But too many reasons exist why U.S. troops won’t be going anywhere in 2011:
A resilient Taliban
The latest NATO intelligence estimates that the group remains a fighting force of some 20,000 to 25,000 soldiers. Were America to duplicate 2010’s blitzkrieg, which killed an estimated 5,000 fighters and commanders, it would still need to do so for another four or five years. This isn’t a realistic strategy given Afghans’ impatience with NATO operations. The Taliban also remain in possession of their sanctuary in Pakistan, tenuous as its relationship with Islamabad may be.
Clearing North Waziristan has become something of a red herring because the Haqqani network has diversified from the agency, and because Taliban leadership doesn’t reside there. Washington must concede high-level negotiations with the Taliban to create a realistic opportunity for withdrawal. However Petraeus, who points to pacified districts as “proof of COIN,” appears bent on securing total surrender, a rarity in counterinsurgency. Now, after repeatedly declaring the Taliban’s momentum as broken, Petraeus has blamed an increase in fighting on a mild winter.
If less snow is all the Taliban need to rekindle their momentum, how “broken” can it really be?
Skyrocketing opium prices
Remember when U.S. generals like Richard Mills, commander of the I Marine Expeditionary Force, claimed that the Taliban was running out of cash? Neither does the Taliban. Declining opium prices and alternative wheat crops contributed to a belief that insurgent funds were beginning to dry up, but WikiLeaks and even U.S. officials such as Richard Holbrooke dismissed the idea of a poor Taliban. The primary source of funds are still believed to originate from Gulf donors, Saudi Arabia in particular.
The Taliban have also stashed tons of product as a “nest egg” to weather down-markets and NATO raids.
Conversely, while the Taliban’s multiple revenue streams (taxes, foreign donations, and Western aid) absorb the shock of an unpredictable opium market, the group certainly stands to benefit from skyrocketing prices. Marine Col. David Furness, the regimental commander in Marjah, expects that 85% of the area would soon be poppy free, a “fact” he attributed to better security and wheat crops. But marijuana sells for about $27 per pound in Afghanistan, more profitable than many fruits.
And according to Mohammed Azhar, Afghanistan’s deputy minister for counternarcotics, "The price of opium is now seven times higher than wheat, and there is a $58 billion demand for narcotics, so our farmers have no disincentive to cultivate poppy. We have gotten a lot of help, but it is not enough. Afghanistan is still producing 85 percent of the opium in the world, and it is still a dark stain on our name."
So it sounds like the Taliban will be flush with cash for its counteroffensive. What’s more, “Now, Afghan officials say, the latest NATO push to wipe out the Taliban leadership and focus on military goals has once again led to a reduced international interest in the drug war.”
Azhar warned that those forces “allied” with the government are often the worst violators, “able to circumvent law enforcement efforts and intimidate or compromise even well-trained anti-drug forces.”
Although the Taliban are considered to be America’s main problem in Kandahar, Lt. Gen. Bazz Mohammed Ahmadi, who was named to head the anti-narcotics police in September, explained, "Most of the trafficking we see is in Kandahar, and we have no control there. We have a lot of security checks at the airports, with special scanners and equipment, but the VIPs and the organized crime people know how to avoid them."
This leads directly into...
U.S. political and military officials have been jumping from one military “success” to the next for months now - a consequence of having few political achievements to high-light. Despite their best public behavior, Washington and Karzai clashed throughout 2010 on corruption allegations, local militias, night raids, and private contractors. Development projects have reportedly exhausted U.S. aid officials on the ground.
The Wall Street Journal, currently leading the U.S. media’s pro-war charge, wrote that Petraeus is, “experimenting with new ways to improve governance—to change the dynamic between the local population and an Afghan state seen as distant, inept and rapacious.” The theory is that, by empowering local forces, Petraeus and U.S. military can eventually connect them with the national government. Max Hastings of The Financial Times put the same theory in blunter terms: “He [Petraeus] regards the president with contempt, and is bent upon sorting out the country without much help from its leader, a doubtful proposition.”
“The phrase most popular among commanders is ‘bottom up’: having almost abandoned the attempt to empower President Hamid Karzai’s government, they are now focused upon building local institutions in spite of Kabul.”
It’s often said that Afghanistan would benefit from a more localized form of government. True or not, this strategy doesn’t appear to be the remedy for Karzai's administration - which Washington ushered in after a questionable 2009 election. September 2010's parliamentary election also remains inconclusive.
Perhaps the best way of demonstrating a delay to July troop withdrawals is by adding up previous delays. Most everything is behind schedule in Afghanistan, whether military operations in Kandahar, development projects, or political reform. Vice President Joe Biden is busy declaring the White House “out of patience” with Pakistan, yet Islamabad appears all the more reluctant to launch an invasion into North Waziristan.
And July has already protracted into 2014, with U.S. officials blatantly admitting in December to “getting people past July 2011.”
Even a brief consideration of July’s circumstances reveals the improbability of sizable troop withdrawals. To market 2010 as a success, Washington sold July 2011 as the decisive summer in the war. Why would the Pentagon authorize a reduction of forces, especially when NATO will continue its exodus? Whatever Obama was thinking, the Pentagon deployed 30,000 troops for next summer, not 2010’s. It needs every last one too.
Obama also gave Gates 3,000 reserve forces, half of which just deployed, leaving the other half available for summer.
Petraeus has admitted as much himself. Explaining that increased activity and higher casualties result from a COIN “bell curve,” Petraeus told ambassadors he did not expect the curve to break until the end of 2011. Nor can he guarantee that one “curve” won’t give way to another.
"July 2011” deserved reasonable skepticism from the beginning, and the last year further demonstrated a need to suspend belief. The Pentagon continues to win its battle with the White House and Congress; as with July, a 2014 transfer of all Afghan provinces remains “conditions-based.” Even liberals in Washington’s establishment have joined their conservative peers in advising Obama to “go long” rather than find a quicker exit. Unfortunately the same reasons that advocate withdrawal serve to escalate the war, generating instability in the long-term.
To predict that no troops will exit would be foolish. Obama will likely seek to fulfill his promise through a token withdrawal of 1,000-3,000, possibly exploiting the loophole of Gates's reserve brigade. Gates informed reporters during December's review that, despite visibly avoiding the war in public, Obama has "clearly" designated July as “conditions-based.”
So they won't even think they’re breaking a promise when they do.