The War with the Taliban

Lynsey Addario/VII Network
US Marines checking villagers’ documents as they cleared an area of Taliban forces in southern Marja, Afghanistan, before parliamentary elections, September 15, 2010

The Obama administration has been trying to dispel the impression that its military strategy in Afghanistan is influenced by domestic politics. The President’s announcement at West Point last December that US troops will start withdrawing in July 2011—in time to impress voters before his reelection campaign the following year—has been qualified over the summer, not only by General David Petraeus, whom the President chose in June to replace General Stanley McChrystal as commander of coalition forces in Afghanistan, but also by the NATO secretary-general, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, on a recent visit to Washington. The talk is no longer of drawdown but of “transition,” with a “dividend,” in Rasmussen’s words, as troops from newly pacified regions are to be redeployed elsewhere in the country. As of next summer, Vice President Biden has suggested, the number of American troops leaving Afghanistan may be as low as “a couple of thousand.” More recently, the flawed parliamentary elections of September 18 appeared to confirm fears that Afghanistan is not maturing politically as the US and its partners had hoped.

Obama was already giving mixed messages at West Point. Although his tone sounded aggressive and his speech was dominated by his announcement that a surge of 30,000 troops would be deployed “in the first part of 2010,” Obama clearly felt he had to equivocate about the July 2011 withdrawal date—not a course of action, Petraeus later said, that the military had recommended. The announcement of the withdrawal date had an immediate and galvanizing effect on the morale of the Taliban and their supporters, and may have contributed to the Taliban’s continuing ability to attract recruits. This August, the outgoing head of the Marine Corps, General James Conway, suggested that the withdrawal date is “probably giving our enemy sustenance…in fact we’ve intercepted [Taliban] communications that say, ‘Hey, you know, we only have to hold out for so long.'”

The Taliban, according to Afghans I spoke to this summer, have been encouraged by US casualties, which have risen dramatically this year—120 American soldiers were killed in July and August alone and more died in the first eight months of 2010 than in all of 2009. (In August 2009, the insurgents made 630 attacks; this August they made over 1,350.) They also have been encouraged by the sight of Obama’s military allies rushing for the door. The Dutch withdrew their contingent in the summer, and the Canadians and Poles plan to follow suit. In June, David Cameron announced that he wants Britain’s ten-thousand-strong force to be home by 2015. General Conway predicted that the Taliban’s morale will suffer when they realize that large numbers of US troops will, in fact, be staying after next July, but he also conceded that…

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