What Is Really Happening in Afghanistan?

by Joshua Foust on 10/20/2010 · 15 comments

The other week, Michael Cohen wrote a probing article for the New Republic, in which he discussed the weird state of affairs we are in. After noting the “pervasive gloom” when talking with literally everyone who is responsible for understanding the place, Cohen noted there was one exception. “To hear it from U.S. military spokespersons,” he wrote, “one would think that corners are being turned, lights are being glimpsed at the end of the tunnel, the U.S. and NATO are making steady progress against the Talban and important advances are being made.”

This is an important contrast. To read the news dispatches from Afghan and Coalition officials, the Taliban in Kandahar are being routed. It’s a tricky thing to swallow: despite the presence of veteran Carlotta Gall, we have all the trappings of a normal puff-piece about the super-awesome military: reversed momentum, pinky-swears that this time, promise, it won’t be like Marjah, and declarations of victory following the established Taliban tactic of slinking away under the slightest military pressure.

It’s one of many reasons I’m so deeply skeptical of the current effort to reach out to the Taliban and begin negotiations. I wrote about some of these doubts for my column this week at PBS:

The last four years have seen a slow, but accelerating, deterioration in the tenuous security gains of 2002 and 2003 — broad areas the country once considered safe, like the northern provinces, are now incredibly violent. The south, where aid workers could live openly, is now so bad that westerners fetch $200,000 in abduction ransom. By almost every measure, the Taliban are winning — despite the massive assassination campaign begun under Gen. David Petraeus (who brags of the hundreds of “senior leaders” killed or arrested, to negligible security gains). It is unreasonable under these circumstances to show up at a negotiating event and expect them to renounce a thing: they have the advantage.

Yet we do precisely that. But it isn’t just with negotiations and with offensives to “clear” an unwelcoming Kandahar where the U.S. seems beset with magical thinking and a complete disconnect from ground conditions. As we learned on Tuesday, the CIA is stricken with it as well. I have a piece up at the AfPak Channel discussing it:

Given the intensity of the CIA’s operations in Pakistan — which by all accounts have increased dramatically under President Obama — it is appropriate to question the reliability of the intelligence the CIA is using. We don’t know how well the agency’s sources’ intelligence is cross-checked against verifiable data. If the al-Balawi incident in Afghanistan is any indication, it often isn’t… In the case of the CIA, when seemingly every check and balance against hasty or ill-considered action breaks down, we know even less. This makes it difficult for analysts, agents, and outsiders to have any confidence in the government’s ability to wage war properly.

Indeed. I get the sinking feeling that we really have no idea how things are going. As Cohen pointed out, the military is persisting that everything is awesome and we’re winning, while every single empirical measure we know of says the opposite. What is really going on in Afghanistan? Until the press stops willingly playing along in the DOD’s “messaging” campaign against the American public, we will never know really know.


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This post was written by...

– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from Registan.net. His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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{ 15 comments }

CostOfWarBlog October 21, 2010 at 12:55 am

Joshua,
Instead of questioning everyone else, perhaps one should take a moment to question oneself as well. maybe there is actual momentum for actual talks on the ground that you are disregarding as complete bs. maybe the Taliban are actually being thumped in Arghanddab. why not give it a chance and believe it for a moment? why not let it play out before simply disregarding it in your pessimism?

Joshua Foust October 21, 2010 at 8:12 am

It’s simple, CoWB. I have been burned so many times, over so many years, by so many different commanding generals that I just don’t believe them anymore. In my eyes, they have proven their inability to accurately gauge and assess the war. So when they say it’s going well, I assume they’re lying.

So far, I haven’t been wrong. Why am I wrong this time? “Give it a chance” is not a reason to think so.

CostOfWarBlog October 21, 2010 at 7:23 pm

Fair enough Josh.
As an afghan, I would like to believe in the slightest glimmer of hope. while i understand your skepticism, i just have a feeling that we might be nearing some important negotiations. yes, that might be delusional thinking on my part. but so tired of a lack progress, i would rather be delusional than hopeless

caleb kavon October 21, 2010 at 1:14 am

Cost of war…?

