What Afghanistan victory really looks like

America is ramping up its troop strength in Afghanistan again. Not to the dramatic, six-figure force we once had there, but something close to a 50 percent increase, depending on which numbers we use.

The numbers can be deceptive – and it turns out that was intentional. There was something of a wink-wink, nudge-nudge going on at the Pentagon with regard to American troop strength in both Afghanistan and in the Iraq-Syria battlegrounds with ISIS. In Afghanistan, where the Obama administration put an 8,400-troop cap on deployments, we’ve got about 11,000 U.S. troops. In Iraq and Syria, where the Defense Department has consistently reported troop strength at just over 5,200, we’ve actually got more than 7,000.

And now, we’re going to send nearly 4,000 more troops to Afghanistan. Or more – we'll see how much winking and nudging accompanies troop counts going forward.

But no matter, really. What’s important here is a renewed commitment to making things happen in Afghanistan – good things. The rosiest face that our commanders there have been able to put on the situation lately is that we’re at a stalemate with the Taliban and various other insurgent and terrorist groups, including al-Qaida and Islamic State. Stalemate isn’t good enough, because next comes attrition – and Afghan soldiers disappearing into the night once again.

President Trump has been firm in his resolve. He wants to see victory in Afghanistan. He’s putting hard pressure on Pakistan to stop allowing safe haven for groups supporting the Afghan insurgency and we wouldn’t be surprised to see him further ramp up our troop strength and take the shackles off cross-border missions.

We also wouldn’t be surprised to see more soldiers from the 82nd Airborne soon joining the 1,500 1st Brigade Combat Team paratroopers deployed to Afghanistan, in Helmand Province.

The individual units’ goals are primarily training and advising Afghan security forces. There still aren’t enough Afghan troops to get the job done, and they need more training.

But there’s a bigger goal that needs more definition too: What does victory in Afghanistan look like? Surely no one familiar with the country expects that the end state will be a functional democratic government arising after the insurgencies are thoroughly obliterated. That simply isn’t possible in that part of the world.

Harvard scholar Emile Simpson recently suggested in a Foreign Policy article that we need to adjust our view. Afghanistan, he said, is really an ongoing “armed policing operation” where security forces collect evidence and take captured militants into custody for trial. “There is no moment of victory as such,” he writes, “but rather an ambition to achieve and maintain relative ‘stability,' which is only ever a provisional state.”

That means a long-term American presence in Afghanistan, because as long as we’re there, the Taliban can’t take over and become the government. Last time that happened, we were gifted with the 9/11 attacks, and there’s little doubt that if we leave, the country will again become the world’s leading exporter of terrorism.

And while we’re there, Simpson suggests, we also need to keep the pressure on the Afghan government – best described as a disorganized kleptocracy – to embrace reform.

That’s not pretty, and it’s not the decisive victory that we want. But it’s a more realistic expectation and the best way to keep the world – and our nation – safer from terrorists.