Refocusing on Afghanistan

The situation in Afghanistan is complicated:

In the sixth winter since the US-led ouster of the Taliban government, the radical Islamists are making a comeback. Their bold confidence was apparent last week, when a suicide bomber killed 23 outside an air base during Vice President Richard Cheney’s visit there.
There are many factors. But citizens…, the Afghan government and key NATO commanders agree on this: The use of force is sometimes excessive and errant. In Afghanistan’s tribal society, a single death – no matter if NATO labels it “enemy” – can create scores of sworn foes. And NATO, like the Taliban, has killed hundreds…
While troops go after Taliban fighters…that’s not a priority for ordinary Afghans; they are frustrated by insecurity and lawlessness, which they blame on a corrupt and inept government whose police extort, threaten and make them feel less secure.

Kinda sounds like Iraq, no? Above all else, the average Afghani wants security and they don’t care who provides it–Coalition forces, the government, the tribe, or the Taliban. Unfortunately, with some of our Coalition partners refusing to fight the Taliban, more of the burden has fallen on the U.S.
Some, like Frank Rich (via N4N) , have complained that the Bush Administration has been distracted by Iraq and has lost sight of who our real enemies–those who helped perpetrate 9/11–are: Al Qaeda and the Taliban. The recent rise in Taliban/terrorist activity seems to support Rich’s point of view, but there are two reasons for why the situation might look worse–right now.
The first is that weather is a very real factor in planning military strategy. A suicide bomber or small cell can operate nimbly–regardless of weather–and then escape into the snow-covered mountains. Not so a heavy military detachment. In fact, this year is very much like last year: the Taliban and Al Qaeda made noise in the late winter and were gearing up for a spring offensive. Meanwhile, the Coalition also geared up (including a few soldiers that were originally ticketed for Iraq) to face them head on. This included taking preemptive action to undermine Taliban plans and attacking their reinforcements. This week, Coalition forces launched Operation Achilles to counter the Taliban’s recent activity. (As the offensive began, Afghan forces caught a Taliban leader who tried to escape by dressing up in a Burqa–I guess women are second class unless you need to hide by dressing up as on).
Thus, the Taliban “military” isn’t faring so well. Which brings me to the second reason for why things may look worse to Rich and others–right now. The Taliban, having failed militarily, have switched to a media-centric strategy:

The Taliban are talking less about their field forces, which took a big beating last year, and are off to an equally dismal start this year, and are emphasizing suicide bombers instead. While the Taliban have been using suicide bombers a lot more, they have not changed the military situation. The Taliban are still unable to take back control of anything. What the suicide bombers have done is made more Afghans anti-Taliban. That’s because most of the casualties from these attacks are Afghans, often women and children….A new tactic is to use a suicide car bomber against military convoys, and follow it up with gunfire. If you do this in a town, with lots of civilians around, you can claim that the civilians were killed by the panicked gunfire of the foreign soldiers. This sort of thing is popular with local and foreign journalists. It doesn’t have to be true, just plausible, and Taliban publicists know how to run with that kind of story. The Taliban may not be able to handle foreign troops, but they are masters when it comes to manipulating foreign journalists….Because of their failures last year, the Taliban are backing off the troop unit angle, and moving back to terror attacks and hustling journalists.

As they’ve learned from Iraq, bombs and bodies are effective propaganda and can undermine the will of many in the West, who simply aren’t used to guerrilla warfare and have “grown up” with conflict fought at 15,000 feet. This is true even if while the local population increasingly rejects those who direct the bombings.
That both Afghanistan and Iraq are a different kind of war than America is used to–guerrilla campaigns that require more than just military success–explains why it is hard to explain if or how or why America and its allies are winning. Regardless of whether or not you view Iraq as “Bush’s war of choice” and Afghanistan as “the good war,” the fact remains that the strategy in both is remarkably similar: Clear / Hold / Ensure Security / Rebuild. That means aggressively killing bad guys and showing the Iraqi and Afghani troops how it’s done. It looks like it’s working in Iraq (so far) and it has worked in the past in Afghanistan. I think if more big-time media stars, like NBC’s Brian Williams, were to go to Iraq or Afghanistan and call attention to the changing situation, then a change in perception would follow.
It’s March 2007, not November 2006. Isn’t it about time that we update the storyline?
Addendum: Many of the links in this post are to Strategy Page. Here is an index of their 2007 Afghanistan stories. It’s very nuts-and-bolts military stuff and is helpful in getting wartime tactical and strategic “metrics” as well as a military–vice a strictly political–view of the situation.

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