Progress against the Taliban, Gen. David Petraeus tells anyone who’ll listen, is “fragile and reversible.” If that doesn’t sound like a ringing vote of confidence, here’s a clue why. Insurgent attacks during spring 2011 are actually slightly up from this time last year.
According to military statistics acquired by Danger Room, attacks initiated by insurgents from May 1 to June 30 rose 2 percent from that same period in 2010. [See update below.] That’s the dawn of the so-called “spring fighting season,” when the Taliban typically fight the hardest. And it seemingly contradicts Petraeus’ assertion to the New York Times this morning that “insurgent attack numbers are lower” for the first time since 2006.
Petraeus had more troops at his disposal than any commander of the Afghan war. A surge of 33,000 U.S. troops was in place, bringing the U.S. troop commitment to over 100,000. Special operations forces conducted 1,700 nighttime raids during that time. The Afghans added 45,000 soldiers between March 2010 and March 2011. In the skies above, Petraeus increased air strikes by 65 percent. He pounded southern Afghanistan with artillery and blew up houses used as insurgent bomb factories — all while steadily reducing the percentage of civilians his forces accidentally killed.
Team Petraeus won’t disclose the actual number of insurgent attacks this past year. But it argues that the slight uptick in attacks isn’t the whole picture. During the start of last year’s spring fighting season, attacks rose “76 percent” from spring 2009, says Maj. Deborah L. Balentine, a spokeswoman for the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan. A small increase from 2010 to 2011 would still represent something of a positive trend line — a bending of the curve — though it’s not the drop in attacks that commanders presumably want.
Balentine points to other bright spots for the war effort: violence in the southwestern provinces of Helmand and Nimroz is down 40 percent. Two Helmand districts where the fighting has been the fiercest, Marjah and Nad Ali, have seen a 70 percent reduction in violence, to “below pre-Moshtarak levels,” a reference to last year’s big Marine push into Helmand.
Insurgent-initiated attacks are an imperfect measurement how the insurgency’s doing. They don’t measure the effectiveness of an attack. They also don’t measure different sorts of attacks — homemade bombs, assassinations, etc. — that might indicate particular insurgent strengths. But the insurgents’ ability to initiate attacks over time does give a sense of their momentum, and the whole idea of the surge was to “break the Taliban’s momentum,” as President Obama put it at West Point.
Taken together, the nice way of putting it is that the surge managed to halt the momentum of a growing insurgency from mid-2010 to mid-2011, but didn’t do more than that. And that’s despite killing and capturing thousands of insurgents, one of Petraeus’ key stats for communicating progress. The Taliban campaign of assassinations, homemade bombs, suicide bombers and the occasional small arms battle would seem to have leveled off — at a high point.
Petraeus’ eventual successor, Lt. Gen. John Allen, won’t have the same resources available to him that Petraeus had. Withdrawing the surge forces by September 2012 means Allen will have to make tough choices about devoting troops to hold territory taken from the Taliban or deny them other areas, as in the violent east of the country. Air power and special operations raids may have to make up the difference.
Can the insurgency’s momentum be reversed with fewer U.S. troops? Heading to Afghanistan on Saturday, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta urged the military to keep “maximum pressure on the Taliban” in order to convince insurgents to sue for peace. The reigning theory is that the Taliban won’t talk seriously until they take a beating. Peace talks are the only political strategy on hand to end the war, but the numbers hardly give a reason to believe the Taliban should feel cowed.
And if al-Qaida is all but iced, as Panetta argues, then it may not be so important that the Taliban’s momentum has merely stalled, since the U.S. only cares about the Taliban insofar as it aids al-Qaida. But would Obama have endorsed the surge if he knew that the most it would accomplish after 18 months is a two percent increase in insurgent attacks?
Update, 1:30 p.m.: My original source for this story inside Petraeus’ command just informed me that the numbers she originally provided me are slightly outdated, and didn’t include what she described as “latent/delayed reports.” Lt. Cmdr. Colette Murphy says that the absolutely latest figures now peg insurgent attacks as “down by about two percent.” I think the analysis within the post pretty much stands.