Joshua is saying…”look the cat is black, and it is not a dog”

You are saying….”wouldn’t it be nice if it was a white poodle doggy and not a cat?”

I beg you to look at the realities of the crisis and not engage in “when you wish upon a star” kind of thinking.

I mean one week into these new powered up Barader talks and peace reigns despite all logic?? Come on, get a grip. This is just party line, we think what they say, not what we see stuff.

Joshua is making sense, the rest is zombied out thinking. Follow the dear leader hopefulness. Does not compute unless you are a member of the “zombie youth undead club.” Does not compute.

I am with Joshua. Mullah in Islamabad or Egypt first? The race is on.

Kabul is not the big prize anymore, they can take that anytime after 2014. The die is cast.

We are just looking for a nice sounding departure tune.

Come to think about it “When you wish upon a star” has a nice ring to it, as the Good Taliban come marching in.

“When you wish upon a star, doesn’t matter where you really are, Call on me or Barader, when you wish upon a star”

Grant October 21, 2010 at 5:35 am

Even if the press wasn’t doing so it would be difficult to have any idea what’s going on. Personally I’m less hopeful based on the fact that I can’t see a reason for the Taliban to be too light in negotiations (unless the press has missed something huge).

whatintegrity October 21, 2010 at 11:19 am

Barack Obama desperately needs things to go well in Afghanistan so that he can adhere to his withdrawal timeline.

I hope Carlotta Gall is right. But her story must be considered in light of the NYT’s years-long effort to support anything Obama says or does, at all costs to journalistic integrity.

Grant October 21, 2010 at 5:29 pm

Good point to make. Much as I dislike saying it, at the moment newspapers from the U.S are taking sides in politics and so we should be wary of some personal bias.

anan October 21, 2010 at 1:56 pm

Joshua, it isn’t just ISAF who think they are winning. Anecdotally the ANA think they are winning too.

Many ANA have a poor opinion about the combat effectiveness, bravery, and character of the Taliban they fight. They not only despise the Taliban, they dismiss the Taliban.

An exception might be the thousands of international Taliban that are fighting so well in RC-East and in pockets of the North.

Are the ANA delusional? Where does their bravado come from?

Does part of the ANA’s bravado come from the fact that the ANA often deploys in company sized operations which the Taliban are too scared to attack? If the ANA broke up into Platoons or Blucks and aggressively patrolled and chased after Taliban . . . forcing the Taliban to engage them, would their opinion of the Taliban increase?

As far as whether you are right or wrong, well . . . maybe neither.

The Taliban aren’t “winning.” Neither is ANSF or ISAF. However, security is deteriorating in large parts of Afghanistan. Different organized crime syndicates are preying on locals. However the Quetta Shura Taliban’s control over actual Afghan battlespace is shrinking. Local “Taliban” militias are doing their own thing paying lip service to the higher ups. Different organized crime organization again doing their own thing. But the top down command and control over the Taliban is shrinking.

Many times across space and time countries have dissolved into increasing chaos without any specific party winning. The same is probably happening in Afghanistan.

Instead of saying the “North is falling” . . . perhaps it is more accurate to say that the North is becoming more violent and chaotic. However command and control and coordination between Northern Taliban is also deteriorating.

Have the Taliban in Kunduz won a company sized engagement with the ANA in the last few months? As long as the Taliban in Kunduz avoid engaging the ANA, they haven’t “won” that much.

To use a Matrix metaphor . . . unless the children of Zion are able to defeat an “agent” . . . they haven’t achieved very much.

Shah Mojadedi October 21, 2010 at 3:02 pm

Many times across space and time countries have dissolved

To use a Matrix metaphor

Are the ANA delusional?

An exception might be the thousands of international Taliban that are fighting so well

I agree neither.

anan October 21, 2010 at 4:30 pm

Shah Mojadedi, could you elaborate your response?

Are you agreeing that no major faction is “winning” in Afghanistan as Afghanistan has gradually become more violent and chaotic?

