ABC News had this noteworthy report over the weekend, which may have gotten lost in the news tumult over President Obama’s campaign kickoff and the European elections:
As 10,000 U.S. troops prepare to leave the Afghanistan over the next six months, two top lawmakers, just back from a trip to the region, on the House and Senate Intelligence Committee said they are concerned that the Taliban is growing stronger.
“I think we both say that what we found is the Taliban is stronger,” Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee said on CNN’s “State of the Union.”
Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich., chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, agreed with her assessment.
Well, this is sort of huge news, no? After all, the president last week assured us that the Taliban’s progress had been reversed. (He then suggested our only concern is al-Qaeda and not the Taliban that hosted the fighters or the myriad of other terrorist networks.)
I asked Cliff May of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies his take on whether the Taliban was growing stronger. He answered via e-mail: “They have an ideology/theology they believe in. They have continuing sources of funding (thanks to oil and drugs). They have no shortage of new recruits. They perceive America and the West to be tiring and weakening. Why would they not be growing stronger?”
His colleague Reuel Marc Gerecht is no more optimistic: “The Afghan Army is not there yet. It’s made considerable progress, but it takes a lot of time, especially given how weak the Pashtun center is.” He continued: “Right now you’d have to guess that the Army would fracture into its component ethnic parts within 24 months — perhaps less — of an American withdrawal. The critical factor would be Pakistani military supplies: how quickly and in what quantity would Islamabad deliver the weaponry [to the Taliban] that would make a difference.” He surmises that “Kandahar would be theirs pretty quickly. With that base, they would again take the south. Just a question of time.”
Others are less pessimistic. One analyst who agreed to speak only on background cautions that it is important to look at distinct regions and terror networks, which some (possibly these senators) may just lump together as “the Taliban.” This analyst perceives that progress has been made in in the south (particularly Helmand and Kandahar), while in other areas (e.g. the east) terror networks haven’t been degraded by U.S. forces.
This is a rather critical factual debate, and one I would suggest is essential to understanding the success or failure of Obama’s strategy and the likely outcome of a U.S. withdrawal. Which groups are stronger or weaker? How ready is the Afghan army? What can we expect Pakistan to do after 2014 when U.S. forces depart? What exactly will U.S forces be doing after 2014?
Obama may not care about the implications on the ground of his decisions; his is an electoral strategy for getting reelected. But where is congressional oversight? It certainly is about time we had extensive hearings (consistent with security needs) that can elicit testimony from experts and assess the Obama plan. It will come in handy down the road when historians ask: Who lost Afghanistan?