NYT: Afghan surge failed to achieve objective of forcing Taliban into a deal

We’re not hearing much about Afghanistan in this election, which seems odd after having two straight presidential elections focus mostly on war and strategies for the projection of American power.  In part, this silence comes from a loose consensus that Barack Obama took the right path in late 2009 in putting more resources into the Afghanistan-Pakistan theater, and in part because there doesn’t seem to be many other options, at least not politically, other than to cross our fingers and hope it works out.

That strategy, along with the surge, has petered out, according to the New York Times:

With the surge of American troops over and the Taliban still a potent threat, American generals and civilian officials acknowledge that they have all but written off what was once one of the cornerstones of their strategy to end the war here: battering the Taliban into a peace deal.

The once ambitious American plans for ending the war are now being replaced by the far more modest goal of setting the stage for the Afghans to work out a deal among themselves in the years after most Western forces depart, and to ensure Pakistan is on board with any eventual settlement. Military and diplomatic officials here and in Washington said that despite attempts to engage directly with Taliban leaders this year, they now expect that any significant progress will come only after 2014, once the bulk of NATO troops have left.

“I don’t see it happening in the next couple years,” said a senior coalition officer. He and a number of other officials spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the delicacy of the effort to open talks.

The surge strategy worked in Iraq, although Obama opposed it vociferously as a Senator and presidential candidate.  The conditions on the ground were different, and it was a much different war, too.  The Afghanistan war between the Taliban and the NATO-backed democratic government is much more of a tribal conflict between the Pashtuns and everyone else in the country, and since the Pashtuns make up nearly 40% of the Afghan population, any such tribal conflict won’t end in a total-victory scenario.

The other major difference was that George Bush didn’t put a timetable for withdrawal on the table until after the surge had succeeded.  Obama decided at the same time as his surge that we would exit Afghanistan by 2014, based on a timetable for training native security forces.  That created two complications, the first of which was that the training left American forces highly vulnerable to infiltrators; we have lost dozens in such attacks.  The second, which was entirely predictable and well-predicted at the time, was that the timetable would convince the Taliban to conserve their forces and wait out the US.

And that’s exactly what has happened:

With the end of this year’s fighting season, the Taliban have weathered the biggest push the American-led coalition is going to make against them. A third of all American forces left by this month, and more of the 68,000 remaining may leave next year, with the goal that only a residual force of trainers and special operations troops will remain by the end of 2014.

Nor does this exactly build confidence, either:

U.S. and coalition commanders are no closer to knowing how deep the Taliban has penetrated Afghanistan’s security forces despite increased efforts to flush out infiltrators who are carrying out attacks against Americans.

“As for what percentage of the insider threat is related to infiltration or radicalization, I mean, it’s really difficult to determine,” Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey said Thursday.

“I’m sure a certain percentage of it is. And we’re treating it … as a threat,” he told reporters during a briefing at the Pentagon.

Taliban double agents, posing as members of the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF), are responsible for executing some of the deadly “insider” attacks that have killed 51 coalition troops, mostly from the United States.

In the most recent incident, Afghan forces on Saturday killed an international service member, later identified as an American, in an apparent insider attack in eastern Afghanistan, according to the Associated Press. A NATO contractor and two Afghan soldiers also died.

Why hasn’t this become a bigger issue in the election?  After 11 years in Afghanistan, there is no political support for another surge.  Neither is there any appetite for a faster withdrawal — at least not yet.  In this case, there’s simply nothing left to say, except that we’re going to have to prepare ourselves for a huge civil war in Afghanistan in 2014 between the Pashtuns and the rest of Afghanistan, and just hope that they lose.

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