Kabul, Afghanistan Rising death tolls, military timetables slowed. Infighting in the partner government. War-weary allies packing up to leave — and others eyeing an exit.
Events this spring — from the battlefields of Helmand and Kandahar to the halls of Congress — have served as a reality check on the Afghan war, a grueling fight in a remote, inhospitable land that once harbored the masterminds of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the United States.
The Taliban have proven resilient and won’t be easily routed. Good Afghan government won’t blossom any faster than flowers in the bleak Afghan deserts. Phrases like “transition to Afghan control” mask the enormous challenge ahead to make those words reality.
President Barack Obama may face a difficult choice next year: slow the withdrawal of U.S. troops that he promised would start in July 2011 or risk an Afghanistan where the Taliban have a significant political role.
This week’s hearings on Capitol Hill revealed deep concern within Congress over Pentagon assurances of progress in the nearly nine-year war. Members of Congress complained of mounting casualties — at least 52 foreign troop deaths this month including 34 Americans.
That prompted Defense Secretary Robert Gates to complain about negative perceptions in Washington about the war, even though his top military officer, Adm. Mike Mullen, acknowledged “we all have angst” about the course of the conflict.
Truth lies in both camps. Bombs and battles are far less frequent in Kabul than in Baghdad during the height of the Iraq war. The major Afghan cities of Mazar-e-Sharif in the north and Herat in the west are relatively quiet.
In the countryside, however, where three-quarters of Afghanistan’s nearly 30 million people live, the insurgents still wield power, moving freely among the population, operating their own Islamic courts and intimidating those who support the government.
Progress is real but scattered and incremental. All parties here predict a tough summer. July 2011 may be too soon to ensure success — even though the top NATO commander Gen. Stanley McChrystal acknowledges he’s under pressure to show progress by the end of the year.
Instead of spurring the Afghans to step up to the plate, the July 2011 date has encouraged President Hamid Karzai to seek a deal with the Taliban despite U.S. misgivings that the time is right for a settlement.
“Two critical questions dominate any realistic discussion of the conflict. The first is whether the war is worth fighting. The second is whether it can be won. The answers to both questions are uncertain,” former Pentagon analyst Anthony Cordesman wrote this week.
A few months ago, things seemed to have been going better. For the first time in years the tide appeared to have been turning. In February, the U.S. and its allies seized the insurgents’ southern stronghold of Marjah, rushing in a local administration and promising development aid to win the loyalty of the people.
NATO and Afghan troops also delivered blows to the militants in the north and west. After Marjah, the alliance shifted attention to Kandahar, promising to ramp up security in the largest city in the south and the former Taliban headquarters.
Within weeks, however, the Taliban were back in Marjah, threatening and assassinating those who cooperated with the Americans and their Afghan partners. The security effort in Kandahar slowed to a crawl, in large part because of public opposition to the campaign for fear it would lead to more bloodshed.
The Taliban responded by planting more of their signature weapon — roadside bombs that the military calls improvised explosive devices, or IEDs.
Those hidden bombs not only account for most of the deaths among international troops but they reduce their effectiveness in controlling territory where the Taliban operate. With so many bombs along roads and footpaths, troops on patrol can cover only a limited area since they must move slowly searching for hidden IEDs.
In April, gunmen assassinated the deputy mayor of Kandahar as he knelt for evening prayers in a mosque. This month, a car bomb killed the chief of the Kandahar district of Arghandab. Days before, a suicide bomber killed 56 people at a wedding party in the same district.
Those setbacks came as no surprise to commanders in Afghanistan, many of whom cautioned privately after Marjah that major challenges lay ahead. In the brutal calculus of war, more casualties are inevitable as the U.S. pours more troops into Afghanistan — from about 30,000 in 2008 to more than 94,000 now. About 10,000 more are due in August.