The top commander in Afghanistan, Gen. David Petraeus, likes to describe the tactical gains his troops are making against insurgents. But a stream of independent data and analysis suggests a wide gap between those battlefield gains and the strategic progress needed to convince a skeptical President Obama, Congress and the public to stay with the war effort for at least three more years.
Recently, for instance, Petraeus asserted that his forces "achieved what we set out to achieve in 2010, which was to reverse the insurgency momentum.'' He has said that Taliban insurgents "are losing momentum in some key areas'' and noted that many are turning themselves into Afghan authorities.
But an estimated 7,000 insurgents
who had given up and come over to the government later went back to fighting because of poorly managed and underfinanced programs to resettle and reintegrate them, according to a detailed study
by the Afghan Analysts Network, an independent nonprofit research organization.
If lavish programs to court Taliban fighters are put in place in the future, large numbers might switch sides, said the study's author, Matt Waldman, a fellow at Harvard University's Carr Center for Human Rights Policy. But unless they are integrated into social, economic and political life, disillusioned Taliban might flood back to fighting, ultimately contributing to "strategic failure'' of the United States in Afghanistan.
An Army brigade commander in Afghanistan recently put his finger squarely on the problem, using the military term "tactical " to refer to "battlefield'' and "strategic'' to refer to the grand purpose of the fighting. Tactical is how you fight; strategic is why you fight.
"We've made a lot of progress ... a lot of tactical gains,'' said Col. Dan Williams
, who commands the 4th
Infantry Division's Combat Aviation Brigade. "The question is, has that had a strategic ... effect?''
In nine years of firefights, pitched battles, attacks, ambushes and raids, American troops have never lost. But what do those victories add up to?
Williams' unanswered question put me in mind of a long-ago conversation between two bitter foes, American Army Col. Harry G. Summers
and a North Vietnamese officer. It took place at the Paris peace talks five days before the fall of Saigon marked America's final defeat in Vietnam. In a later essay he called "Tactical Victory, Strategic Defeat,'' Summers recalled saying, "You know you never defeated us on the battlefield.'' The North Vietnamese officer pondered this remark. "That may be so,'' he replied, "but it is also irrelevant.''
Tactical victories were the theme of a Feb. 1 briefing
for Pentagon reporters by Lt. Gen. David M. Rodriguez, in charge of day-to-day fighting in Afghanistan. Citing progress in wrecking Taliban sanctuaries primarily in southern Afghanistan, Rodriguez reported that "in the last 12 weeks we have discovered, cleared, 1,250 [weapons] cache sites.'' During the same period a year ago, he said only 163 enemy weapons caches had been uncovered.
Rodriguez said the most important reason for the increase is that more Afghans are tipping off U.S. and Afghan troops about local arms caches. The U.S. command in Kabul didn't respond to questions about the number and increase in such tips.
The strategic effect, though, was unclear, given widespread reports that insurgents actually increased the tempo of fighting. A year-end analysis
by the Afghan NGO Safety Office, an independent project that advises humanitarian organizations on conditions in Afghanistan, found "indisputable evidence that the situation is deteriorating.''
While Petraeus and other commanders say the higher tempo of fighting is because of increased U.S. attacks on Taliban strongholds, the NGO Safety Office survey found a 64 percent increase in attacks initiated by insurgents, mostly small arms ambushes. Noting that its findings are sharply at odds with public reports of the U.S. command, Safety Office Director Nic Lee observed that the military's public assessments "are solely intended to influence American and European public opinion.''
U.S. commanders talk glowingly about the increased number of Afghan soldiers and police being trained
, but the strategic benefit has yet to appear. More police are on duty in southern Afghanistan, for example. But a detailed public survey
by the U.N. found favorable views of the national police dropped by 24 percentage points in the past year, to 54 percent in Helmand Province. Nationwide, 6 in 10 Afghans report "significant'' corruption among the police, and more than a quarter reported having seen police using drugs. And despite the U.S.-led effort to build a criminal justice system, about half of Afghans polled said they would not take criminal complaints to the police, but would rely on tribal leaders or others.
Petraeus also has asserted that constant pressure from U.S., allied and Afghan troops has begun to crack the Taliban's spirit and its ability to carry on the war through the winter.
"They've tried to keep their fighters fighting through the winter,'' he told NATO TV
on Feb. 9. Trying to direct their fighters by cell phone or radio ("they lead from the rear,'' Petraeus said disparagingly), the Taliban high command has told its soldiers to "get back in the fight. 'We know it's winter and cold but you all stay at it because we've lost a lot this year,''' Petraeus said the Taliban command directed.
"Those orders have not been obeyed in all cases, so there's a degree of friction, discord ... that has not been characteristic of the past,'' Petraeus said.
The suggestion of the Taliban on the run, though, doesn't square with the independent reporting of John McCreary, former senior intelligence watch officer for the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Using unclassified sources, McCreary reported
that armed clashes in November were double the previous month and almost evenly divided between attacks initiated by insurgents and those initiated by U.S., allied and Afghan forces. He reported 1,381 armed clashes in November, up from 311 in October 2008 and 533 in October 2009.
Insurgents "displayed a new ability to sustain attacks for a month over a wider area than ever before,'' McCreary said, and the number of fighters they can muster rose from the 10,000 to 15,000 they fielded in 2008 to about 25,000 today, "a measure of increased popular support,'' he said.
But neither side seems able to turn its tactical gains into strategic advantage, despite the cost of the fighting and casualties (the Taliban lost 1,115 killed and wounded in November, a 70 percent increase over the October total of 657. U.S. combat dead and wounded declined slightly
, to 556 in November from 633 in October). In the Pashtun strongholds of Kandahar and Helmand provinces, where Petraeus has concentrated his forces, security deteriorated significantly, McCreary found, but "the Taliban still remained unable to secure their heartland.''
Overall, McCreary found that for both sides, "their achievements never seem worth their costs on the battlefields. They produce a lot more fighting without changing the security situation.''
If the United States maintains its current level of effort, "the security situation should be containable but not permanently improvable,'' he concluded. "The government in Kabul will remain dependent on NATO forces for its survival for an indefinite period.''
On a broader canvas, the United States continues to suffer a negative strategic impact, in part because of its involvement in Afghanistan, according to James Clapper, director of national intelligence.
He testified in Congress on Thursday
that al-Qaeda continues to be able to recruit willing new fighters by aggressively exploiting such explosive issues as "the presence of U.S. forces in Afghanistan and Iraq and U.S. support for Israel'' all of which "fuel their narrative of a hostile West determined to undermine Islam.''