U.S. military campaign to topple resilient Taliban hasn't succeeded
Wednesday, October 27, 2010; 12:47 AM
An intense military campaign aimed at crippling the Taliban has so far failed to inflict more than fleeting setbacks on the insurgency or put meaningful pressure on its leaders to seek peace, according to U.S. military and intelligence officials citing the latest assessments of the war in Afghanistan.
Escalated airstrikes and special operations raids have disrupted Taliban movements and damaged local cells. But officials said that insurgents have been adept at absorbing the blows and that they appear confident that they can outlast an American troop buildup set to subside beginning next July.
"The insurgency seems to be maintaining its resilience," said a senior Defense Department official involved in assessments of the war. Taliban elements have consistently shown an ability to "reestablish and rejuvenate," often within days of routed by U.S. forces, the official said, adding that if there is a sign that momentum has shifted, "I don't see it."
One of the military objectives in targeting mid-level commanders is to compel the Taliban to pursue peace talks with the Afghan government, a nascent effort that NATO officials have helped to facilitate.
The blunt intelligence assessments are consistent across the main spy agencies responsible for analyzing the conflict, including the CIA and the Defense Intelligence Agency, and come at a critical juncture. Officials spoke on the condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to discuss the matter publicly.
The Obama administration's plan to conduct a strategic review of the war in December has touched off maneuvering between U.S. military leaders seeking support for extending the American troop buildup and skeptics looking for arguments to wind down the nation's role.
Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, has touted the success of recent operations and indicated that the military thinks it will be able to show meaningful progress by the December review. He said last week that progress is occurring "more rapidly than was anticipated" but acknowledged that major obstacles remain.
U.S. intelligence officials present a similar, but inverted, view - noting tactical successes but warning that well into a major escalation of the conflict, there is little indication that the direction of the war has changed.
Among the troubling findings is that Taliban commanders who are captured or killed are often replaced in a matter of days. Insurgent groups that have ceded territory in Kandahar and elsewhere seem content to melt away temporarily, leaving behind operatives to carry out assassinations or to intimidate villagers while waiting for an opportunity to return.
U.S. officials said Taliban operatives have adopted a refrain that reflects their focus on President Obama's intent to start withdrawing troops in the middle of next year. Attributing the words to Taliban leader Mohammad Omar, officials said, operatives tell one another, "The end is near."
Obama's decision to order an additional 30,000 troops to Afghanistan divided some of his senior advisers. While no major change in strategy is expected in December, critics could use the latest assessments to argue that the continued investment of American resources and lives is misguided, particularly when the main impediment to progress that analysts cite is beyond American control.
U.S. officials said the two main branches of the insurgency - the Taliban and the Haqqani network - have been able to withstand the American military onslaught largely because they have access to safe havens in Pakistan.