Afghanistan: mapping the endgame

The United States's narrative of progress against the Taliban faces uncomfortable realities on the ground - and unexpected resistance in Washington.
Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
16 June 2011

Many of the most protracted wars around the world since 1945 have had a seasonal element. The French colonial war against the Viet Minh in what was then known as “Indochina” (southeast Asia, with Vietnam at its heart) is - especially in its later years, 1950-54 - a classic example. 

For almost six months of the year, monsoons would render movement of troops and equipment difficult; in these periods, each side would develop their plans and tactics in preparation for the start of the dry season in September-October. The weather even played a part in the seminal event of the war, in that the defeat of the besieged French garrison at Dien Bien Phu in May 1954 was hastened by the onset of monsoons flooding the stout defences.

In the war in Afghanistan launched in October 2001 and now approaching its eleventh year, the beginning of spring around May initiates what has come to be called the annual “fighting season”, with intensifying conflict continuing throughout the summer months. This “season” is also characterised by the harvesting of the opium-poppy crop, in which many of the young men in the armed opposition groups have invested time and labour (see “Afghanistan’s Vietnam portent”, 17 April 2008).

The United States forces expected 2011 to be different, a belief fueled by confidence that their military surge of winter 2010-11 - amounting to an injection of 30,000 troops, backed by the much more systematic use of drone-strikes and night-raids by special forces - had seriously weakened the Taliban. The claim of serious progress tended to downplay or even ignore the collateral effects of the intensified attacks and the associated risk of deepening resistance to foreign occupation.

A number of events in April 2011 raised questions over this assessment: the spectacular prison-break at Kandahar that released 480 Taliban, the killing by an Afghan soldier of eight Americans and a civilian contractor at Bagram air-base, and a suicide-attack that penetrated the heavily protected defence ministry in Kabul (see “Afghanistan: between war and politics”, 28 April 2011).

The death of Osama bin Laden at the beginning of May was, however, a powerful reinforcement of the American case for optimism. It helped strengthen the view that Barack Obama’s administration could afford to opt for significant troop-reductions in Afghanistan, above those logistics and engineering contingents already scheduled for a drawdown.

But if the view that 2011 would be different survived the setbacks of April, how do things look by the half-year stage?

A refocus

In respect of open attacks by Taliban elements, not least in the key provinces of Helmand and Kandahar, there is apparent evidence of real diminishment. But the question of whether this is a sign of weakness or of adaptation is harder to answer.

Here, the assessment of some analysts early in 2011 is relevant, namely that the Taliban and other armed opposition groups would respond to the increase of US troops and firepower in time-honoured fashion by retreating into their own communities - but also maintaining pressure by staging more spectacular assaults on central facilities.

The evidence of the April and subsequent operations suggests that this approach will indeed be the Taliban’s dominant focus in coming months, with the Afghan army, police and government rather than US and coalition military forces being the principal targets. On 15 June, for example, Afghanistan’s vice-president Karim Khalili and interior minister Besmullah Mohammadi survived a rocket-firing; and Taliban sources claimed that an attack launched in Kapisa province was an attempt to kill the visiting French ambassador.

But these tactics are also just one part of a wider and more complex shift in Taliban operations, which includes but goes well beyond lying low in the face of the US military surge (see Carlotta Gall, “Afghan Taliban Cede Ground in the South, but Fears Linger”, New York Times, 12 June 2011).

The key additional component is that across much of the country, the Taliban leadership - confident that it will end up with a major stake in Afghanistan’s governance - seems to be preparing for negotiations with the American military and the Afghan government. This preparation extends to limiting attacks on soft targets (such as a sharp drop in attacks on schools) that would have been feasible even in the face of increased US pressure (see Ray Rivera & Taimoor Shah, “Filling Classes With Learning, Not Fears”, New York Times, 10 June 2011).

Even where attempts are being made to incorporate Taliban elements into the police, there are indications that those involved simply continue with elements of their old behavior in a new guise (see Rod Nordland, “Some Police Recruits Impose ‘Islamic Tax’ on Afghans”, International Herald Tribune, 14 June 2011).  

Moreover, the slowing of Taliban activity in southern Afghanistan has not extended to the country’s east, where the insurgents control important districts and US forces have periodically had to withdraw units from vulnerable forward operating bases (FOBs). This situation has led US commanders to make this region the heart of their military operations (see Joshua Partlow & Greg Jaffe, “Focus of Afghan war is shifting eastward”, Washington Post, 15 June 2011).

In turn, however, this refocus implies that provinces such as Kandahar and Helmand are under reasonable control. The context for considering this belief should include the very significant account of the experience of a single US unit in Ghazni province, which suggested that the Taliban insurgency and its adherents were rooted in and belonged to the local community (see see CJ Chivers, “In Eastern Afghanistan, at War With the Taliban's Shadowy Rule”, [New York Times, 6 February 2011], discussed in “Afghanistan: echoes of Vietnam” [10 February 2011]).

This is likely to be true across much of the country, and entails that the Taliban can choose to be active or inactive in direct reaction to the practices of US and allied forces. If the foreign troops attack, the fighters can melt away; if merely present in greater numbers, remaining in place but unobtrusive is an option. The key thing, in any event, is that they are there and will continue to be so, whatever happens in the wider theatre of diplomacy and negotiation (see "Afghanistan: what it's like", 18 February 2010).

A new order

In that theatre, a new and unexpected event in American domestic politics makes it more urgent for President Obama to accelerate the withdrawal. This is the apparently unrelated pressure in Congress to question the administration's evasion of the War Powers Act (1973) in its involvement in Libya. 

Obama has from the start been cautious about direct military engagement in Libya, for fear of being sucked into another war in the greater middle east; yet even the United States’s ancillary role has provoked severe cross-party criticism, including a Republican element - visible in the early manoeuvring among presidential hopefuls - that opposes any military action overseas (see Brian Knowlton & Jeff Zeleny, “Candidates Show G.O.P. Less United on Goals of War”, New York Times, 15 June 2011).

This trend, if it is yet to amount to a new wave of isolationism, is already a marked contrast to the neo-conservative dominance of the George W Bush era. The almost certain result is that the issue of military interventions overseas will figure more prominently in the 2012 presidential campaign that had been anticipated - an issue whose political effect will be to lead Obama to hasten the drawdown from Afghanistan. 

Taliban commanders may indeed be under pressure in 2011 from the increased United States military presence; but they will also know that time is more on their side than at any time in the past decade. The likely outcome is that the Taliban exerts a major influence on the future governance of Afghanistan. That will be unpalatable to many people inside Afghanistan; troubling to Washington and New Delhi; and of great import from Islamabad to Beijing. After a decade of war, Afghanistan’s political maps are about to be redrawn.  

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