Boris Sizemore October 21, 2010 at 5:32 pm

Divide and Conquer is not a dumb strategy if:

A. The factions are easily divided, and we know what they
think.

B. Barader will buy into cutting Mullah Omar out.

C. The Pakistanis don’t really care, they are ok with waiting. And not ready to escalate this even more short term. Depends on how secure they really feel with the movement they “want” to control.

D. The “Route” is a good cover for our withdrawal. Petreaus may be thinking “look we routed them-let us stay until 2014” and Obama may say “Good, drawdown, push those talks, and that is an Order”

In which case we may get a counter push, “Things are bad, can we stay, we need to stay” So the Party line and what it means DOD wise may not play blockbusters at the White House. Remember this is Gates’ final couple of months. He is gone.

E. The Situation is not what it seems, ie. East and North turning into expansion zones, and large large areas of no go and no government control. If this is NOT the case, the Taliban must be feeling pressure.

Lots of ifs and buts, and not many whys and ands Probably going to get confusing soon. I mean more confusing.

Shah I understood your post, Thanks….

Boris Sizemore October 21, 2010 at 5:53 pm

Anand, looks like he is agreeing with your post 100% to me.

Steve Maghribi October 21, 2010 at 11:02 pm

Cost of War..

Your second comment made just great sense, and I understand.

The word “peace” is really wanted by so many Afghans. Everyone I spoke to last week, including members of the peace council were excited by it.

I felt terrible bringing up anything negative at the time, because I did not want to “ruin the moment” for them.

We all hope for the best, but it does not seem to so easy as just putting out Rabbani and Sayyaf and Barader and saying some magic words, especially if Mullah Omar is out of this completely, according to the US.

Joshua makes some great points, and yes, reality is tough to bear after all these years of never ending war.

All the Best-Thanks for the Ghaffar Khan piece, he must not be forgotten…

Staff Sergeant -blank- October 22, 2010 at 10:39 am

I have recently started reading this website since I have been working the AfPAK target for awhile now. I enjoy reading the articles and posts from other people, it seems very respectful in these blogs, very different from others I have read.
My two sense:
Do we really believe that we can reach ‘peace’ with people who have known little or no peace in their lifetimes? Most of these fighters have been doing it their whole lives and are really good at it. Let’s say that it is true that Taliban commanders are interested in peace talks with GIRoA, how are we to know that they are genuine? These are not stupid cave dwelling uneducated men. They are hardened fighters that learn how to adapt to ever changing conflict. Who’s to say that they don’t engage in peace talks, wait until the U.S. draws down, then retake the country? Afghanistan is a country that survived many invasions, Mongols, Britain, Russia, and now the U.S. just to name a few. What makes us think we can win?
As far as who’s winning? They know they can’t ‘win’ an engagement, and they don’t have too. They only have to ‘outlast’ coalition forces like they did the Soviets. Look at the BAF attack in May. Tactically it was a failure, but it was a strategic success. They knew they couldn’t ‘win’ the battle, but the media attention it received is what they wanted. They showed that they can attack anywhere and at anytime.
While it is true that we are giving the Taliban a ‘beating’ in many areas of the country, it really doesn’t mean much. Every time we kill a ‘high level commander’, there are probably five more individuals that are more than capable of taking their place. We are in a war of attrition and Afghan fighters are seasoned veterans when it comes to that. We better be prepared to be in Afghanistan for a lot longer. Counter insurgency takes a long long time.

anan October 22, 2010 at 2:21 pm

“Do we really believe that we can reach ‘peace’ with people who have known little or no peace in their lifetimes?”

Yes. Hasn’t Afghanistan been peaceful for most of its 5 thousand year history? Including under the Shah 1919-1973? What is happening now is an aberration.

“Most of these fighters have been doing it their whole lives and are really good at it.” Does the fact that someone has been fighting their whole life mean they are necessarily good at it? How would you rate the tactical competence and success of most Taliban units?

Afghan society is much younger than almost any other country. Most people are young and haven’t been fighting very long. Most Taliban and ANSF fighters are young men who are not very experienced.

