When Gen. David H. Petraeus appears before Congress on Tuesday to tout progress in Afghanistan, he will face a series of pessimistic assessments about the state of the war, including the intelligence community’s conclusion that tactical gains achieved by a U.S. troop surge have failed to fundamentally weaken the Taliban.
A year after the launch of a revamped counterinsurgency strategy, several major obstacles persist: The government of President Hamid Karzai is viewed as corrupt and ineffective, the Taliban exhibits a fierce will to fight, and the enemy enjoys safe havens in the tribal areas of Pakistan that drone strikes can disrupt but not eliminate, according to public U.S. intelligence assessments.
The difficulties raise questions about whether the U.S. is achieving sustainable gains in a 10-year-old war that is costing lives and billions of dollars, and whether the strategy can work on the timetable proposed by the Obama administration.
The U.S. plan is to continue aggressive operations against the Taliban while also training the Afghans to assume security responsibilities by 2014. The U.S. is scheduled to begin troop withdrawals in July, but those are expected to be small.
“I don’t think there’s any question about the tactical successes that the … forces led by Gen. Petraeus have enjoyed, particularly in light of the surge,” National Intelligence Director James R. Clapper told Congress last week. “I think the issue, the concern that the intelligence community has, is after that, and the ability of the Afghan government to pick up their responsibility for governance.”
At the same hearing, Gen. Ronald Burgess, head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, offered a sobering view — one that is shared by the CIA, U.S. officials say — that contrasted sharply with the optimism expressed in recent days by Petraeus, who will appear before the Senate Armed Services Committee, and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates.
“The Taliban in the south has shown resilience and still influences much of the population, particularly outside urban areas,” Burgess said, speaking of a region where the U.S. has been focusing many of its resources.
The U.S.-led coalition has been killing Taliban militants by the hundreds, he said, but there has been “no apparent degradation in their capacity to fight…. We have enjoyed tactical defeats and operational successes against the Taliban. However, the Taliban does remain resilient and will be able to threaten U.S. and international goals in Afghanistan through 2011.”
Gates traveled to Afghanistan last week and declared that the current strategy was working.
“The closer you are to the fight, the better it looks,” he said Tuesday at a U.S. combat outpost in Kandahar province. Gates acknowledged that the spring and summer would present an “acid test” of whether the gains could hold.
Burgess did not lay out the basis for his analysis, but there is no shortage of data to buttress it. For example, while U.S. troops have become more successful at avoiding roadside bombs, the total number of bombs discovered or detonated in January was 1,344, about the same as the number in June 2010, according to the Pentagon, even though winter usually marks a lull in the fighting.
A comparison can be made to Iraq, where one year after a troop surge in early 2007, Gen. Ray T. Odierno was able to point to a dramatic reduction in insurgent attacks and civilian deaths.
But a year after the troop surge was launched in Afghanistan — 100,000 U.S. troops are in the country — both numbers are up, and 2010 was the deadliest year of the war for U.S. personnel and Afghan civilians. The United Nations reported last week that 2,777 civilians were killed in 2010, 75% of them by the Taliban and other insurgents.
A report March 2 by the British Parliament’s foreign affairs committee concluded that despite the “optimistic progress appraisals we heard from some military and official sources … the security situation across Afghanistan as a whole is deteriorating.” Counterinsurgency efforts in the south and east have “allowed the Taliban to expand its presence and control in other previously relatively stable areas in Afghanistan.”
“The Taliban have the momentum, especially in the east and north,” analyst Gilles Dorronsoro of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace told the committee. “There is no change in the overall balance of power, and the Taliban are still making problems.”
The British report argued that the coalition should focus on negotiating with the Taliban, reflecting a view among some analysts that a peace deal is the key to extricating NATO forces from a bleak military situation. Another camp argues that even without reconciliation, the U.S. can achieve its primary goal in Afghanistan — preventing Al Qaeda from planning attacks from there — with far fewer troops.
Under this view, instead of continuing a nation-building campaign, which critics argue is seeing billions lost to corruption and flowing indirectly to the Taliban, the U.S. could battle the enemy with a smaller footprint of conventional forces supporting special operations troops and Predator drone strikes.
Obama decided against that approach in 2009, but the debate is gaining new currency as doubts about the war grow, said Joshua Foust, a former U.S. intelligence analyst.
“I see a growing chorus of criticism on the political right,” he said.
Retired Marine Col. Bing West, whose recent book, “The Wrong War,” is based on years of embedding with soldiers in Afghanistan, argues that the U.S. strategy has created a culture of dependency among Afghans, who lack buy-in. The U.S. should reduce the size of its force and focus on training the Afghan army, he writes.
U.S. officials disagree, arguing that a sharp reduction in U.S. forces would allow the Taliban to retake large swaths of the country. But they don’t suggest the road ahead will be easy.
In Kabul last week, Petraeus told the Associated Press that he hoped that “by July we will have solidified and even expanded further the security bubbles, the security gains that have been achieved over the course of the last eight to 10 months in particular.”
But he warned that 2011 could be even more violent.
“They will come back in force,” Petraeus said of the Taliban. “There is some concern that there will be sensational attacks that could be indiscriminate in nature.”