With the war in Afghanistan, there is something of an annual tradition in the news analysis and pundits who write about it: declare that year, no matter the circumstances, plans, or context, a turning point in the war. This year is, obviously, no exception:
FOB DELHI: International troops in Afghanistan face the prospect of a spring offensive by the Taliban every year – but this time the US-led alliance believes it could mark a real turning point in its favour.
Leaving aside the obvious question—I though General Petraeus said the tide had already turned in our favor and everything is awesome?—there’s not really anything new to the story. Every year—literally, every single year—the military or government gets a reporter to run a story about how this time, NATO is trying to get it right, and it will change the tide of the war. Don’t believe me?
- February 20, 2010: “Western officials believe that a turning point has been reached in the war against the Taliban, with a series of breakthroughs suggesting that the insurgents are on the back foot for the first time since their resurgence four years ago.”
- August 31, 2009: “Monday marks the end of August, a month with both good and bad news out of Afghanistan — and the approach of a key turning point.“
- February 6, 2008: “But the ties that bind NATO are fraying badly – and publicly – over just how much each member state wants to commit to turning Afghanistan around. ‘It’s starting to get to a turning point about what is this alliance about,’ says Michael Williams, director of the transatlan- tic program at the Royal United Services Institute in London.”
- July 23, 2007: “Taken together these may reflect a turning point in how the war in Afghanistan is to be waged.”
- September 12, 2006: “The Afghan front is at a critical turning point that imperils many of the hard-fought successes of the early phase of the conflict and the prospects for snaring bin Laden.”
- September 22, 2005: “Abdullah Abdullah, Afghanistan’s foreign minister, called the recent parliamentary elections ‘a major turning point‘ on his country’s path to democracy.”
- January 27, 2004: “A statement from U.S. ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad called the enactment of the constitution a ‘turning point for the Afghan nation.'”
- February 26, 2003: “The growing aggressiveness by guerrillas is a relief for US forces, who greet the possibility of a real engagement with the Taliban as a possible turning point in the war. ‘We want them to attack us, so we can engage them and destroy them,’ says one Special Forces soldier from the US firebase at Spin Boldak, who took part in the initial firefight that led to Operation Mongoose.
- December 2, 2002: “But in ‘Bush at War’ there’s a glaring omission. Woodward misses the turning point in the war in Afghanistan against the Taliban and al Qaeda forces. It’s as though the most important scene had been left out of a movie, say, where Clark Kent turns into Superman.”
With so many turning points, it’s no wonder the war seems to go nowhere so very quickly. Everyone was in on the game—that last link was from the Weekly Standard, complaining that not enough people were recognizing all the turning points in Afghanistan. Articles written in retrospect pondered turning points from earlier in the war. BBC reporters called the eventual defeat of the Taliban the real turning point. Even Tom Ricks had headlines re-written to indicate the widespread belief in a turning point.
The sad fact of the matter is, the one year where there aren’t a bunch of stories about turning points in the war in Afghanistan is 2001, which is also the one year when there probably were a number of turning points in the war. That was the year the U.S. had the opportunity to corner the destroy al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden, but it chose not to. That was the year the U.S. had swept aside the Taliban and could have chosen to begin an era of responsible Afghan rule, but it chose not to. That was the year everything happened.
This year probably does mark another turning point in the war. The July 2011 deadline looms largely, though in a mostly symbolic sense. This is the year troop strength will peak, and is probably the last year in which the U.S. can have a definitive, nation-wide effect on the ability of the Taliban to wage war. It’s all downhill from here, in other words. A real turning point.
Most of those links are from Katherine Tiedemann, whose Daily Brief for the AfPakChannel is fabulous.