One of the main questions about Afghanistan is whether we can win there or not. Of course, before it can be decided whether we can win or not, there needs to be a clear definition of what counts as a win and what counts as a loss. Clearly, there can be numerous levels of victory (or loss), but we need to have a clearer picture of our goals and then it will be possible to provide a better assessment of whether they can be realistically achieved using the resources we are willing to spend.
If we set a rather lofty goal, like creating a functional democracy, then victory is all but impossible. We lack the resources and the capacity to create a functional nation from what is currently available. Also, there is the moral question about whether we should be doing that sort of thing or not-after all, it seems unlikely that we have the moral right to impose a country on people. Also, the people of Afghanistan have not been able to achieve this over the centuries, hence it seems unlikely that we can do it in a matter of years or even decades.
If we set a more realistic victory condition like weakening the Taliban and Al Qaeda, then this would seem possible. After all, we did it before and presumably can do it again-unless we get distracted by another war (perhaps Iran this time…). Obviously, we need to take into account the fact that changes took place in Afghanistan while our main attention was on Iraq and it must be determined just how much these changes will impact the cost of this sort of victory.
Weakening these groups will be very much like pest control-we will be committed to maintaining our efforts for the foreseeable future, otherwise they (like roaches) will surge back. We saw this happen when we shifted our efforts to Iraq and we can expect it to happen whenever we look away in the future. As such, we can expect to be paying an ongoing price to maintain this sort of victory. This is, of course, quite doable. After all, we have been maintaining forces around the world and this would be more of the same.
It would, of course, be preferable to be able to completely neutralize the Taliban and Al Qaeda. While this would be extremely challenging and quite costly, it does not seem to be beyond the realm of possibility. Naturally, we would also have to ensure that other groups did not arise to take their place, otherwise we would be just exchanging one problem for another. Having a lasting solution of this sort would require addressing the conditions that give rise to such groups in an effective an enduring manner.
I am not sure that we can do this. After all, we have not been able to neutralize gangs and other criminal organizations in our own country. However, we can probably have a “war on terror” that is as effective as our own “war on crime” and “war on drugs.” That is, we can suppress the problem (at great cost) while never being able to truly achieve an end to the war.
Realistically, I think we can expect to stay in Afghanistan for decades. I suspect that we cannot remake Afghanistan into a self-sustaining state. I also suspect that we cannot fix the underlying conditions that gave rise to the Taliban. So, we have to be ready for a long haul-assuming that it is worth the price. We should, of course, consider whether it is worth the cost to stay there and to assess what would happen if we simply packed up and left (again).