January 25, 2011

Petraeus Selling Hollow Optimism in Afghanistan

From The Washington Post:

KABUL - Gen. David H. Petraeus on Tuesday offered an optimistic assessment of the war in Afghanistan, writing to his subordinates that coalition and Afghan troops in the past year "inflicted enormous losses" on mid-level insurgents and "took away some of their most important safe havens."

The three-page letter to the troops made many of the same points that U.S. military officials have offered for weeks: an improving situation in southern Afghanistan, where the bulk of U.S. troops are based; a relentless mission tempo to kill insurgent field commanders; and an overall weakening of the Taliban.

"Now, in fact, the insurgents are increasingly responding to our operations rather than vice-versa, and there are numerous reports of unprecedented discord among the members of the Quetta Shura, the Taliban senior leadership body," Petraeus wrote.

But Petraeus's optimism - he has recently compared the situation in Afghanistan to how he felt near the end of 2007 in Iraq, when violence there began to fall sharply - is not widely shared among Afghans, or even other NATO diplomats or U.S. military officials.

Statistics gathered by NATO, as well as other organizations, show that violence rose to its highest levels last year, and U.S. military officials predict 2011 will be even worse. To the coalition, the Afghan government remains dangerously ineffective, and the Pakistan sanctuary for the Taliban's leadership is still secure. And many Afghans express frustration with the presence of foreign troops.

"I can tell you this very clearly: 50 percent of the people who are working with the Afghan government, their hearts are with the Taliban," said Munshi Abdul Majid, the governor of Baghlan, a province in northern Afghanistan where security deteriorated last year. "And this 50 percent feel the international community is not trustworthy and is trying to fool them."

Last year's talk of secret peace negotiations with Taliban leaders has apparently amounted to little beyond an embarrassing episode involving a fake Taliban emissary. Petraeus did not mention "reconciliation" - the catchphrase for political dialogue with senior insurgent leaders - in his letter to the troops.

"Nothing has happened yet, not secret, not public," Abdul Salam Zaeef, the Taliban regime's former ambassador to Pakistan, said of any dialogue with insurgent leadership. "The fighting itself is the big problem. Peace is like water. And fighting is a burning thing. No one can to find water amid all of this fire."

Now that American commanders have their eyes set on "end of 2014" for when Afghan forces are "in the lead," as Petraeus wrote, President Obama's initial deadline of July 2011 to start withdrawals has lost significance. With that breathing room, Petraeus's strategy involves heavy military pressure, to weaken and fracture the Taliban, to entice certain factions to give up the fight. Some of his commanders are equally upbeat about the progress so far.

"If we continue on the glide path we're on, continue to reinforce the police with well-trained officers and patrolmen, continue to support the governor with his attempts to get good local government deeply embedded, I think it's irreversible," Maj. Gen. Richard Mills, the Marine commander in Helmand province, said of the progress in Marja. "Could I come up with a scenario where it would be reversible? A significant force of drug merchants who wanted to turn things around a la Mexico, that could happen."

At the highest levels of the insurgency, Petraeus's office sees promising signs of fracture. Petraeus said at a recent morning briefing that "we clearly now have our teeth in the jugular of the enemy," according to one person present. One Taliban leader, former Guantanamo detainee Abdul Rauf Khadim, in December was demoted from his job on the Taliban's military commission, where he had oversight for several provinces, to the role of shadow governor for Uruzgan province.

The personnel move, made by the Taliban's overall military commander, Abdul Qayoum Zaqir, has angered some in the insurgent leadership, according to a senior U.S. military official, citing intelligence gathered from detainees in Afghanistan.

Another Quetta Shura member, Mullah Mohammad Hassan Akhund, has vowed to resign if Zaqir is not moved from his top post, according to the official.

"Some of the decision-making is being challenged, the cohesion within the Quetta is starting to break apart," the official said.

The leadership of the Haqqani network, an insurgent group that fights in eastern Afghanistan, also recently told its fighters not to return to their traditional stronghold of Pakistan's North Waziristan region over the winter due to growing insecurity from CIA drone strikes and potential future operations by Pakistan's army, according to a source familiar with intelligence reporting.

But other U.S. and Afghan officials dispute the notion that there is any meaningful breakdown of insurgent cohesion, as the leadership remains largely protected in Pakistan. The CIA, which has generally been more pessimistic than the U.S. military about progress against the Taliban, has noted personality conflicts within the Quetta Shura but no evidence of a leadership struggle.

"I don't buy it yet. This has been going on forever. Organizations have power struggles, whether it's the Quetta Shura or [the International Security Assistance Force] or The Washington Post," said one U.S. military official in Afghanistan. "I can give you a list of five or six equally bad trends of command and control within ISAF, and that doesn't mean ISAF is about to collapse."

Harvard University researcher Matt Waldman noted the Quetta Shura rivalries in a June paper about the Taliban and Pakistan's spy agency. The dynamic does not necessarily bode well for peace, he said in an interview, as a younger, more militant generation of leaders appears to have marginalized older figures from the Taliban's government before 2001.

"I think it is increasingly difficult for moderates to argue their case, in light of the scale and intensity of the coalition surge," Waldman said. The Taliban "have responded to ISAF's escalation with heavy firepower, they have seen it as a declaration of war and they have responded accordingly."

Waldman, who interviewed several Taliban commanders last year, said that many insurgents "believe they are fighting aggressive, invading forces and a degenerate proxy regime - in other words, they think they are fighting a just war."

"That provides a great deal of impetus to the movement, and given that they have their support and sanctuary outside the country, I think it will be very hard to really crush or contain this insurgency," he said.

The Afghanistan NGO Safety Office (ANSO), which advises nonprofit groups on security, said in a recent report that messages from foreign troops touting improved security "are not intended to offer an accurate portrayal of the situation for those who live and work here."

"No matter how authoritative the source of any such claim, messages of this nature are solely intended to influence American and European public opinion ahead of withdrawal," the report said.

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