A clear narrative over Afghanistan emerged from the Nato summit held in Lisbon on 19-20 November 2010. At heart, the end is in sight for a difficult nine-year war: progress was being made on the ground, a timetable was in place for a gradual handover to the Afghan national army, and foreign-troop withdrawals would start in 2011 and be completed by 2015.
A senior Kabul-based Nato official, Mark Sedwill, even ventured the observation that children growing up in the city were likely to be safer there than their equivalents in London, Glasgow and New York; a view rebutted by the head of Save the Children, Justin Forsyth: “Afghanistan is the worst place on earth to be born a child - one in four children living there will die before they reach the age of 5”.
The official’s comparison, unwary as it may sound, is in the spirit of Nato’s larger public stance. This is that International Security Assistance Forces (Isaf) under Nato command, led overall by General David H Petraeus, are turning the tide against the Taliban - not least as the post-”surge” United States troop contingents engage the militants directly in the field.
A very different view is offered by a Pentagon report delivered to Congress on 23 November, which states that violence in Afghanistan has reached an all-time high. “(The) insurgency has proven resilient with sustained logistics capacity and command and control”, it says.
Both these messages cannot be right. But there is a way to reconcile them. US forces, especially the marine corps, are pursuing a notably more aggressive counterinsurgency stance - including in relation to Pakistan - and this is an important factor in increasing the overall rate of violence. At the same time, the senior US military commanders in charge of the war are explicitly intent on victory, or something that can resemble it. The same evidence is being read in very different ways.
The overall trend of increasingly robust counterinsurgency operations is evident in a number of ways, including the widespread use of night-raids. Three significant examples provide further illustration.
The first is the major military-construction operations now underway at scores of US bases across Afghanistan (see Nick Turse, “US dug in for long haul in Afghanistan”, Asia Times, 24 October 2010). This involves the commitment of many hundreds of millions of dollars on scores of projects, including major building programmes with an air of permanence.
In parallel, an individual contract worth $511 million has been signed with Caddell Construction to undertake the expansion of the US embassy in Kabul - already the world’s largest, housing 1,100 personnel from sixteen agencies. The refurbishment plans include permanent offices and housing, much of which will still be uncompleted by 2014. And $279 million has been committed to the construction of extensive diplomatic facilities in Mazar-i-Sharif and Herat (see Tom Engelhardt, “Kabul gets its own stimulus package”, Asia Times / TomDispatch, 18 November 2010).
The second example is the significant (if barely reported) US tactical innovation of destroying buildings likely to be used by insurgents. This is especially apparent during the American troop advance into large parts of Kandahar province, where retreating Taliban paramilitaries frequently abandon buildings primed with explosives - which US forces then destroy, along with others they think might be used in the future.
The official US figures list 174 buildings destroyed since September 2010, though local sources cite many hundreds - or even thousands. A single report states that “every one of the 40 homes in the village of Khisrow was flattened by a salvo of 25 missiles, according to the district governor, Shah Muhammed Ahmadi, who estimated that 120 to 130 houses had been demolished in his district” (see Taimoor Shah & Rod Nordland, “NATO Is Razing Booby-Trapped Afghan Homes”, New York Times, 16 November 2010). The fact that this is a single district in one of Afghanistan’s largest provinces makes the estimate of thousands of buildings destroyed appear all the more credible.
The third example is that Pakistan’s president, Asif Ali Zardari, has agreed to a major expansion of United States operations in his country, especially the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (Fata). Already, there has been a doubling of armed-drone strikes in 2009-10; and, echoing developments in Kabul, a massive US embassy compound is now under construction in Islamabad - including its own airstrip - at a cost of over $730 million.
Pakistan has eased the increased US involvement by turning the cumbersome matter of granting visas for defence-related US personnel into a streamlined twenty-four-hour process. A senior Pakistani security official comments: “The Americans increasingly want to have direct intervention and control in counter-terrorism operations and want to expand their operations from the tribal regions into the cities…In this new campaign, the Americans aim to reduce the role of the Pakistani security forces and they want to directly deal with the insurgents” (see Syed Saleem Shahzad, “Pakistan opens its door to US ops”, Asia Times, 22 November 2010).
Together, these three developments convey the reality of an intensifying war across “AfPak”. The Petraeus-led faction among senior US military strategists has adopted a clear policy of escalating aggression that is far removed from the politically necessary message from Nato’s Lisbon summit - that the war is past its peak. But it is the policy rather than the message that has traction; after all, Barack Obama sacked Petraeus's two predecessors in the space of a year, making the general’s position now virtually unassailable (see "Afghanistan: an impossible choice", 1 JUly 2010).
Some thoughtful counterinsurgency analysts argue that operations against entrenched opposition require an 80:20 basis for success: 80% political leadership, 20% military action. In Afghanistan and Pakistan, the ratios seem reversed. The wider implication is that whatever Barack Obama - or other western leaders - may claim, the military is in charge. This will be a long war.