Skepticism Greets Reports of U.S. Progress in Kandahar
Are we really "routing" the Taliban?
Several months in to the U.S. and NATO assault on Kandahar, the southern Afghan city often described as the heart of the Taliban, the New York Times has run the front-page headline, "Coalition Forces Routing Taliban in Key Afghan Region." The article, by seasoned Times correspondent Carlotta Gall, reports, "American and Afghan forces have been routing the Taliban in much of Kandahar Province in recent weeks, forcing many hardened fighters, faced with the buildup of American forces, to flee strongholds they have held for years, NATO commanders, local Afghan officials and residents of the region said." However, a number of Afghanistan-watchers have greeted this story with wary skepticism. Here's what they have to say.
U.S., NATO See Success The New York Times' Carlotta Gall writes, "A series of civilian and military operations around the strategic southern province, made possible after a force of 12,000 American and NATO troops reached full strength here in the late summer, has persuaded Afghan and Western officials that the Taliban will have a hard time returning to areas they had controlled in the province that was their base. ... Disruption of their supply lines has made it harder for them to stage retaliatory strikes or suicide bombings, at least for the moment, officials and residents said. ... 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 Won't Really Know for Months Wired's Spencer Ackerman says that Taliban fighters could have just cleared the area temporarily. "Ultimately, Gall — an exceptional reporter with deep experience in Afghanistan — cites a Taliban commander who says the abandonment of Panjwai is a mere tactical retreat: '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 they did in Marja, in Sangin, and elsewhere. It’s one thing to clear insurgents from a place, and rocket fire definitely has a role there. But it’s quite another to hold it, and the holding is what provides durable success. Maybe NATO and Afghan forces can hold Kandahar, but that’s a long way away. And powerful, accurate rockets don’t have any relevance for keeping a city under Afghan government control."
- Story is Suspiciously Optimistic Former Army Ranger and current think-tank fellow Andrew Exum tweets, "I used to say we sucked at IO, but the more I read ISAF/NYT reporting out of Afghanistan, the more I question that." By IO he means "information operations," which is when the military tries to get out positive information as part of a particular campaign. His use of "ISAF/NYT" suggests a perhaps-too-close connection between the New York Times and the U.S./NATO-led International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan.
- 'Operation Enduring Conflict' That's how liberal national-security blogger Michael Cohen puts it, seeing this as an effort by the U.S. military to coerce the White House into extending military involvement in Afghanistan. "This massive public relations bombardment was bolstered with a series of behind the lines operations that sought to strike at NATO's soft underbelly. ... The cynics who argue that the war is lost; that by the military's own COIN metrics the mission has been a failure; that tactical success in killing Taliban commanders does not equal strategic progress . . . they are being silenced. And our military is proving once again then when it comes to waging successful, multi-pronged offensives it has no equal in the world."
- Can Karzai Make Short-Term Success Long-Term? Mother Jones's Kevin Drum sighs, "Now, 'slipping away' is what insurgents always do when confronted with overwhelming force, and the question is whether we can stop them from slipping right back in. But like I said: for the moment, this sounds like good news. And who knows? Maybe Karzai can actually take advantage of it somehow. Here's hoping."