September 22, 2011
Pentagon Chasing Taliban’s Psy-Ops
They came armed to the teeth with prepared statements and talking points.
Roughly six months have elapsed since the Taliban began to target a progressively higher profile of Afghan officials, and the Pentagon needed answers for a Congress short on patience and funds. Speaking before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Leon Panetta and Michael Mullen, America’s Defense Secretary and outgoing Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff gave Congress what they wanted to hear. Nor could they allow the Taliban to outmaneuver them on the information battlefield.
The U.S. military and NATO are, "working with our Afghan counterparts to discuss with them how we can provide better protection against these attacks,” Panetta promised. “But the bottom line is that we can't let these sporadic events deter us from the progress that we've made.”
Not everyone is as certain of this progress. That the U.S. military and its allies have dealt a relentless series of blows to al-Qaeda’s leadership in Pakistan is “undeniable,” as Panetta testifies. However the Pentagon was always going to “get its numbers,” so to speak. Thousands of Taliban foot soldiers, hundreds of mid-level commanders and over a dozen high-ranking officials have been eliminated in over 10,000 night raids and air assaults. Afghanistan’s northern provinces are relatively secure and incidents are gradually reducing in the south. U.S. casualties stand at 332, compared to 360 at the same point in 2010.
Only the Taliban are “adapting,” Mullen admits. U.S. commander had predicted a wider shift towards assassination, but the pair would leave out how the Pentagon was initially overwhelmed by these attacks. One can see and hear their concern in their language and body language - that Afghanistan’s main story during summer 2011 was the killing of Hamid Wali Karzai, not U.S. progress. Mullen and Panetta did everything in their power to counter the impression of insecurity wafting out of Afghanistan, but no amount of Senate testimony will convince the Afghan who isn’t feeling safe on their own street.
“While my overall assessment of Afghanistan is headed in the right direction, although we have to be clear-eyed about the challenges that remain,” Panetta remarks in an attempt to downplay the Taliban’s assassination campaign. “First, as the Taliban lost control of territory last year, they shifted away from large attacks on our forces to greater reliance on headline-grabbing attacks... Overall we judge this change in tactics to be a result of a shift in momentum to our favor, and a sign of weakness in the insurgency. Overall violence is trending down and down substantially in areas where we concentrated our surge.”
What Panetta avoids mentioning is how the Taliban planned from the beginning to weather the surge until U.S. reinforcements began to withdraw. Everyone involved in Washington, including the Pentagon, knows that the Taliban doesn’t need to wear a watch. This strategy was tipped immediately in February 2010, when Taliban fighters put up a loose defense of Marjah and ceded the city-center, and the insurgency immediately shifted its emphasis north and east. The Taliban has suffered extensive damage, but the insurgency draws on too many sources to be militarily defeated on a regional scale.
A concentrated assassination campaign is the correct military response to the surge in Afghan and foreign forces; not only does it spare direct confrontation with superior units, the Taliban has kept Afghanistan’s non-military momentum in its favor.
The core of this strategy, Mullen, explains is “maximum psychological impact for a minimal investment in manpower or military capabilities.” Although sold as a sign of weakness, the Taliban would be in a far weaker state had the group wasted its energy defending territory, which an insurgent isn’t supposed to do if he can’t hold it. The Pentagon wished that the Taliban would stand its ground - but that isn’t courage, only recklessness. Despite all of its flaws, the Taliban is following guerrilla strategy without substantially dropping the pressure on U.S. forces. Iraq witnessed an average of 800 casualties per year from 2004 to 2007, then experienced a drop to 30, followed by 150, to 60 in 2010. 32 soldiers were killed in hostile incidents in 2011, after combat operations were declared “over.”
By contrast, U.S. forces suffered less than 100 deaths for the first six years of war in Afghanistan. In 2008 casualties jumped from 150 to 300, to 500 in 2010, and 2011 will end somewhere in the low 400’s. If a substantial number of U.S. forces (above 50,000) remain on the offensive through 2014, they will experience more casualties than 60.
Afghanistan’s military sphere is less positive than Mullan and Panetta’s portrayal, and Washington holds its primary advantage on this battlefield. The lack of progress in Afghanistan’s non-military spheres frightens Congress, the American people and Afghans alike. Long before Barack Obama ordered a surge of over 50,000 troops, the central question was always whether America could actually win the political war, one involving Afghanistan’s government, various ethnic parties and Pakistanis. Though not necessarily “undeniable,” it can be argued that the Obama administration has lost the “hearts and minds” of most political actors, from the average Afghan and Pakistani to Kabul and Islamabad.
As with the assault on America’s embassy in Kabul, the damage of Burhanuddin Rabbani’s assassination has punctured another hole in Afghanistan's security image. U.S.-Pakistani relations, however, has been hit hardest in each time due to the Haqqani network, indicating that the Taliban realizes the benefits of their personal instability. The Taliban often suffers in the short-term after various quarrels, with each side trying to repair whatever damage had been created, but this outcome is safer than a genuine alliance between Washington and Islamabad.
For now the Taliban has denied responsibility, just as Sirajuddin Haqqani stated last week.
The Haqqani network and its links to Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence may be responsible for many of the Taliban’s recent publicity assaults. What this means, in the end, is that Washington failed to align Islamabad's interests with its own, and is incapable of sharing a mutual policy. No level of provocation from the Haqqani network strategically justifies the barrage that Mullen and Panetta unleashed on Pakistan; despite their connections and tentative truce, the Haqqani network still acts independently of Islamabad. And while Mullen claims Pakistan has “lost that bet,” meaning its strategic depth of insurgent groups, many Pakistanis and Afghans won’t forget that America bankrolled that bet.
While Panetta generally has no conception of diplomacy or the public aspect of counterinsurgency, Mullen has admitted his failure to improve U.S-Pakistani relations. Now he appears to be gunning it with less than a week remaining in the Joint Chiefs.
"In choosing to use violent extremism as an instrument of policy, the government of Pakistan, and most especially the Pakistani army and ISI, jeopardizes not only the prospect of our strategic partnership but Pakistan's opportunity to be a respected nation with legitimate regional influence... While Pakistan is part of the problem in the region, it must also be part of solution. I believe that a flawed and difficult relationship is better than no relationship at all."
Whatever U.S. officials believe or demand, they won’t obtain their desired invasion into North Waziristan with a blunt approach.
Panetta does concede that Pakistanis “should be the first one to take action on this,” but this appears to be little more than a qualifier. “The only way to deal with the Pakistanis is to send a clear message about where the lines are,” he says, adding that all administration officials must speak with one voice. Acting as if no working relationship exists with Islamabad, Panetta assured Congress, "Anything that makes clear to them that we cannot tolerate their providing this kind of safe haven to the Haqqanis, and that they have to take action — any signal that we can send to them — I think would be important to do.”
Including unilateral action and Pakistan’s potential designation as a state sponsor of terror.
Both Islamabad and Pakistanis loathe when Washington unloads all of Afghanistan's blame onto them, and do not respond productively to threats. Their message is the same message as Washington’s, reminding Panetta that Islamabad will “never” allow any troops on the ground. Pentagon officials are simply making their own job harder, even as they claim the war is gradually easing. Their argument, like Iraq’s, is that Afghanistan was spiraling out of control, and now any improvement is conclusive and permanent.
“The end is in sight,” Mullen says through classic tunnel vision, “and there’s potential for 26 million people to live a better life.”
He and Panetta would argue that Afghanistan’s mission is headed for completion, and that America must now “put to use” its lessons in Yemen and Somalia - when many of the same mistakes are already being committed.