If “back to normal” and “stay the course” represented the first two stages of denial in Afghanistan, the Obama administration has entered its third attempt to regain control of the war’s info-momentum. The White House and Pentagon understand that “they aren’t out of the woods yet” - President Barack Obama admitted so himself - but they’re also trying to create this impression in order to deescalate political pressure at home and abroad. Speaking to the 101st Airborne at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta assured all Americans that the “Taliban’s murder tactics show their Weakness.”
“Frankly, you know, I think - I think since the Taliban has not been effective at regaining territory, at conducting combat operations, since they've been weakened in their capability to do that, they're going to use this kind of tactic to try to undermine our position there. And we just have to make very clear that we're not going to be intimidated by that.”
The Taliban has undeniably weakened from its high-point in 2010, when the insurgency’s strength was estimated above 30,000 and insurgents maintained an open presence in many provinces. A two-year blitzkrieg of clear-and-hold operations, air sorties and night raids eliminated thousands of foot soldiers and mid-level commanders from Afghanistan and Pakistan’s battlefields, rolling back the Taliban’s territorial control. Something would have gone terribly wrong if a surge of nearly 60,000 U.S. forces - double the Taliban’s ranks - failed to blunt the insurgency’s momentum.
Problematically, the Taliban is strategically weathering President Barack Obama’s surge and remains a potent network as the uncertainty of 2013-2014 approaches. Drone strikes also disrupted but failed to cripple the Haqqani network and other Pakistani groups that remain allied to the Afghan Taliban. One dilemma is certain: compared to America’s withdrawal from Iraq, Washington will leave behind a weaker central government to face a more powerful insurgency. Now estimated at 20,000 fighters (full and part-time), the Taliban’s nationalist and ethnic character ensured that the group wouldn’t evaporate amid Washington’s limited social outreach. The group bears more resemblance to Muqtada al-Sadr’s grassroots militia than al-Qaeda in Iraq, one of many divergences between the two countries’ surges.
2015 is likely to fall in between Baghdad and Ho Chi Minh City.
In response to America’s surge, the Taliban made a sound decision to forgo its territory in the short-term. Although this decision was partially due to the surge of U.S. troops and increase in Afghan force levels, outlasting the occupation’s time-line is vital to the Taliban’s strategy. Villages such as Marjah were only nominally contested, fighters relocated from Kandahar and Helmand to the eastern provinces, and high-functioning cells began a sensational assassination campaign to stain American claims of security progress. U.S. commanders have attributed this shift in strategy to the Taliban’s “weakness,” whether downplaying a security breach in Kabul or “green-on-blue” incidents.
During a conversation with General John Allen, America’s leading commander in Afghanistan told Panetta, “the Taliban are going to resort to these kinds of criminal acts against our guys because, frankly, they are failing in everything else.They haven’t been able to organize themselves; they haven’t been able to retake any of the areas that we have taken. This is the one way they can get some attention.”
Whereas the Taliban conducted its assassination campaign to shatter the reputation of U.S. security, the insurgency’s latest infiltrations aim for another pillar of U.S. strategy: Afghanization. Force levels are nearing 350,000, according to Panetta, and 10 years of military relations cannot be undone by a week of “mistakes.” The Secretary told a separate audience at the University of Louisville, “The Afghan military have engaged in operations. They're securing areas. We have -- transitioning more areas in Afghanistan to their control and security. We just did a second tranche of areas. That represents 50 percent of the Afghan population is now under Afghan control and Afghan security. And we're going to continue that process.”
This rhetoric is as dangerous as it is true.
Panetta lauds the progress and efforts of Afghan military personnel and police for the training, saying “Over 95, 96 percent - even higher - of those that out there are doing the job.” That means the other 4% are successfully controlling Afghanistan’s narrative. Fresh doubts over Afghanistan’s security forces crept into America’s media cycle after the first “green-on-blue” attack, then spiked after the next two. The U.S. debate is now completely redirected from Koran burnings and to “can we trust Afghans?” vastly weakening U.S. political support with a handful of bullets. Infiltration is an advanced tactic requiring patience and political connections, and particularly deadly when underestimated.
These attacks are now inflicting an enormous amount of damage to Afghanistan and NATO’s political spheres, not simply “getting some attention.” NATO’s accelerated withdrawal gained momentum after a “green-on-blue” killing left four French soldiers dead - a run that Panetta himself complicated by suggesting that the combat mission could end in 2013. Separate reports of dissatisfaction within Afghanistan's national ranks have already proven ominous, and Hamid Karzai is leveraging Bagram to reclaim the base.
Perhaps most importantly, the Taliban could be reserving its strength for when U.S. forces begin to withdraw below the pre-surge level of 68,000 (al-Qaeda and other Sunni groups already employed this strategy in Iraq). As many U.S. commanders and officials have done before him, Panetta is goading the Taliban into fighting on America’s terms - in the open, away from the civilian population, AK-47 to M-1 Abrams. Insurgents would rather be weak than stupid enough to fight a conventional war, and the Taliban has essentially bet on Washington’s inability to generate a corresponding level of political progress. This wager pays out after every civilian casualty and “act of negligence,” and the Obama administration is operating within a delicate margin of error.
General Sher Mohammed Karimi, chief of staff of the Afghan National Army, said that U.S.-Afghanistan relations will stay the course despite Bagram’s fatal chain reaction. Unlike Washington’s rhetoric, Karimi continues to warn, "God forbid, if this mistake is repeated, there will be a lot of trouble next time... A spark has been lit and another such blunder could cause the country, with foreign help, to burst into flames.”