and deserts, with the backing of the UN and the world, in doing so. That is an exceptional and credible demonstration of force and competence. No, the war was not "won". But the objectives of the initial operation were achieved.
But on doing so, the US did not leave.
The US has addressed other
threats from failed or low-functioning states without
getting bogged down in occupations. The methods used, relying very
heavily on unmanned aircraft and bolt-from-the-blue attacks, with considerable killing and maiming of uninvolved bystanders, haven't been perfect. They have
limited direct exposure of US troops and civillians, however, taking the threat to the enemy. (The ultimate goal and benefit of ranged weapons.) To date, America's adversaries have been unable to respond in kind, though if and when that dynamic changes, life could become quite interesting. This military policy deserves to be a stronger guide moving forward. Though it should be coupled with improving state function and legitimacy where both are poor.
Answering the question: Yes, the US won. However after doing so, it didn't recross its bridge and dismantle it.