Public support for the war in Afghanistan has hit an all-time low. According to the latest poll, only 37 percent of Americans support the war and 52 percent say it has turned into a Vietnam. That means a slight majority of the country view the war as irredeemably lost. With casualties rising because of the implementation of the surge, President Obama and his military leaders need to act quickly to stem the rising tide of opposition. Luckily, signs of progress are surfacing.
The military is on the offensive against the Taliban and is systematically removing their grip and then protecting the freed populations. One intercepted Taliban message showed their privately expressed fear: “Marines are insane.” In the past three months, NATO has killed 300 senior Taliban and insurgent leaders, and 800 fighters. At least 8,000 troops are now taking part in Operation Dragon Strike, a major new offensive aimed at taking back the Taliban stronghold of Kandahar.
Retired Army General Jack Keane, one of the masterminds of the surge in Iraq, has visited Afghanistan and says he is seeing positive trends. Intercepted Taliban communications show that their morale is low and Taliban fighters are switching sides. Military commanders tell him that some of the Taliban forces are expressing a desire to come back into the society they’ve been waging war on, a possible indication that a split is forming in the Taliban between those who want to give up fighting and use non-violent political means (like the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt) and those who don’t. It could even mean that some have grown disenchanted with the Taliban’s ideology and the group itself.
President Karzai has formed a council of tribal leaders and former warlords to help reach out to the elements of the Taliban that want to negotiate. The U.S. has been helping in this process and though it is wise to keep the door open for turncoats, it must be recognized that the term “moderate Taliban” is a self-contradiction. There is a big difference between reaching out to the Iraqi tribes, who were not Islamist by nature, and reaching out to the Taliban, who are. Anyone who joined the Taliban had to enforce their radical Islamic ideology and that includes fighting for sharia-based theocracy. If someone turns against that ideology, then they are no longer part of the Taliban.
It is important to take advantage of dissenting elements of the Taliban, but any effort to form a settlement with the “moderate Taliban” is doomed to failure. Even if those willing to give up arms agreed to enter the political process, their participation will still be based on the objective of instituting sharia law and will stymie the government and country.
However, this peace council is necessary as it can build relations with the tribes and local power-holders to help isolate the Taliban, enlist citizens in the security forces and government projects, and altogether stabilize the country. There has been some progress in this regard, as in January one of the largest Pashtun tribes agreed to fight the Taliban and send one eligible male per family to join the security forces.
Another reason for progress in Afghanistan is the huge increase in drone strikes in Pakistan. The Obama administration is launching three times as many strikes as its predecessor and has sharply increased the pace recently. A U.S. review of the campaign in May found that the strikes had killed at least 500 terrorists (Reuters put the number at 850), including about 14 high-level leaders. Less than 30 civilians were killed, and that number included such “civilians” like the second wife of the chief of the Pakistani Taliban.
In July 2009, al-Qaeda published a book condemning the drone strikes. The text expressed panic that spies had infiltrated their ranks. Daniel Lev of the Middle East Media Research Institute said that he had never seen “such an admission of distress” by the al-Qaeda leadership before. These strikes are effective and humane and the U.S. should be countering the wild casualty figures printed by the local Pakistani media and the tales of widespread destruction that make their way into anti-American propaganda.
The Afghan population is supportive of the war effort and is relatively pro-American. A poll from January found that 68 percent supported the U.S. military presence in their country, 61 percent supported the surge, and 51 percent expressed a favorable view of the U.S. On the other hand, the Taliban is immensely unpopular and 69 percent of Afghans view it as their greatest threat. These positive attitudes will improve even further as NATO forces secure the country. The population is also optimistic, with 70 percent believing their children will live in peace.
This isn’t to say that the strategy is perfect. As stated, the drone strikes need to be defended and negotiation with the “moderate Taliban” can quickly go awry. President Obama only sent three-fourths of the additional soldiers requested. There are 150 terrorist camps in Pakistan that should be added to the target list to stop them from sending their graduates to kill NATO soldiers and Afghan partners. And the commander of Central Command, James Mattis, has said that the July 2011 deadline for when troops must begin coming home has encouraged some otherwise demoralized Taliban militants. The Obama administration will have to work extra hard to make sure the Afghan people and the Taliban understand that the date set is only for when some troops must come home and a hasty withdrawal will not follow.
The key question now is whether enough progress can be solidified by July 2011 that it won’t be jeopardized by the removal of a small number of forces. Public opinion is likely to become more negative in the coming months and if it is not reversed as progress is made, President Obama will face growing pressure from his base (and possibly his Republican critics) to bring the war to a close, especially as the 2012 presidential race begins. The surge is making progress, but its ultimate success will depend upon the backbone of the president.