Friday, July 2, 2010

Afghan War Intensity Up--A Sign of Hope?

100 ISAF servicemen died in June--the most since the Afghanistan war began. it's a terrible number and a tragedy, absolutely.

But: there is a sign of hope in the increased intensity of the Afghan war.

The Taliban is increasingly on the offensive--bold (and sometimes reckless) attacks against American and Afghani targets are well on the upswing.

What's this mean? Why the change? The easy answer is to say, "they're getting stronger, and want to deal a finishing blow." This is, certainly, what the attacks are meant to imply.

But the story is more complicated.

The question to ask is: what is the Taliban's winning strategy?

The answer, by the way, is to wait out the US. The US will leave eventually. It will not stay there forever. If the Taliban can slowly swell its safe base of operations, it will win, as the US will eventually grow tired and fade away.

Three series of events are happening in parallel:
1) The US is stepping up drone/special operations in Taliban strongholds in Southern Afghanistan (like Helmand).
2) Pakistan is stepping up full-scale military assaults in Taliban strongholds in northern Pakistan (like Swat and Northern Waziristan).
3) The Taliban is stepping up bold offensives against the Pakistani Government, the Afghani Government, and ISAF.

I think you might be able to see where I am going.

Why the boldness, if the Taliban wants to wait for the US to leave?

The obvious guess is that the wait-it-out strategy is not currently viable.

ISAF and Pakistan are working together on an offensive. As we saw in Iraq, offensives cost lives. They hurt, the numbers look bad, and the American public grows quickly impatient.

But, potentially, they work. Certainly, a lack of offensives will fail. Preventing at all turns a stronghold for the enemy is a necessary (though not sufficient) part of COIN. It seems like this costly measure is starting to pay off: bold Taliban attacks on ISAF sites imply that there may be a desperation on the part of the Taliban to pressure NATO out of Afghanistan quickly. If that's the case, then the Taliban thinks that waiting is no longer in its favor.

The alternative hypothesis is that the Taliban is so strong that it's trying to deliver the "final blow." First, this doesn't make particular sense, strategically--the Taliban is traditionally quite terrible against ISAF in straight-up gun battles, as the past month has shown. If the waiting-game is a winning strategy, then there's no reason the Taliban would grow impatient and start putting its fighters at higher risk. It's been fighting a 25-year war for Independence. Its time horizon is much longer than a few months.

Second, the US is already scheduled to start pulling out of Afghanistan--there is no particular need or reason to try to "hurry" them. This is the perfect situation to, if possible, keep the "wait-it-out" strategy going.

If the Taliban is on the offensive, it's because it can't be on the defensive. Its strongholds and safe areas are being threatened and broken up. For sure, we know its lines of communication are being disrupted--making its attacks decreasingly coordinated and effective.

There is hope. There is a whole lot more to do than disrupting the Taliban's footing in the AfPak region to ensure victory in Afghanistan. But it is necessarily the first and most important step in winning the war (creating a stable, functional, credible central government to take its place is another story altogether).

Keep your eyes up in the next few months for Petraeus to continue to apply his modified strategy from Iraq--potentially successfully.
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