Indeed, Mahnken said that by U.S. and NATO counts, the Taliban has been defeated several times over.
While Defense Department officials were shocked at the Camp Bastion incident, they say that insurgent attacks are down 24 percent since their peak in 2010, at the beginning of the surge, according to international security force numbers.
In 2010, between the May and August fighting season in Afghanistan, there were about 14,000 insurgent attacks, according the groups statistics, which are all estimates
During the same period this year, there were about 12,000.
But thats still higher than they were in 2009 before the surge, when nearly 8,000 insurgent attacks occurred. It was that number that convinced the White House and the Pentagon that more troops were needed.
The security force statistics, however, dont account for attacks on Afghan troops unaccompanied by NATO forces. Afghan forces operating without NATO support is another trend the Pentagon frequently cites as a primary accomplishment this year.
The numbers also dont reflect insurgent attacks on civilians, which the international security force notes is common. And it only counts a quarter of the green-on-blue attacks, where uniformed Afghans turn their guns on international forces serving alongside them, like last weeks checkpoint shooting.
As in Iraq, success in Afghanistan is dependent not just on battlefield victories, but on a counterinsurgency strategy, or to borrow an expression from Vietnam, another long and unpopular war, winning the hearts and minds of the people.
Victory in Afghanistan wont come with a shipboard surrender ceremony, but when the Afghan people take control of their own destiny, said Pentagon spokesman George Little.
That means doing things like building roads and schools, and making everyday life safe.
Still, a former U.S. ambassador to NATO, Kurt Volker, said, This doesnt work if the motivation is ideology, if you fight because God wants you to fight. It becomes an impossible numbers game.
The obstacle of ideology is clear in the fight against al Qaida. Pentagon and intelligence officials estimate that al Qaida has about 100 followers in Afghanistan, but in reality, only about a quarter are active and on the ground.
The international security force numbers show that al Qaida 10 fighters were killed or captured during the first half of September, which would seem to be a serious blow. But the terror group has no shortage of volunteers, according to Bernard Finel, an associate professor of national security strategy at the National War College.
There are more people wanting to join an organization such as al Qaida than the organization can accommodate, he said. Can you ever cut off the flow of potential fighters?
Meanwhile, the pullout of most allied troops by 2014 looms over any discussion of the success of the 11-year war and the way forward.
Afghans know that the U.S. is leaving, Finel said. They also know all of these other groups will remain.
Its a waiting game, for everyone.
Jacqueline L. Hazelton, a visiting professor at the University of Rochester, who studies state-building through counterinsurgency, said in an email that given the enemys access to inside military information, the murderous episode at Camp Bastion suggests that support for the state is not increasing.
That, and the questions surrounding the numbers behind the claims of military success, she said, tell a dismal story.