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They Can Do It

Our troops can win in Afghanistan. But the key battleground is in Washington.

Nov 14, 2011, Vol. 17, No. 09 • By MAX BOOT
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Schmitt took us to lunch at the home of one influential Marjah elder where we were joined by another elder who, Schmitt explained, used to be his counterpart on the other side. Having lost two sons battling the Marines, this senior Taliban figure (whom Schmitt compared to Tony Soprano) decided that it was in his interest to make peace—precisely the sort of calculation that so many insurgents made in Iraq’s Anbar Province after butting heads with the Marines for years. The result of such opportunistic changes of allegiance is that Marjah’s markets, once shuttered, are now open and bustling, as I discovered during a walk through one of them. The Marines, who once had more firefights than they could handle, now go long stretches without any “contact” from insurgents in central Marjah.

These are vignettes, admittedly, but they are hardly anomalous. The success in Marjah has been replicated in other Helmand districts such as Garmsir and Nawa. Sangin, in northern Helmand, isn’t as far along because it was entered more recently, but it is on the same trajectory. In Kandahar, Arghandab District has also been pacified, while violence has not risen in Kandahar City despite a string of assassinations which claimed both the well-regarded police chief, Brigadier General Khan Mohammed Mujahid, and the notoriously corrupt chairman of the provincial council (and half-brother of President Karzai), Ahmed Wali Karzai. 

Meanwhile “black” Special Operations task forces are conducting multiple operations every night to capture or kill insurgent leaders; more often than not they get their man without a shot being fired. Other, less covert Special Forces detachments are working to set up Afghan Local Police units, essentially armed neighborhood watch organizations that can defend their own villages from the Taliban even in areas where there are not many coalition troops. (We visited one such site in Wardak Province south of Kabul.) The Taliban are paying a backhanded compliment to such programs by targeting their leaders for elimination. Their campaign of assassination has not, however, stopped the growth of the local police. American intelligence analysts say the Taliban are increasingly weary of the struggle and frustrated by their inability to retake their safe havens in the south, and that there is bickering between the hard-pressed fighters in the field and their leaders safely ensconced in Pakistan. “The enemy is under unprecedented pressure,” one intelligence officer told us.

The tangible result of that pressure is a drop of 26 percent in enemy-initiated attacks from July to September 2011 compared with the same period in 2010. U.S. commanders had predicted an increase in enemy attacks during this period when the number of U.S. troops surged and they moved into enemy redoubts. But the insurgent response has been much weaker than expected, notwithstanding a few high-profile attacks. The north and west, where some analysts had been worried about an increase in Taliban activity, have also turned more peaceful this year. The one anomaly is Regional Command-East, along the border with Pakistan, where attacks are up between 2010 and 2011. 

Before he stepped down as senior NATO commander this summer, General David Petraeus had been planning to pivot the focus of his operations from the south to the east in 2012 so as to do to the Haqqani network what U.S. troops have already done to the Quetta Shura Taliban. But President Obama’s surge drawdown (pulling 10,000 troops out this year, and another 22,000 by the end of September 2012, against the advice of his military commanders) has put that plan into jeopardy. Marine General John Allen, Petraeus’s successor, will be hard-pressed to find enough forces to hold the south while mounting a major operation in the east. 

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