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Taliban Flee U.S. Offensive, But Promise To Return
Posted by on October 21st, 2010

From our partners at

By Steve Hynd

The New York Time's Carlotta Gall has a report today, sourced mainly from U.S. military accounts, that echoes the military's tale of "gradual progress" near Kandahar in South Afghanistan.

NATO commanders are careful not to overstate their successes — they acknowledge they made that mistake earlier in the year when they undertook a high-profile operation against Marja that did not produce lasting gains. But they say they are making “deliberate progress” and have seized the initiative from the insurgents.

Western and Afghan civilian officials are more outspoken, saying that heavy losses for the Taliban have sapped the momentum the insurgency had in the area. Unlike the Marja operation, they say, the one in Kandahar is a comprehensive civil and military effort that is changing the public mood as well as improving security.

“We now have the initiative. We have created momentum,” said Maj. Gen. Nick Carter, the British commander of the NATO coalition forces in southern Afghanistan, who has overseen the Kandahar operation for the last year. “It is everything put together in terms of the effort that has gone in over the last 18 months and it is undoubtedly having an impact.”

That's certainly the narrative NATO officials – both civilian and military – want to push: success at last, after 9 years of trying. They know that domestic patience for a long war is exhausted along with Westen treasuries as well as that a deal of some kind between Karzai's government and the Taliban is growing closer. Factors other than military action will decide when the US and its allies leave Afghanistan, so the generals and politicos are assembling their face and career-saving fig leafs in preparation.

As someone who wants the West out of Afghanistan at the earliest opportunity, I wish them all success in papering over the cracks long enough to head for the exits. However, it would be remiss of me if I didn't point out a couple of possible flaws in the masterplan from the NYT report:

NATO forces have experienced setbacks in other parts of Afghanistan, and some military officials say the advances in Kandahar may not represent a turning point in the overall war effort. The Taliban, for example, have surprised the Americans by asserting control over some areas in the northern part of Afghanistan, from which they had once been almost entirely eliminated.

…A Taliban fighter reached by telephone, who spoke to a reporter only on condition that he not be named, confirmed that the insurgents had pulled back but would seek to reinfiltrate once the main push was over. “We are not there anymore, we are not preparing to fight a big battle, but we are waiting,” he said. “We are waiting until this force has been exhausted and has done all they are supposed to do, and later on our fighters will re-enter the area.”

That's what happened in Marjah – where McChrystal was supposed to roll out the "government in a box" we're now supposed to get in Kandahar. And it's a possibility echoed by the Independent's Julius Cavendish, who sourced his report mainly from local Afghans.

For Nato and the Afghan government, the real challenge will begin when the insurgents start reinfiltrating the area, as they have in Marjah, in neighbouring Helmand, which was the scene of a Nato offensive earlier this year. "This is the trick of the Taliban," one man from Zangabad said. "They flee the fighting. Then slowly, slowly they return."

Meanwhile, Cavendish relates how US forces are still missing the point of "hearts and minds":

Mahmoud Dawood, a 35-year-old farmer from the western tip of the Horn of Panjwaii, the area Afghan and Nato forces are trying to take, described how he was woken last Thursday night by explosions in a neighbouring village. Suddenly the blasts came closer, and the silhouette of an Afghan commando appeared in his open door. "There was a bright white light and a voice said in Pashto 'Stand up'," he said.

"They took me, my brother and our neighbours" to a prison they'd established in a hamlet called Saidan, he added. Dawood claimed to be one of 66 prisoners held there, a figure confirmed by a local elder. The district governor, Haji Baran, confirmed that he had intervened to help secure the release of many of the prisoners following the weekend assault on the peninsula. After being questioned and having biometric data taken, Dawood claimed he was taken home to fill sandbags as they turned his home into a firing point. "They made us walk in front," he said, "so if there was a mine we'd hit it."

Cavendish's report stresses that locals are finding themselves caught in the crossfire literally as well as by such stupidly heavy-handed actions. And we know that Afghans blame the coalition for civilian deaths even when insurgents cause those deaths – quite reasonably,  the coalition says it is there to protect them, after all.

Things are far from as "happy-talk" as US officials would like to present matters: as Derrick posted on Tuesday, an independent assessment by the Afghan NGO Safety Office (ANSO) describes the insurgency as:

increasingly mature, complex & effective. Country wide attacks have grown by 59% (p.10) while sophisticated recruitment techniques have helped activate networks of fighters in the North where European NATO contributors have failed to provide an adequate deterrent (p.11). Some provinces here are experiencing double the country average growth rate (p.12) and their districts are in danger of slipping beyond any control. Clumsy attempts to stem the developments, through the formation of local militia's and intelligence-poor operations, have served to polarize communities with the IEA capitalizing on the local grievances that result. In the South, despite more robust efforts from the US NATO contingents, counterinsurgency operations in Kandahar and Marjah have similarly failed to degrade the IEA's ability to fight, reduce the number of civilian combat fatalities (p.13) or deliver boxed Government.

As Joshua Foust writes:

To read the news dispatches from Afghan and Coalition officials, the Taliban in Kandahar are being routed. It’s a tricky thing to swallow: despite the presence of veteran Carlotta Gall, we have all the trappings of a normal puff-piece about the super-awesome military: reversed momentum, pinky-swears that this time, promise, it won’t be like Marjah, and declarations of victory following the established Taliban tactic of slinking away under the slightest military pressure.

… the military is persisting that everything is awesome and we’re winning, while every single empirical measure we know of says the opposite. What is really going on in Afghanistan? Until the press stops willingly playing along in the DOD’s “messaging” campaign against the American public, we will never know really know.

I believe the reality is that a fig-leaf is all the "surge" is amounting to – just as it is proving to be in Iraq. Afghanistan is going to be no more stable in four years time than it is now – thus "papering over the cracks". Just as in Iraq, even after the COINdinistas have announced the success of their surge and the neocons have talked up their victory, renewed violence will be causing large scale casualties and a carefully-constructed facade of progress will begin breaking down anew into another set of civil wars between factions.

Meanwhile, the West will have spent another $trillion or so and another 1,000 or more soldiers on what is essentially a face-saving exercise. We could pack up and leave right now and nothing essential would change in Afghanistan. We should.

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