Winston Churchill once described 'success' as the ability to 'go from failure to failure without the loss of enthusiasm'. By that standard, the Afghanistan war might have been considered a pretty successful venture, at least until recently, when everyone lost enthusiasm. By any other measure, it's been a disaster.
With Western leaders scrambling to justify their dash for the exit, last month's NATO summit in Chicago was, unsurprisingly, all about saving face. After all, what is there to show for 11 years at war? Beyond the rag-tag Afghan army, itself unaffordable at levels needed to deny a Taliban resurgence, the reality is that very little has been achieved, and certainly nothing commensurate with the costs. The only mitigating factor is that, because Afghanistan never mattered much in the first place, the geopolitical ramifications of its abandonment in 2014 are likely to be similarly inconsequential.
In paving a way to the exit, an expanding range of deceptive language is being deployed with increasing regularity. Earlier mantras like 'clear, hold and build' have all but disappeared, replaced with more passive, value neutral or euphemistic phrases designed to obscure the reality of failure or at least make it appear more palatable. 'Transition' and 'political solution' are two talking points we'll be hearing more of as the Afghanistan war ends.
When the US and its allies lose the stomach for small, futile wars in out-of-the-way places – think Vietnam, Iraq and now Afghanistan – two things generally happen. The first is that a local force is set up to inherit the mess and facilitate withdrawal, which becomes the overarching objective of the whole enterprise.
'Transition' becomes code for managing defeat: the culmination of a process by which the bar for success is continually lowered as previous objectives are recognised as unattainable or unnecessary and scaled back accordingly. The beauty of arriving at 'transition' is that the bar can't get...