March 24, 2012

Phasing Out the Taliban

When chasing the light at the end of a tunnel, a given individual or party becomes unavoidably susceptible to tunnel vision.

To keep pace with the backlash over a series of "incidents" in Afghanistan, Washington and its allies have relied upon an unchanging script to maintain disciple in their political ranks. "That's the nature of war, and these incidents are going to take place," Defense Secretary Leon Panetta reasoned as he briefed reporters on Afghanistan's "significant progress." Among their many soundbites, some U.S. officials resort to the temporal defense that each incident, for lack of a better word, ultimately passes into memory. U.S.-Afghan relations, they argue, can stand the test of time and "build a stable, secure and peaceful Afghanistan." No matter the speaker, each official has been tasked to move on, "stay the course" and retrain America's focus on war fighting - all while promising a speedy withdrawal.

"I wish I could tell you that this war was simple, and that progress could easily be measured," General John Allen, the war's commanding officer, told the House Armed Services Committee on Tuesday. "But that's not the way of counterinsurgencies. They are fraught with success and setbacks, which can exist in the same space and time, but each must be seen in the larger context of the overall campaign. And I believe that the campaign in on track."

This universal optimism should raise its own red flag next to the war's bleaker assessments. Allen would later tell war-weary Senators, "If I think that [plan] is coming off the rails, I will let you know that," but modern history suggests otherwise. He also recommended keeping 68,000 troops - America's pre-surge level - in the country through 2013, with a post-2014 force to be hammered out in the future. Repeatedly questioned about Karzai's various anti-American statements, his proposed limitations on night raid and the effects of NATO's strategy, White House spokesman Jay Carney separately refused to answer: "Look, I think we’re focused on our strategy." He subsequently dodged a line of questions on Allen's 68,000 figure and its effects on a war-weary populace.

Although the administration has fired an enormous amount of propaganda at the American and NATO publics, Carney's statements give the impression that the White House has grudgingly accepted the war's disapproval - when domestic approval is integral to the mission.

In conjunction with Allen's testimony, Martin Dempsey enlisted Washington insider Charlie Rose to spearhead the latest operation within the administration's information counterattack (dating back to Bagram's Quran burning). The new Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Afghanistan's ranking general couldn't avoid talking Taliban, so Allen opts for public hyperbole: “I can tell you, unequivocally, three things. First, we remain on track to ensure that Afghanistan will no longer be a safe haven for al-Qaida and will no longer be terrorized by the Taliban,” he said. “Second, as a coalition… we are well along in our progress to meet our 2010 [NATO] commitments to transition security lead to the Afghan national security forces by December 2014. Third, our troops know the difference they are making, and the enemy feels it every day."

Dempsey, on the other hand, shifts from the Taliban to al-Qaeda at the soonest opportunity, adhering to the Obama administration's pattern of phasing the Taliban out of Afghanistan's narrative. The Chairman briefly mentions the Haqqani network, but only within the context of Islamabad's reputed links, and ignores Rose's single question on the suspension of preliminary negotiations. Dempsey instead focuses on "helping Afghans build a national identity" and highlights his objectives: "Ensure that Afghanistan is no longer a safe haven for terror operations, leave a government that can defend security and lead to economical development." The insurgency is both everywhere and nowhere - not unlike a guerrilla - but primarily treated as an afterthought for the Afghan army to clean up.

The Taliban isn't mentioned in the Pentagon's write up, nor does the insurgency make an appearance during Panetta's recent press conference in Kabul.

Scrubbing most traces of the Taliban from Afghanistan's script is clearly designed to tone down the war's objectives while still keeping expectations high. With many Americans wondering why U.S. troops must continue to fight for years after Osama bin Laden's death, the administration is poorly positioned to single out the nationalistic Taliban as enemy #1. U.S. officials initially argued that they must kinetically pressure the Taliban's leadership into accepting Washington's negotiating terms, but resilient insurgents and numerous political setbacks have since depleted this explanation's credibility with Americans. Reducing the insurgency's presence in Washington's rhetoric is one of the quickest methods to downplay the reality that U.S. troops are fighting Taliban, not al-Qaeda, for the foreseeable future.

