The Magazine

Kabuled Together

From the September 26, 2005 issue: Afghanistan needs durable institutions.

Sep 19, 2005, Vol. 11, No. 01 • By VANCE SERCHUK
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"WE ARE ABOUT TO drive a stake into the heart of the Taliban," the U.S. military official in Kabul confidently declared. It was late January, three months after Afghanistan had successfully held its first democratic presidential election, and the mood in the capital--at least among American policymakers--was buoyant. Despite Taliban threats, voting had taken place in October 2004 without incident, as had President Hamid Karzai's inauguration in December. The security situation was calm.

Looking ahead, officials could cite further cause for optimism. As the weather warmed, formerly snowbound U.S. troops would be able to launch a renewed series of offensives against the Taliban, working in partnership with their increasingly capable counterparts in the Afghan National Army. An impending reconciliation program, meanwhile, would offer amnesty to fighters grown weary of spending their nights in cold, dark caves, and thereby draw them into the country's peaceful political process. Although countless problems still loomed on the horizon, there was a sense that the counterinsurgency campaign against the Taliban might at last be reaching its tipping point. Was victory in sight?

Eight months later, the answer would appear to be a resounding no. After a swell of extremist violence this spring and summer, the story from Afghanistan has become one of a revived, entrenched insurgency and flagging stability. With four months still to go in 2005, this year has already witnessed the greatest number of American military fatalities since the 2001 invasion to topple the Taliban, with over 70 U.S. servicemen lost since January. Even as the country prepares for its first parliamentary and provincial elections on September 18, peace and stability seem as distant as ever.

This whipsaw from hope to despair and back has become a standard feature of the Afghan war. How many times has the Taliban been declared on the verge of defeat, only to spring back to life? How many times, for that matter, have U.S. efforts in Afghanistan been declared on the brink of collapse, only to rebound? It's a safe bet that, should parliamentary elections go smoothly this month, a note of triumphalism will return to the rhetoric coming from Kabul.

This schizophrenia of perceptions has a host of causes, but much of it can be traced to the inherent difficulty of measuring progress in a guerrilla war. Tactically, there's no question Islamist insurgents have proven that they are stronger, better equipped, and more resilient than the U.S. military and its Afghan allies were predicting just a few months ago. Strategically, however, their impact is much harder to gauge.

One sure sign of the Taliban's resurgence is the growing sophistication of their attacks, especially the use of improvised explosive devices. The focus of insurgent operations has also diversified, with more emphasis this year on soft targets like schools, medical clinics, and government offices. It is estimated that over 1,100 Afghans have been killed in the last six months, including a half-dozen parliamentary candidates and clerics.

The Taliban's tactical successes stem, in part, from the increased freedom of movement they enjoy across the sieve-like border with Pakistan, where they have evidently deepened and expanded their safe haven this year. Captured Pakistani militants in Afghanistan, Taliban defectors, and even Pakistan's own Islamist opposition all allege that insurgent camps have reopened, facilitating recruitment and training of new jihadists.

Even without Pakistani sanctuary, however, it seems unlikely the Taliban would have remained a static force. "Why are the insurgents getting better? One U.S. officer told me, 'We've killed the stupid ones,'" says Kalev Sepp, a professor at the Naval Postgraduate School and coauthor of the official Army study on Special Operations in the Afghan war. "It's normal, and predictable, that the insurgents would become more proficient with time, just like our own soldiers."

Ironically, the most conspicuous evidence of the renewed insurgency--the American casualty count--is also the least revealing of its nuances. Despite the grim headlines this year's losses have caused, nearly half of U.S. fatalities in 2005 were the result of just two incidents. The first was the April 6 crash of a CH-47 helicopter in Ghazni in which 15 servicemen perished--a crash due to bad weather. The second took place on June 28, when a helicopter in Kunar province--attempting to come to the aid of a four-man Navy SEAL team--was downed by insurgent fire; three of the four SEALs were killed, along with all 16 on board the helicopter.