The problem with milestones is that there’s always another one a little further down the road. Last week we had the NATO meeting in Lisbon, to be followed soon after by the long-anticipated December Strategic Review. I can recall back in February this year when think-tank "lifers" in Washington told me to sit tight in anticipation of the "big review" coming up in December which would deliver some much-needed policy changes. Now that we’re here the view seems much less rosy:
Last week a team led by Lt. Gen. Douglas E. Lute, the president’s Afghanistan adviser at the White House, returned from Afghanistan and Pakistan with data that will serve as a basis for Mr. Obama’s review of the war next month. General Petraeus is also assembling masses of data.
Those final five syllables should be enough to make even the most die-hard optimist take pause. Petraeus wants to present an empirically valid case for continuing along the current course -- the so-called "default position" turbo-charged with all the money and weapons the heart could ever want. Petraeus wants to use all these "masses of data" to make you believe five things, all of which are also more problematic than he’d have you believe.
Truth Number One: "It’s Working!" In this scenario, the momentum has shifted, the Taliban are on the back foot, international military forces have recaptured the initiative, and other clichéd idioms ad nauseam. Take your pick. Petraeus wants to show that his reinvigorated "counterinsurgency" strategy is delivering gains against the Taliban and that there are positive trends in how the local population in southern Afghanistan views and interacts with the local government. Remember back to 2009 when there was a big debate about the metrics with which the war effort could be assessed. These are internally set by the military (albeit with some civilian political input). It's these that Petraeus will use to show that the surge is working, and that it should be given more time to work properly.
Unfortunately, signs on the ground don’t seem to confirm this. Marjah -- the great test-case for the US military engagement -- is by all accounts plagued with insecurity issues. US troops are pushing into Kandahar’s western districts in an attempt to dislodge the Taliban there. In parallel, they have set up a series of bases circling Kandahar City, and assassinations and IEDs continue unabated. It’s true, many fighters have left Panjwayi and Zheray and are taking some down time in Quetta, but they’ll be back in spring, and IEDs and assassinations will continue in the meantime.
More importantly, the surge has failed to shift public opinion in favour of either the American presence or the Afghan government. There is now a deep seated suspicion of the foreign involvement, rooted in a failure to understand western interests or goals in southern Afghanistan. Unless this is addressed head-on, everything else being done is meaningless.
Truth Number Two: "The Night Raids and Targeting of the Insurgency’s Leadership is an Effective Tool." We’ve already heard a lot about this in sneak previews of Petraeus’ "masses of data", even as far back as late-spring. In July 2010, the New York Times quoted NATO military statistics as showing 130 important insurgency figures captured or killed in Afghanistan in the prior six months. In the same month, Amrullah Saleh, the former NDS chief, said that under General McChrystal, 700 Taliban commanders were captured or killed. In the ninety days prior to November 11th, special operations forces had conducted 1,572 operations that resulted in 368 insurgent leaders killed or captured, 968 lower-level insurgents killed and 2,477 captured, according to NATO statistics.
These numbers are impressive at first glance. It’s difficult to come up with an exact figure for total number of insurgency field commanders and political cadres inside Afghanistan, but needless to say this is putting pressure on their structures and on their ability to fill the positions of those killed or captured.
Unfortunately, there is a problem with the numbers being bandied around. The exact breakdown cited above is not given as part of the data set; the "killed and captured" are simply stated to be "insurgency leadership." The Haqqanis, for example, are classed as a separate entity to the Taliban, as are, for the most part, al-Qaeda. The only publicly available data set is ISAF’s collection of press releases.
I’d never bothered to read these in the past. Much like the free trilingual ISAF newspaper, Seda-ye Azadi, these missives do all they can to discourage readers with any experience of what is actually happening in Afghanistan. But there is a certain amount you can learn from the nearly-3000 press releases issued since November 2009 (the earliest date available).
Different classifications of insurgent members are given, but while the distinctions between fighters and "insurgents" are generally glossed over, the different types of "insurgent leaders" range from "facilitators" to "key cell leaders" to specific shadow-government positions like "district governor" and so on. Looking through the data set, though, and comparing the numbers given by Petraeus’ PR team, it seems that all of these different actors are collated and offered up as aggregate numbers.
