Yesterday, I attended a lively briefing on Afghanistan and Pakistan at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. FDD president Cliff May moderated a discussion with military blogger Bill Roggio and Gilles Dorronsoro from the Carnegie Institute. If you relied purely on these two speakers, you would be mighty depressed about the Afghanistan war.
They agreed that Pakistan is not being any more helpful than it has been in denying Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters refuge and that the availability of a sanctuary is severely undermining our war efforts. They agreed our strategy now looks more like an exit strategy than one aiming to stabilize Afghanistan and ensure it doesn’t become a refuge for terrorists. Dorronsoro, however, is convinced all is lost because, despite success in Kandahar and Helmand provinces, the Taliban is flourishing elsewhere. But this need not be a really bad defeat. Oh, well, yes, he does concede that the outcome will either be a Taliban-run Afghanistan or a failed state overrun by terrorists. (Sounds pretty bad to me.) Roggio thinks the problem is the self-imposed timelines and that if we have the staying power, we may succeed.
An impressive array of audience members chimed in, some with more helpful observations than others. Jeffrey Dressler of the Institute for the Study of War reminded the group that his boss, Kim Kagan, and her husband, Fred, have a far more optimistic view of the progress being made.
But the discussion was most helpful in clarifying one key point: Some are convinced we will lose and have set about to concoct rationalizations for why this need not be so bad. One audience member from a reputable think tank suggested we should just “change the narrative” and declare victory since secular uprisings are now making al-Qaeda obsolete. (It was one of those moments when everyone in a room wonders, “Is she serious or is this dry wit?” Serious, I am afraid.) And others like Dorronsoro imagine that a defeat in a war declared to be critical by two presidents wouldn’t be so terrible.
That, however, is not the view of this White House or of a great many Americans who recognize that a defeat in Afghanistan would embolden al-Qaeda, render Afghanistan a haven for terrorists and destabilize a very shaky Pakistan, which happens to be a nuclear power. So is there any solace for those who are not ready to declare defeat?
A colleague pointed to a very different picture painted by the longtime Afghanistan reporter for the New York Times, Carlotta Gall. Gall has been in Pakistan since 2001 and recently interviewed not only Gen. David Petraeus but also Taliban fighters. Petraeus had this take on Tuesday:
Under General Petraeus, the tempo of operations has been stepped up enormously. American Special Operations forces and coalition commandos have mounted more than 1,600 missions in the 90 days before March 4 -- an average of 18 a night -- and the troops have captured and killed close to 3,000 insurgents, according to information provided by the general.
“The momentum of the Taliban has been halted in much of the country and reversed in some important areas,” he said.
“The Taliban have never been under the pressure that they were put under over the course of the last 8 to 10 months,” he added.
Other aspects of the war remain difficult, and progress is patchy and slow, General Petraeus conceded. There has been only modest momentum on efforts to persuade Taliban fighters to give up the fight and join a reintegration program, and a plan to train and install thousands of local police officers in rural communities to mobilize resistance to the Taliban has proved to be a painstaking business constrained by concerns that it will create militias loyal to warlords.
This confirmed what Gall had reported in February:
Recent defeats and general weariness after nine years of war are creating fissures between the Taliban's top leadership based in Pakistan and midlevel field commanders, who have borne the brunt of the fighting and are reluctant to return to some battle zones, Taliban members said in interviews. . . .
"I have talked to some commanders, and they are reluctant to fight," one 45-year-old commander who has been with the Taliban since its founding in 1994 said in an interview in this southern city. He spoke on condition he not be identified because he was in hiding from American and government forces. "Definitely there is disagreement between the field commanders and the leaders over their demands to go and fight."
Progress was evident as far back as December:
The stepped-up operations in Kandahar Province have left many in the Taliban demoralized, reluctant to fight and struggling to recruit, a Taliban commander said in an interview this week. Afghans with contacts in the Taliban confirmed his description. They pointed out that this was the first time in four years that the Taliban had given up their hold of all the districts around the city of Kandahar, an important staging ground for the insurgency and the focus of the 30,000 American troops whom President Obama ordered to be sent to Afghanistan last December.
"To tell you the truth, the government has the upper hand now" in and around Kandahar, the Taliban member said. A midlevel commander who has been with the movement since its founding in 1994 and knows it well, he was interviewed by telephone on the condition that his name not be used.
So while we have not yet stabilized the entire country and brought Jeffersonian democracy to Afghanistan, the progress is real in areas in which the U.S. forces surged. The conclusion is not that this is easy or that we don't face a real dilemma with Pakistan. Surely we do. But the lesson, rather, is that if we apply American forces, develop a coherent strategy and have the staying power to see it through, a disastrous defeat is not inevitable. The question remains, as it has for two presidents, whether America has the will to do what is necessary to win a major battle in the war against jihadism. On that, the jury is out.