If NATO and Afghan commanders are to be believed, they expect the Taliban to target Kabul as the focal point of summer's annual offensive. Speaking with the Haqqanis in mind, Regional Command East's Maj. Gen. Daniel Allyn told the media, "What most of the insurgent networks share in common in our part of the country is a desire to disrupt the stability of Kabul." Expecting the same "spectacular" attacks that undermined the perception of Afghanistan's security in 2011, Afghan and coalition forces are working to shore up any holes in their layered defense around the capital. General Allen says he wants the Taliban to encounter "at every step of the way resistance of an offensive nature." This information works both angles regardless of the outcome: U.S. officials will minimize the attacks as a sign of weakness or, if few materialize, highlight Kabul's security.

While the capital's perception influences its surrounding area and the international audience in particular, the war's trajectory is more likely to be decided in the east - where the bulk of U.S. casualties will be flown away from. Fighting in the mountainous east, General Allen says, will be "much tougher" than the coalition's southern campaign. The Pentagon had envisioned surging into the south and east before President Barak Obama ducked below its "middle" option of 40,000 troops, a number that Stanley McChrystal and David Petraeus supported at the time. Naturally attacks in the east are rising as the Taliban shifts away from NATO forces in the south, creating a vacuum that few outside the Pentagon expect to last.

The Wall Street Journal even reported that "senior American commanders initially planned to reinforce the east" with upwards of a brigade from the south, but "this plan has now been scrapped, in part because of concerns that achievements in the south aren't sustainable enough."

The current plan will attempt to replicate 2011 and 2012's aborted strategy on a smaller scale, utilizing an Afghan presence to guard the southern provinces and relieve American muscle to "take the fight east." Interestingly, media sources would twist the WSJ's original headline from "spring" offensive to "final fighting season," an inaccurate headline for both sides of the war. 2012 represents the last chance for NATO to deal a backbreaking blow to the Taliban; the insurgency's real counteroffensive should begin after Obama's surge exit in October and continue through 2014. The looming withdrawal of NATO forces will also provide new opportunities for the Taliban, and spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid expressed the insurgency's strategy in classic guerrilla terms

"Wherever the enemy boosts its numbers we move to another part where they are outnumbered," he said.

Obama's "compromise" of deploying 33,000 troops cleaved a gap between the Pentagon and GOP that has yet to heal, and he now stands to lose more Democratic support by maintaining a relatively high troop presence through three more fighting seasons. Robert Bales and his four deployments are the temporary face of this reality, surely not the last - eastern Afghanistan may yield more than one downed helicopter over the next two years. The White House and Pentagon are capable of indefinitely avoiding questions on the Taliban, troop withdrawals and declining popularity, but the time remaining on their "stay the course" strategy will eventually expire.


  1. Supply lines will play a major factor in 2012-2013.
    A Kabul air lift of supplies will not be enough.

    I suspect we will soon be hearing about a "good Taliban" and a "bad Taliban".
    No more talk about A/Q in Afghanistan.
    O will be looking for a "victory with honor" before the election.
    This will be hard to do if Kabul becomes the major target as I suspect.
    The Taliban know that as in Nam, this is now politically driven.

    Could there be a Kabul/Kandahar Tet?

    1. I believe the stories that the Taliban are quarreling internally. It won't stop the continued crumbling of the NATO mission though. The FLN turned on each other in Algeria but the war was already lost as far as France was concerned.Likewise America with Afghanistan. O's 'Peace with Honour' a la Iraq speech is already written. He could trot out the soundbites tomorrow if he wanted without even reading it.

  2. The Taliban have never been and don't need to be unified throughout their leadership ranks. This is classic netwar.

    I think we're likely to see a series of "mini-Tets," rather than one big event. Factoring new media into the equation, a smaller scale of attacks can do 1970's political damage.