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The Afghanistan War: Tactical Victories, Strategic Stalemate?

4 years ago
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David Wood
Chief Military Correspondent
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.''

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The failure to understand history lies with those who say the strategic side of the war cannot be won. As long as the US is willing to perform engage the Taliban with the intent to destroy or cripple them militarily, then the US can win. There are notable instances of success in this type of war; the British in Malaya in the 1950s and the French against the Riff in North Africa. Victory is possible and probable as long as the will to carry through is present. The problem with these conflicts is that they are usually measured in decades, not years, and political gains, not battles won. The NGO Safety Office analysis is a joke and their statistical evaluation is an absolute farce when applied to this type of conflict. Sounds like the complete misread of the military significance of the TET Offensive that occurred during the Vietnam War, and the resultant cries that we were "losing" the war.

February 25 2011 at 10:54 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

"He/she who puts their hands to the plow and turns to look back are not worthy of America".

February 14 2011 at 3:27 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

The greatest failure of American military is the inability to grow the Afghan Army
quickly and in large enough forces! We have no idea what the problem is! All you have to do is as you have deployed a trained and experienced division is to transfer trained cadre to a new division and promote them to a higher rank and the trained division is to promote from within and train new recruits to keep the division fully staffed! Had we done this from the beginning in Iraq and Afganistan none of our combat troops would have been needed a long time ago! What the hell is the matter with the Pentagon? Roland C. (Orlando) Woodaka

February 14 2011 at 2:06 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

God Bless President Obama, he ended the Iraq war and will now win the Afgan war.

February 14 2011 at 1:37 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
Al , W4ABW

This war has been lost for a long time. The generals only repeat the Obama party line.

February 14 2011 at 12:23 PM Report abuse -2 rate up rate down Reply

Any simpleton with a rudimentary understanding of history knows we are losing the war in Afghanistan. We failed to capitalize on the early success there and instead went into Iraq at the direction of Israel. AIPAC saw a chance to manipulate America into doing its bidding. We had a chance to destroy the Taliban and catch Bin Laden but instead focused on Iraq in a needless and illegal war. The idiots in the White House do not understand, too win in Afghanistan you need to understand where the center of gravity is, it is not in Kabul it is in the Afghan people. Too win the war there you have to win the hearts of the people something we didn't understand in Viet Nam. You cannot win the people’s hearts if you cannot provide security for them, which we are not. That is why we won't win the war there, just like we didn't win the war in Viet Nam. The plain truth is we didn’t catch Bin Laden because they did not want to catch him. If they had of killed him in Tora Bora the war on terror would have been over and then Israel would not have been able to use America to take out Sadam.

February 14 2011 at 11:31 AM Report abuse +3 rate up rate down Reply

1. Undeniable facts were, no WMD, no connection to 911, no benefit to America, and the people do not want us there. Washington and the media used lies and spin to manipulate the American people into the Iraq war. The war has cost over a trillion dallors and more than four thousand brave American soldiers lives, all for the benefit of others and at great expense to America. More than one hundred thousand Iraqi have died as a result of the war, and Iraqi infrastructure has been destroyed. America’s image has been soiled, caused by unspeakable acts committed in her name against prisoners at Abu Gharib.
The reason for the Iraq war, was a clumsy attempt to alter the geopolitical landscape of the middle east in favor of Israel. Because Sadamm supported the Palestinians, this made Iraq a strategic enemy of Israel. They reasoned if they could install a Government in Iraq friendly toward Israel that this would help isolate the Palestinian people causing them to give up all hope of ever getting their land back. This war is just a continuation of the Middle East Conflict, where America has been manipulated into doing the bidding of a foreign government. Everyone in the world with the exception of the American people know this fact. Unfortunately Washington and the Media have kept the American people befuddled and confused with lies and spin as to the real reason for the war. The war was not for oil, was not for democracy, and was not because of terrorists, the war was to further the interest of a foreign country in the middle east. An attempt to solve the middle east conflict in Israeli favor by the force of American military might.
Now by anybody’s definition causing damage to ones own country to benefit another foreign country is treason. The magnitude of the damage done to America is almost incalculable, and this is an understatement. This trillion dollar war has collapsed the American economy. The politicians and the media that lead the American people into the Iraq war are guilty of the high crime of treason against America and her people. The children of our children will be made to pay for this war, which is the legacy that we leave them. Those responsible must be held accountable in a public forum to help restore the faith of the American people in their own Govt. We must be absolutely sure our interest will be held above all others, foreign and domestic..

Sharon bragged: I want to tell you something very clear, do not worry about American pressure on Israel, we, the Jewish people control America, and the Americans know it . (Emphasis added). (As reported on Kol Yisrael radio, October 3, 2001). Jews strongly influence U.S. Middle East policy).

February 14 2011 at 11:29 AM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply

Afgahnistan is another Vietnam. What is there to 'win'? A hilltop for a week? This is another mess created and abandoed by the Cheney/ Bush Gang, to make profits for their industrial-military-complex buds, at the cost of American lives and billions of dollars. End it now. Save our troops and bring them home. Any General who promotes this bogus 'war' only to advance their careers should be court-martialed.

February 14 2011 at 11:03 AM Report abuse +3 rate up rate down Reply

Obama has already told the enemy when he will end the war. All they have to do is wait us out. THAT, my friends, is where "Strategic Stalemate" begins. If he would have just put the troops requested in ASAP after the request instead of piddly farting around for 3 months, and kept his yap shut about how long they were going to stay there, this whole thing wold have been a finished and signed deal within 6 months. When you tell your opponent that you're going to hit him in the belly twice then go for the jaw, he pretty well can let you think you've done real damage when all you've actually done is punch air.

February 14 2011 at 10:51 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Blame the irresponsible media on the failure of Vietnam? If it wasn't for Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara's Vietnam Study Task Force study, there wouldn't be any Pentagon Papers.

February 14 2011 at 10:34 AM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply

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