Where you referring to Taliban officers and embedded combat advisors?

“how are we to know that they are genuine?” Many local Talilban leaders and local Afghan warlords probably are not that idealogical and necessarily reliable to any side. Many might be in it for themselves and their own subgroup.

Are you referring to the top leaders of the QST, Haqqanis, HiG, TTP, TNSM, LeT, Iyas Kashmiri etc? I don’t have great answers for you. Maybe you could try to answer your own question and give your own assessment regarding the motives of each Taliban leader.

“These are not stupid cave dwelling uneducated men. They are hardened fighters that learn how to adapt to ever changing conflict.” Well said.

“Who’s to say that they don’t engage in peace talks, wait until the U.S. draws down, then retake the country?”

ANSF

To repeat ANSF.

The primary strategic objective of the Taliban leadership [not talking about foot soldiers] is to persuade ISAF and the international community [including India, Russia, Iran, China] not to fund, equip, advise and train the ANSF.

This is why the Taliban leadership in collaboration with parts of the Pakistani establishment have launched a PR offensive against the ANSF, to persuade potential supporters of the ANSF that:
1) ANSF cannot win
2) ANSF are corrupt [well this part is somewhat true . . . even the Taliban are corrupt]

“Afghanistan is a country that survived many invasions, Mongols, Britain, Russia, and now the U.S. just to name a few. What makes us think we can win?”

Who is “we”? This war will be won by the ANSF. The role of ISAF is to help the ANSF win.

“They know they can’t ‘win’ an engagement,” Not true. At least not true regarding the thousands of international Taliban who fight better than Mullah Omar centric QST.

“and they don’t have too.” Actually the Taliban have to eventually win engagements. They have to take on the ANSF at the company and battalion level and win. Or else Afghanistan becomes more chaotic and violent with no clear winners.

“They only have to ‘outlast’ coalition forces like they did the Soviets.”

Actually the Najibullah government did quite well for three years after the Soviets left. Najibullah only fell when the Soviets stopped paying for the communist Afghan National Security Forces. [Soviets use to fund them to the tune of about $5 to $8 billion a year.]

I think the Taliban knows that they cannot win in the long term if the ANSF gets sufficient reliable, predictable, long term international funding. The Taliban hopes to persuade the international community to stop funding the ANSF over the long term.

“Look at the BAF attack in May. Tactically it was a failure, but it was a strategic success. They knew they couldn’t ‘win’ the battle, but the media attention it received is what they wanted. They showed that they can attack anywhere and at anytime.”
Wouldn’t overstate this. ANSF morale and recruiting are quite high. They at least don’t think they are losing. But the ANSF suffer from group think like any other organization and might be excessively optimistic.

I would point out that so far this year, the Taliban have been unable to attack ANSF training facilities in any serious way or persuade Afghan Pashtuns not to join the ANSF. [Taliban have had success preventing certain Pashtun subgroups from joining the ANSF.]

“While it is true that we are giving the Taliban a ‘beating’ in many areas of the country, it really doesn’t mean much. Every time we kill a ‘high level commander’, there are probably five more individuals that are more than capable of taking their place.”
Couldn’t disagree more. It take many years to train and mentor Taliban officers, especially Taliban mid grade officers. Much of this happens in Taliban officer selection course and staff college equivalents inside Pakistan and through embedded combat advisors attached to Taliban units. You might argue that there is a large supply of junior officer/leader candidates that are willing to start their training with the Taliban. However, every time a good senior and mid grade Taliban officer dies, it hurts their combat effectiveness.

“We are in a war of attrition and Afghan fighters are seasoned veterans when it comes to that. We better be prepared to be in Afghanistan for a lot longer. Counter insurgency takes a long long time.”

True. I don’t think the Taliban and their de facto backers will negotiate in good faith unless they believe the ANSF will get the long term international support it needs to win.

Right now, there is a perception in Pakistan and among the Taliban that the internationals will leave and cut off their support for the ANSF. Does anyone have any ideas for how to change this perception?

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