On October 27, the Washington Post ran an article with quotes from anonymous officials questioning the optimistic tone of General Petraeus towards the surge in Afghanistan. Major obstacles to victory undoubtedly remain, but the piece overlooks signs of progress and practically declares the surge a failure less than two months after all of the additional forces arrived. Have we heard this song before?
The article, titled “U.S. Military Campaign to Topple Resilient Taliban Hasn’t Succeeded,” describes recent gains as “fleeting setbacks” for the Taliban that haven’t forced the group to the peace table. This judgment comes before the offensive into Kandahar has even been completed and far before a credible assessment can be made. It describes the military effort as falling short of forcing the Taliban to discuss a peace agreement, but that isn’t even the objective of the surge. Although the article does state that U.S. officials caution that the strategy is in its beginning stages, this clarification comes on the second page and will be missed by many readers.
Measuring success by the willingness of the so-called “moderate Taliban” to embrace peace and democracy dooms the strategy to failure. Instead, any effort to reach out to the radical Islamic forces should be done with the goal of making them defect, rather than achieve their aims politically. The Afghan government and NATO forces are expanding the effort to enlist local tribes in their fight against the Taliban. No evaluation of the strategy in Afghanistan can take place until this outreach is completed.
The governor of Kandahar has just met with 350 elders in local communities that had been under Taliban control until recently. General Petraeus has begun a new program to set up local security forces, which he calls “community watch with AK-47s,” that is being implemented in 68 districts. This closely resembles the Sons of Iraq program that successfully turned the country around. U.S. forces are also moving out of large bases and into smaller outposts among the communities, as was also done in Iraq.
There are reasons to be optimistic that these tactics will work. In January, one of the largest Pashtun tribes turned against the Taliban and committed one eligible male per family to the security forces. In addition, the Afghan population is much more pro-American than the Iraqi population was. A poll in January found that 68 percent support the U.S. presence, 61 percent support the surge, and 51 percent have a favorable view of the U.S. The Taliban, on the other hand, are viewed by 69 percent of the Afghans as their greatest threat and 90 percent prefer the corrupt Karzai government over the Taliban. These numbers have likely improved since then.
Tribes in Pakistan have also sided with the Pakistani military when its launched offensives against the Taliban. A poll in July 2009 found that 81 percent of Pakistanis view the Taliban and other radical Islamic militants as a critical threat to the country, a jump from 34 percent in late 2007. The poll found a huge level of hostility towards the U.S., but this has not translated into support for the Taliban. This means that a similar effort to reach out to the Pakistani tribes is likely to be successful, if only the Pakistani government would allow NATO to do it or if the Pakistanis do it themselves. This is unlikely to happen, but a strong possibility still remains that a tribal revolt on the Afghan side could spread into Pakistan.
The Washington Post article also dismisses the defeat of Taliban forces in battle, saying that the forces melt away amongst the locals and are able to intimidate them. This is true, but that’s the entire point of the new counter-insurgency strategy and tribal outreach. The Taliban hold must first be broken and those gains must then be cemented so the enemy forces are unable to operate in such a fashion.
The article also rebuts claims that the Taliban is suffering a morale crisis, saying that these are “isolated incidents.” The Taliban is described as feeling that the U.S. will cut and run once the July 2011 date arrives and the withdrawal begins. CENTCOM’s commander, James Mattis, has said that intercepted communications do show Taliban militants being encouraged by the date. However, retired Army General Jack Keane, one of the architects behind the surge in Iraq, visited Afghanistan and reported that Taliban fighters are defecting and commanders throughout the country say that intercepted communications show many of the Taliban’s operatives are expressing a desire to join the society they’ve been waging war on. By Keane’s account, these are definitely not “isolated incidents.”
The article does accurately state that a crackdown by the Pakistani government would yield more results than any military effort in Afghanistan, but it downplays the affects of the CIA drone strikes. Last year, an Al-Qaeda book showed unmistakable signs of worry among the group and paranoia about spies infiltrating the organization. The Obama administration is approving three times as many drone strikes as its predecessor and nearly doubled the pace recently. It is true that the Pakistani government is not allowing the drones to strike in Baluchistan, specifically Quetta, where Mullah Omar and the Taliban leadership are located. It is also true that the U.S. military has a list of 150 terrorist camps in Pakistan. The graduates of these camps will be used to fight NATO and Afghan forces. It is simply unfair to our soldiers and those of our allies to ask them to fight without removing these targets.
Many were shocked at how quickly the surge in Iraq brought down the levels of violence and turned the country around. The levels of violence, anti-Americanism, and pro-enemy sentiment were much higher in Iraq than they are in Afghanistan now. Admittedly, obstacles like Pakistan’s sanctuary for terrorists will limit the prospects for success, but such safe havens also existed in Syria and Iran during the surge in Iraq.
Our soldiers deserve better than to be thrown into the battlefield while terrorist camps and leaders in Pakistan are permitted to operate, but they also deserve better than to have their fight prematurely declared lost. The Washington Post article may accurately report the doubts of anonymous officials, but these doubts should not be reported in place of the justified optimism of leaders with a proven record like General Petraeus and General Keane.