I've written numerous times over the years that getting a feel for the Afghanistan war is tough given that information comes out slowly and gives competing narratives. During the height of the Iraq War, despite the poor quality of much of the reporting analysis, it was possible to get a feel for the war. Which is why I never panicked in blogging about the military campaign.
Lately, I've started to shift to having a bad feeling about the trends in Afghanistan.
This does not make me feel better:
U.S.-trained Afghan commandos and U.S. Special Forces are bearing the brunt of efforts to prevent the Taliban from seizing major cities such as Kunduz. They face an increasingly dangerous foe that is threatening to overrun a substantial part of the country.
As many as six of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces are in danger of falling to the militants, according to Afghan and coalition officials. At least three provinces—Kunduz, Helmand and Farah—would probably have been lost already had it not been for the deployment of U.S. Special Forces to their capitals to support Afghan commandos with additional firepower and airstrikes, coalition officials say.
As a result, the U.S. is expected to face an unappealing choice: either escalate its involvement in the Afghan conflict—by sending in more troops or increasing the tempo of airstrikes and Special Forces operations—or risk allowing the Taliban to capture several Afghan provinces next year.
The geographic spread of the threat is disturbing:
But the Afghan forces seem to lack the heart to fight:
The Taliban’s gains signal a crumbling of state control across Afghanistan—one that the U.S. military has been hard-pressed to reverse since it withdrew most of its forces and left the Afghan government in charge of the war, alongside local forces that are often reluctant to fight.
As I noted earlier, relying on Afghan special forces to shuttle around as super effective infantry to make up for poor quality line army and police forces will burn out the special forces without providing ultimate victory.
Every highly trained Afghan special forces trooper who dies will only be replaced years later given the training and experience required. Every 100 Taliban cannon fodder who dies will be replace next week by eager young men with drug money in their pockets and motivated by a tradition of picking up a weapon and going off for glory and loot.
Is the problem that the Afghan troops are reluctant to fight for the national government?
Recall that before the two surges that President Obama ordered, my hope for the post-surge Afghanistan was not one of state-building. Afghanistan is no nation-state and attempts to make Afghanistan a functioning state governed from Kabul when there is local opposition motivated to fight for their local reasons (and funded by drug money) will fail.
This is what I wanted:
The end result in Afghanistan, if all goes well, will be a nominal national government that controls the capital region and reigns but does not rule local tribes and which actually helps the locals a bit rather than sucking resources from the locals, who in turn do not make trouble for the central government or allow their areas to be used by jihadis to plan attacks on the West. We press for reasonable economic opportunities, with bribes all around (I mean, foreign aid), to keep a fragile peace.
And we stick around this time, unlike after the Soviets left Afghanistan when we ignored the place, for a generation or two to see if we can move Afghanistan into the 19th century (hey, let's not get ahead of ourselves).
Hopefully our military surge recedes by the end of 2011 and we can get down to a single combat brigade plus air power that function as a fire brigade and a hammer for the central government should a local difficulty exceed Afghan military capabilities.
Perhaps our efforts to pull Afghan troops away from exposed outposts in order to gather mobile forces to both react to Taliban attacks on other outposts and to go on the offensive into Taliban territory will pay off in the new year. We are not blind to the problems in Afghanistan, it is clear.
If so, the trend lines will reverse and perhaps I will have a better feel for the war.
But I'd feel much better if we adapted our strategy to support a decentralized Afghanistan where Kabul reigns but does not try to rule people with little eagerness to fight for a distant (in Kabul) ruler.
Unfortunately, the timing couldn't be worse for defeating a real challenge in Afghanistan, what with Trump replacing Obama as president. We will have to face the threat after the repeal of the "good war" status of the Afghanistan campaign by our left and the scheduled resurrection of dissent as the highest form of patriotism for the new year.
But for now, I've got a bad feeling about this, and I hope our plans (we do have such plans, I assume) to consolidate American and allied troops and civilians in Bagram air base where our air support can sustain them until they can be airlifted out are all up to date.
Otherwise it's roll to your rifle and blow out your brains time.
UPDATE: Strategypage has more on Afghanistan, including the problem of "national" politics in this pre-modern region, as well as on Pakistan.