On Wednesday, the Washington Post carried a remarkable article reporting that according to U.S. government assessments, the U.S. military escalation in Afghanistan has failed.
The Post’s Greg Miller reported that
An intense military campaign aimed at crippling the Taliban has so far failed to inflict more than fleeting setbacks on the insurgency
Miller explains why this is so:
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."
So, since the policy of military escalation has failed, according to the U.S. government’s own assessments, we should expect that in December, when President Obama promised that the policy will be reviewed, we should see a fundamental change in policy. Right?
But, according to the same Washington Post report, "no major change in strategy is expected in December."
How could it be, that the policy has failed, according to official U.S. government assessments, and yet no change is expected when the promised review occurs?
One possible explanation would be that while the policy is failing according to stated Pentagon objectives, it is succeeding according to unstated Pentagon objectives. The Pentagon is not succeeding in degrading the Taliban’s military capacity. But the Pentagon is, apparently, succeeding in degrading the Taliban’s political capacity: in particular, the Taliban’s political capacity to strike a deal that ends the war and enforce the deal on its mid-level commanders and footsoldiers. This would be dangerously counterproductive if your goal were to end the war, but if your goal is to make a peace deal more difficult in order to facilitate a long-term US military presence in Afghanistan, maybe you don’t think this is counterproductive, because a feasible peace deal almost certainly implies a timetable for the withdrawal of US forces.
An op-ed in Tuesday’s New York Times by anthropologist Scott Atran notes that
The United States claims to have killed thousands of Taliban in recent months, mostly foot soldiers and midlevel commanders. But those 25-year-old foot soldiers are being replaced by teenage fighters, and the 35-year-old midlevel commanders by 20-something students straight out of the religious chools called madrasas, which are the only form of education available in many rural areas.
These younger commanders and their fiercely loyal fighters are increasingly removed from the dense networks of tribal kinship and patronage, or qawm, and especially of friendship born of common experiences, or andiwali, that bind together the top figures in the established insurgent groups like the Quetta Shura and the Haqqani network. Indeed, it is primarily through andiwali – overlapping bonds of family, schooling, years together in camps, combat service, business partnership – that talks between the adversaries, including representatives of Hamid Karzai, Afghanistan’s president, and Mullah Omar, the Taliban’s ultimate leader, have continued over the years.
These new Taliban warriors, however, are increasingly independent, ruthless and unwilling to compromise with foreign infidels and their associates.
Atran notes that "recently the Quetta Shura sent a Muslim scholar to chastise a group of youthful commanders in Paktia Province who were not following Mullah Omar’s directives; they promptly killed him."
The Afghanistan that the Pentagon is producing with its current policy is one in which a peace deal will be more difficult to reach and to enforce; that we know. The question is whether this is a deliberate result of Pentagon policy. If there is a meaningful review of the policy in December that leads to a significant change towards deescalation and serious negotiations, then one will be able to plausibly argue that the current policy was merely a disastrous, deadly and counterproductive mistake which killed many Americans and Afghans for no reason. But if the review is fake and the escalation policy continues, even though the result of current policy is clear, the more sinister explanation – that the Pentagon is making peace more difficult on purpose – will be much more plausible.