Winston Churchill, while serving as a young officer fighting the Pashtuns in the 19th Century, explained the difficulty of winning the type of war he faced then and that NATO faces now:
"...there are no general actions on a great scale, no brilliant successes, no important surrenders, no chance for a coup de theatre. It is just a rough hard job, which must be carried through. The war is one of small incidents. The victory must be looked for in the results."
Some things never change. What was true in 1897 is as true in 2014.
As Britain approaches the end of its combat operations in Afghanistan, the usual fanfare associated with victory in war will be notably absent. No triumphal parades, no formal surrender ceremony, and no heroic march into an enemy's capital.
As Churchill wrote in 1897, "the victory must be looked for in the results."
The Taliban that rolled into Kandahar in 1994 is a shadow of its former self today. The Taliban as a national movement has degenerated into several smaller, weaker and localised insurgencies, each with a different set of grievances and goals. Al-Qaeda, which once used Afghan territory with impunity, no longer enjoys a safe haven in Afghanistan from which to plan and launch terror attacks on a global scale.
The Afghans are now responsible for almost 100% of their country's security. The Afghan army is not perfect, but it is capable enough to take on the insurgents themselves without the help of 100,000 western troops. To paraphrase TE Lawrence: it is better that they do it tolerably then we do it perfectly. Afghanistan's poverty means that it will depend on the West for some time into the future for financial support. If the West continues to fund, the Afghans will continue to fight.
Even with the achievements in Afghanistan's security, British politicians must start explaining to the public what Afghanistan will look like on 1 January 2015. Reasonable expectations must be established so the public will know what to expect.
Afghanistan won't be perfect or suddenly become some Switzerland in the Hindu Kush - but unless you are some idealistic dreamer who has never stepped foot in the country, this was never the goal. When NATO operations end, there will still be an insurgency in the southern Pashtun parts of the country. This doesn't mean that NATO has failed, but it is simply a reflection of the reality on the ground and in the region. India, arguably the world's largest democracy, fights two major insurgencies inside its borders today, for example.
Through local deals brokered by various tribes it is inevitable that the black flag of the Taliban will be seen flying in places where British soldiers and marines were previously fighting and dying just years before. Deals will be done between local factions that most reasonable people back in Britain would find incomprehensible, if not appalling. Allegiances between local Afghan tribes will change according to the direction in which the tide of success is seen to be flowing. This is not defeat. This is reality. This is the peculiar Afghan way of warfare in what is a deeply tribal society.
If the West continues to mentor, train and fund the Afghan military, the Afghans will be able to take on the insurgency themselves. Eventually this will establish the conditions inside which a political process can take place between Afghans, the Afghan way.
The British military has not been defeated in Helmand - far from it. It has fought in a part of central Helmand that has only 1% of Afghanistan's population but, at its peak in 2010, accounted for about 20% of the total country's violence. Her Majesty's Armed Forces have gallantly and successfully turned this part of Helmand into a relatively stable area that has led the way throughout NATO's transition process. The British public should be proud, and NATO should consider itself grateful that it has members that are willing to carry such a heavy load of the burden.
The end-of-2014 deadline for Western-led combat operations is not the end of the war but simply a continuation of the campaign by other means, led by the Afghans and supported by the international community.
It won't be pretty and there will be setbacks - after all, "it is a rough hard job."
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