PANETTA EXPLAINS WHAT ‘WINNING’ LOOKS LIKE…. CIA Director Leon Panetta sat down for a pretty interesting interview this morning with ABC’s Jake Tapper, who asked a question that often goes unasked: after nine years, what, exactly, does “winning” in Afghanistan look like?

“Winning in Afghanistan is having a country that is stable enough to ensure that there is no safehaven for Al Qaeda or for a militant Taliban that welcomes Al Qaeda,” Panetta told host Jake Tapper. “That’s really the measure of success for the United States.”

“Our purpose, our whole mission there, is to make sure that Al Qaeda never finds another safehaven from which to attack this country. That’s the fundamental goal of why the United States is there,” he said. “And the measure of success for us is: do you have an Afghanistan that is stable enough to make sure that never happens.”

That sounds straightforward enough. Indeed, it’s always been the most compelling rationale against withdrawal — we leave, the Karzai government falls, the Taliban seizes Afghanistan in its entirety, and al Qaeda renews its base of operations. In other words, as the argument goes, our departure would create an Afghanistan that was practically identical to the one that existed before October 2001. “Winning,” then, is the opposite — no Taliban rule, no al Qaeda safe haven. Got it.

But even if we put aside the fact that the Taliban already has control of much of Afghanistan, making “victory” that much more elusive, the measure of success is still dependent on a Karzai government that can function, deliver services with competence and without corruption, and be viewed as legitimate by Afghans. And by that measure, hope is elusive.

Fred Kaplan explained this week, “If the government is incompetent, corrupt, or widely viewed by the people as illegitimate, then a counterinsurgency campaign — no matter how brilliantly planned or valiantly fought — is futile…. The U.S. military is doing its part; the Afghan government isn’t.”

Take the ongoing campaign in Helmand province. In March, Gen. McChrystal moved 15,000 Marines into Marja, a Taliban stronghold in southern Afghanistan, with the goal of killing or sweeping out the insurgents, then moving in what he called “government in a box.”

Two things went wrong: First, the Taliban, though initially swept out, kept coming back, especially at night. Second, and more to the point, the government-in-a-box never arrived. It never existed in the first place, in part because an Afghan government — of which this was to be a mobilized chunk — doesn’t really exist, either.

Polls suggest that the Taliban are not popular among the Afghan people. They have made inroads in recent years, however, because they provide security, services, and justice — cruel forms of all three, but that’s more than the Afghan government has been able to offer.

It’s not I disagree with Panetta’s vision or goals. Indeed, I find them fairly persuasive. It’s that his vision is predicated on a stable, reliable Afghan government — which doesn’t appear to exist, and which makes the notion “winning” rather hard to believe.

In the same interview, by the way, Panetta was asked about Osama bin Laden.

“He is, as is obvious, in very deep hiding,” Panetta said. “He’s in an area of the tribal areas of Pakistan, that is very difficult. The terrain is probably the most difficult in the world…”

“Can you be more specific?” host Jake Tapper asked.

“All I can tell you is it’s in the tribal areas … we know that he’s located in that vicinity,” Panetta said.

“The more we continue to disrupt Al Qaeda’s operations — and we are engaged in the most aggressive operations in the history of the CIA in that part of the world — and the result is we are disrupting their leadership,” he said.

“We’ve taken down more than half of their Taliban leadership, of their Al Qaeda leadership. We just took down number three in their leadership a few weeks ago. We continue to disrupt them. We continue to impact on their command and control. We continue to impact on their ability to plan attacks in this country,” he said.

“If we keep that pressure on, we think ultimately we can flush out bin Laden and Zawahiri and get after them,” the CIA chief insisted.

Our last good intelligence about bin Laden’s specific whereabouts? “The early 2000s.”

As for al Qaeda in Afghanistan, according to the CIA chief, the network is down to 50 to 100 members in the entire country. That’s encouraging, of course, given al Qaeda’s previous numbers, but the point, I suppose, is that those numbers would grow if the Taliban reclaimed control of Afghanistan.

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Follow Steve on Twitter @stevebenen. Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.