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What Does It Mean to 'Win' in Afghanistan?

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

The Central Intelligence Agency published an assessment in 1985 -- "The Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan: Five Years After" -- that analyzed Soviet efforts to establish peace and stability in Afghanistan.

Read now, the assessment sounds familiar.

"They are still searching for an effective way to pacify Afghanistan short of a massive infusion of military forces," said his now-declassified assessment.

"Most Afghans," it said, "never had much sense of national identity, and many (fighting) bands -- probably the majority -- tend to place local interests first."

"Some bands," it said, "follow Islamic fundamentalists who say they want to make Afghanistan into a theocratic state. A smaller number voice allegiance to moderate Islamic figures, who envision a secular government similar to those before the Communists came to power."

The CIA did not believe the Soviets would make significant gains in Afghanistan even if they significantly increased their military presence.

"Although the Soviets can drive insurgents from any area temporarily and will occasionally score victories against individual bands, they will be unable to establish control over much of the country," said the assessment.

But, the CIA believed, the Soviets were in it for the long haul.

"In our view," the assessment concluded, "they probably cling to the hope that -- despite the dismal results thus far -- their efforts to buy support for the Kabul regime, rebuild the Afghan armed forces, and seek converts by promoting social and economic reforms will eventually bear fruit."

Two years passed. The war continued. In February 1987, the CIA published another now-declassified assessment: "The Costs of Soviet Involvement in Afghanistan."

"Seven years later," it said, "the Soviets find themselves bogged down in a guerrilla war, the Soviet-installed regime in Kabul remains weak and ineffective, and the Afghan military remains incapable of quelling a resistance that has grown substantially in numbers, effectiveness, and popular support."

In 1989, after 10 years, the Soviets gave up.

That did not bring peace and stability to Afghanistan, but it did allow for the rise of the Taliban.

The State Department report on human rights in Afghanistan for 2000 -- published about seven months before 9/11 -- described the ongoing instability in that nation.

"Afghanistan continued to experience civil war and political instability for the 21st consecutive year," said the report.

After the 9/11 attacks, with an authorization from Congress, President George W. Bush invaded Afghanistan to go after al-Qaida and remove the Taliban regime. But in a May 1, 2003 speech, he declared a new goal for Afghanistan: "freedom."

"The advance of freedom," Bush said, "is the surest strategy to undermine the appeal of terror in the world."

Fourteen years later, Afghanistan is not free. But the U.S. is still at war there.

In his report for the second quarter of this year, the lead inspector general for Operation Freedom's Sentinel, the U.S. mission in Afghanistan, noted "the resilience of the Taliban."

"Despite considerable casualties, the Taliban continues country-wide attacks in areas under Afghan government control, while retaining control of large swaths of urban and rural Afghanistan," the IG said.

The IG noted that even the secretary of defense is now claiming the U.S. is not winning this 16-year-old war.

"In testimony to Congress in June 2017, Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis described Taliban activity as 'surging right now,' explaining that the Taliban 'had a good year last year and they're trying to have a good one this year,'" said the IG.

"Secretary Mattis also acknowledged that the U.S. was 'not winning in Afghanistan right now,' and promised a new strategy by July 2017," the IG said.

In a speech this week at Fort Myer, President Donald Trump explained this new strategy.

"We are not nation-building again," Trump said, correctly rejecting Bush's policy.

"We will fight to win," Trump said. "From now on, victory will have a clear definition: attacking our enemies, obliterating ISIS, crushing al-Qaida, preventing the Taliban from taking over Afghanistan, and stopping mass terror attacks against America before they emerge."

Only the last of these goals truly matters.

If we managed to obliterate ISIS, crush al-Qaida, and prevent the Taliban from controlling Afghanistan, but some other radical Islamist group were to use Afghan territory to successfully plan and perpetrate a terror attack on the United States, we would have lost the war.

If ISIS, al-Qaida, the Taliban or any other radical Islamist groups continue in existence -- in Afghanistan or elsewhere -- but are stopped from committing terrorist attacks against the United States, we win.

Had 19 radical Islamist hijackers -- none of whom were from Afghanistan -- been denied visas to enter the United States before 9/11, they could not have perpetrated 9/11.

But we let them in.

Winning in Afghanistan is not about what happens there. It is about what happens here.

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