It’s difficult to tell, since the full data set is not released by the military, but anyone involved in the December Strategic Review would be strongly advised to ask Petraeus what percentage of these numbers of "leaders" are subsequently released without charge. Even if the numbers are as high as he’d have you believe, there are serious problems with decapitating the insurgency without a sense of where all of this is leading politically, and in terms of how it actually influences or pressures the leadership networks.
Which brings us to...
Truth Number Three: "The Military Effort is Subservient to Broader Political Goals." Petraeus has always said that winning in Afghanistan is not simply about capturing or killing lots of fighters.
You don’t end an industrial-strength insurgency by killing or capturing all the bad guys. You have to kill, capture — or turn — the bad guys. And that means reintegration and reconciliation.
A political solution is thus the desired end-game. The recent excitement over claims that several "senior figures" among the insurgency had been "allowed" by NATO/ISAF forces to visit Kabul played right into Petraeus’ hands. Here he could claim to the world’s media that he was fighting his war while simultaneously encouraging a move towards political settlement.
That’s not how the insurgency see Petraeus’ contribution, however. Nor are there serious negotiations in play at the moment. Quite the opposite: members of the Taliban’s political wing see Petraeus as one of the key obstacles to a negotiated settlement. One of his first actions upon his return to Afghanistan and stepping into McChrystal’s shoes in July, was to loudly petition for the Haqqanis to be blacklisted. When that didn’t happen, three other insurgent members engaged at the time in discussions with the Afghan government found themselves blacklisted by the US treasury. The surge, too, is seen as a clear manifestation of Petraeus’ unwillingness to engage in talks.
Part of these mixed messages on a process of political settlement is...
Truth Number Four: "Mullah Mohammad Omar is irrelevant." Whether or not Mullah Mohammad Omar will be a part of the political process and/or settlement is an important issue. Recent months and purported developments have suggested that he might not be essential to a deal with the Taliban, and could either be excluded or even overruled by senior leaders. As a US State Department press spokesman remarked:
From our view, Mullah Omar has been attached at the hip to bin Laden for some time. So, based on everything that we know about him today, in fact he will not meet the criteria that we have laid out. [...] So you know, there’s nothing that we see that indicates that Mullah Omar will, in fact, change his stripes. As a result, we don’t see that he qualifies to play a constructive role in Afghanistan’s future.
There will, no doubt, be more statements of this kind were any negotiated political process to begin. This should not detract from the solidity and cohesion that Mullah Mohammad Omar brings to the movement. Of course, he is a link to the past, to the dysfunction of previous interactions with the international community, but circumstances have changed now and any negotiated process would likely not see him ascend to the top of the Afghan government or to any role with more than symbolic value. He has a strong interest in consolidating both his authority and the movement. In the course of discussions, there might be ways to promote the role of those in the tier below him -- provided this level of the command structure isn't killed off in the meantime -- without removing his influence or participation completely.
Most importantly, however, he should not be excluded from the political process outright or against his will. This would lead to extremely negative consequences for any negotiations or reconciliation. His title represents a de facto religious institution, and fighters in the lower rungs of the movement would not appreciate such a public sidelining, which would be seen as foreign-imposed in any case, regardless of how such a situation might come to pass. Mullah Mohammad Omar retains ample power to act as a spoiler in any negotiations, so any sidelining or retirement from the leadership would have to be agreed upon or instigated by him. There's always the possibility that he might die or be killed, but it's not something that should either be counted on or planned for - active targeting of the Taliban leader as part of the military campaign (resulting in his death) could have serious negative consequences for any negotiation process.
Regardless of any future role for Mullah Mohammad Omar, a key factor preventing positive movement towards a political settlement is the Afghan government. But we have...
Truth Number Five: "Don’t mind the Afghan Government." The truth behind this final claim has come a cropper in recent days during yet another public spat between Karzai and the internationals, this time over night raids. Petraeus wants you to believe that all is well -- or at least as well as might reasonably be expected.
All is not well, though. It is difficult for those based inside Afghanistan but who live outside the military bases to reconcile the rhetoric that Petraeus and his team are pushing, with the every day realities of a Kandahar or a Kunduz.
Pick your cliché, then, to describe what’s going on; there are still a few left over. My current favourite is the description of Lisbon by a colleague based in Kabul: “a morality play to convince ourselves that we are doing the right thing in Afghanistan, and to sign everybody up for the next four years. And who ever said we were leaving in 2011?”