Someone is clearly pounding a PR hammer on the Pentagon's head.
For years U.S. and NATO officials have swatted away the prick of Taliban infiltration with a concrete script, one that emphasizes their infrequency and insignificance. While NATO's rhetoric remains unchanged despite an acceleration in "Green-on-Blue" attacks, the Pentagon's ubiquitous use of the term "insider" demonstrates that another rebranding campaign is underway. Unlike an "infiltrator," which necessarily implies an enemy agent, an "insider" could be anyone serving within Afghanistan's army or police force.
“I know that the insider attack threat is on the public radar screen, and I understand why,” Pentagon spokesman George Little told reporters on Monday. “That being said, these incidents don’t tell the entire story of what’s going on in Afghanistan.”
The "entire story" goes something like this Pentagon lead: “focus on insider attacks belies the fact that the Taliban are under severe pressure." Speaking after seven attacks claimed the lives of nine American soldiers in 10 days, Little (like his boss, Leon Panetta) argues that the Taliban's initiation symbolizes weakness rather than strength. The "pressure that we’re bringing to bear on the Taliban is forcing them to look to new tactics,” he says of Afghanistan's "full story," adding that the "vast majority of insider attacks" are committed by "disgruntled individuals." Last week Gen. Gunter Katz, a spokesman for ISAF, estimated that "some 10% we know are related to the insurgency."
Yet Little also claims that he can't, "say that these [insider attack] incidents originate with the Taliban. Some of them may, some of them may not.” In regards to NATO's eight-step vetting program, “it’s not always possible to read the minds of other people."
How, then, does Washington know that most "insiders" haven't sworn an oath to the Taliban?
The Pentagon must hope that its Guardian Angel program gains traction because its PSYOPS program is circling the drain. Only pieces of disinformation are capable of holding truth, such as the amount of military pressure brought to bear on the Taliban, and a row of counterpoints stand ready to cancel them out. Strategically speaking, the insurgency's health would be more dire if its ground forces attempted to do what Panetta says that they can't: retake territory lost during the opening phase of President Barack Obama's surge. This strategy would be suicidal from a guerrilla's point of view.
As for the Pentagon's argument that most "insiders" are "disgruntled," either the Taliban or average Afghans are insulted by a lack of respect for their grievances against foreign occupation. No U.S. official takes the time to explain why one scenario is better than the other. Furthermore, NATO's overwhelming level of force serves to highlight the Taliban's internal reliance and its ability to unconventionally maneuver around conventional forces. With 2014 steadily approaching, the Taliban's regional network continues to organize a potent army estimated between 17,000 and 22,000 fighters, and still enjoys many sanctuaries in Afghanistan and Pakistan. NATO forces have only generated a stalemate, not a "broken" back, and this scenario will dramatically alter Washington's post-2014 endgame. Undaunted by these concerns, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey traveled to Kabul on Sunday to push his team forward at full speed.
"Our session today was an excellent dialogue about how to maintain momentum against the insurgents and ISAF's continuing support to building Afghan capacity," U.S. General John Allen, NATO's senior commander in Afghanistan, reciprocated in a statement released after his meeting with Dempsey. "The campaign remains on track."
U.S. officials appear to be speaking to themselves more than anyone else, whether Afghan or foreigner. The majority of Americans and Europeans don't want to travel down the Pentagon's road.
On top of exaggerating their own side of the war, the Pentagon has also cast the Taliban as defeated by misidentifying their near-term objectives. In a shameless press release titled "Taliban Suffer Reversals," one nameless NATO official assures his audience that the insurgency "did not achieve any of their goals this year": regain territory in the south, undermine the Afghan government and disrupt the growth of Afghan security forces. These semi-conventional objectives don't represent the Taliban's goals, although the national government has been successfully undermined to Afghans and Americans alike. Pentagon officials are arguing both sides of the COIN, except the Taliban cannot be primarily concerned with territory if they are employing unconventional tactics that avoid territorial conquest. The NATO official also argues that, due to a long-term agreement with Kabul, the Taliban cannot wait for coalition forces to withdraw ahead of 2014 - but that is exactly the plan.
Nor is the Taliban's leadership expecting to stunt the growth of Afghanistan's army and police. Corrupting them or waiting for the government to marginalize them offers a more efficient strategy for guerrillas.
The "full story" of “Green-on-Blue" is causing an enormous amount of political and propaganda damage to NATO's strategy.
Donning his "responder" cap before meeting with the White House press corps, Obama himself was forced to enter the fray and slow the Taliban's snowball: "I'll be reaching out to President (Hamid) Karzai. We've got to make sure that we're on top of this." Interestingly, he never mentions the Taliban by name, skipping over the group as effortlessly as he ignores Afghanistan in his campaign speeches. All around him, his officials are consumed by responding to the Taliban's tactics as they try to reposition themselves off of their heels. New counterintelligence measures are being developed to minimize the effects on U.S.-Afghan relations, but Dempsey actually acknowledged that NATO has yet to stop the Taliban's escalation: "We have an eight-step vetting process that's been in place in earnest for about a year, but we haven't turned the corner on the trend."
And the insurgency is likely preparing other attention-grabbing tactics to employ once infiltration becomes cost-ineffective.
The Obama administration is chancing a dangerous pass over the Taliban's epicenter of damage: the American home front. Here the destruction is readily visible in the form of popular discontent and Congressional outrage. Both layers of American society are adopting an unreasonable response to "Green-on-Blue" by blaming Karzai's government, acting just as the Taliban hopes and ultimately impairing Washington's freedom of movement in Afghanistan. The administration can still afford to steamroll over popular opinion, as it has throughout Obama's first term, but this engine may break when they least expect.
Downplaying an insurgency's capabilities and the domestic support for counterinsurgency is a recipe for stalemate on the asymmetric battlefield.