Stalemate: That’s the word of choice being used by U.S. generals to describe the Afghan War. What, exactly, is a stalemate? I played chess at an early age, caught up in the Bobby Fischer craze of the early 1970s, and I still play occasionally. In chess, a stalemate is a special kind of draw, and an often frustrating one. Put concisely, “Stalemate is a situation in the game of chess where the player whose turn it is to move is not in check but has no legal move.”
For example, I may be winning decisively, with only my opponent’s king left on the board. But if I carelessly put my opponent’s (unchecked) king in such a position that his only move is into harm (or “check”), the position is stalemated. My decisive material advantage makes no difference: the game is over, it’s a draw. In effect, given my material advantage, it’s a win for him and a loss for me.
Is the Afghan War “stalemated”? Not according to the US military, since it believes the “stalemate” can be reversed, that the US can still “win.” Indeed, President Trump has already gone on record last week as saying his administration is winning in Afghanistan. No stalemate here.
A stalemated chess match is simply a bad metaphor for the Afghan War. It’s not that one side can’t make a legal move, therefore the game is over. (Would that the war could end so easily and cleanly!) The situation today in Afghanistan is that the Taliban continues to tighten its grip on the country, or, in chess terms, it’s enlarging its span of control over the board, even as US and Coalition forces send more troops, expend more munitions, and issue more reports about how they can still win – as long as US generals get exactly what they want.
So, if stalemate is the wrong word, what is the right one? I have one: defeat. US and Coalition forces have been fighting the Afghan War for 16 years. Surges have come and gone. More than a trillion dollars has been spent. Yet the enemy retains the initiative and largely dictates the terms of the conflict. Whatever this is, it isn’t “victory”; it’s not “progress”; nor is it “stalemate.” It’s a lost position, a defeat, pure and simple.
There’s nothing wrong with defeat. The very best chess grandmasters lose; and when they do, they almost always tip their king and resign before they’re checkmated (defeated utterly). By doing so, they conserve their energy for the next opponent, even as they study the lost game so they can learn from their mistakes.
Isn’t it time the US did the same in the Afghan War? Admit a lost position, resign, and withdraw? Then learn?
Trump, of course, says he’s all about winning. He’ll continue to push pieces about the board, despite the lost position. This is not reversing a stalemate (which, by the rules of chess, can’t be done). It’s only delaying defeat – at a high cost indeed to all those “pieces” being shunted about and sacrificed on the chessboard that is Afghanistan.
William J. Astore is a retired lieutenant colonel (USAF). He taught history for fifteen years at military and civilian schools and blogs at Bracing Views. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Reprinted from Bracing Views with the author’s permission.