The tough question could no longer be avoided: Does the US-led NATO war in Afghanistan face defeat? The short answer was: Very possibly, unless Washington radically overhauls its perception of the seven-year conflict against al Qaeda and its campaign tactics.
The situation had become grim enough to bring US defense secretary Robert Gates hurrying over to Kabul from Iraq Tuesday, Sept. 17 and send the chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Michael Mullen flying to Islamabad.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s Washington sources report the two men arrived in the troubled region with fresh tidings from home: a decision to start treating Afghanistan and Pakistan as a single military theater operating under the same command.
Only last week, Adm. Mullen admitted frankly: “I’m not convinced we are winning in Afghanistan.” The new decision was an all-or-nothing bid to turn the tide of the Afghan War.
This year, al Qaeda and Taliban thrust into new domains in central and western Afghanistan and tightened their noose around the capital, Kabul. They have confined the Hamid Karzai government and US and NATO headquarters to a shrinking area of the capital.
Our military sources point to the similarities between the Bush administration’s linkage of the Afghan/Pakistan arenas and Moscow’s decision in the wake of the Georgia conflict to meld its Black and Mediterranean Sea forces into a one arena under a single command.
Both the US and Russian faced the same dilemma, the impossibility of waging a single-front war insulated from other arenas. The Americans found they can no longer hope to prevail in Afghanistan without adding Pakistan to the battleground equation.
A static coalition war allows Taliban to spread its wings
This was President George W. Bush‘s first major strategic decision, taken in the twilight of his tenure, for a war he launched at the outset of his first term in the White House. Its continuous execution is bequeathed to his successor. Sources in the Bush administration disclose that the concept of a single Afghan/Pakistan theater is supported by both presidential contenders, the Senators John McCain and Barack Obama.
More immediately, it confronts Gen. David Petraeus with his first key test as incoming chief of the Central Command this week. It remains to be seen whether the policy shift frees US forces for systematic ground warfare in Pakistan, or continues to hold them down to the present sporadic commando raids and drone-borne missile attacks on enemy sanctuaries on the Pakistan-Afghan border.
Only a few months back, American and British commanders were patting themselves on the back for successfully averting the Taliban’s 2008 spring offensive.
In fact, the decision was the Taliban’s in conjunction with a Qaeda. They skipped the spring assault for which US and British war planners were braced and went instead for the stealthy, piecemeal capture of new terrain: Small groups of 6-10 foot-soldiers slipped across the Pakistan border and slogged across rough country to move into areas south and east of Kabul.
The insurgents now hem the capital in from three directions, while steadily expanding their grip on Hindu Kush and Safed Koh-i. The war in this part of the country is static, unlike the volatile South.
A senior US commander in Afghanistan told DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s sources this week that rather than confronting coalition forces head-on, Taliban and al Qaeda are squeezing them into their bases and taking control of the road links traveled by NATO and US forces. They will next start strewing roadside bombs on these routes, followed by strikes on NATO and US troop concentrations, emulating the devastating tactics once practiced by Sunni guerrillas in Iraq.
US-UK tactics outdated and sluggish
The top NATO commander, US Gen. McKiernan told reporters Sept 16 at his Kabul headquarters that he needs more troops – and not just a temporary injection like the one that recently ended in Iraq. “I don’t like to use the word ‘surge’ for Afghanistan because I think what we need are increased capabilities on a sustained basis,” he said.
There are about 33,000 US troops in Afghanistan – up by nearly 50 percent in recent years.
The general was obviously dissatisfied with President Bush’s latest decision to detach 4,500 soldiers for service in Afghanistan before the end of the year. It was less than half of the 11,000 troops demanded and not the manpower boost needed “on a sustained basis.”
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s military sources report that many members of the US command in Kabul believe that without revised tactics, a new intake of troops will not change much for the following reasons:
1. US and NATO commanders are not initiating offensive operations against Taliban. They keep their forces in fortified compounds and only respond when attacked.
2. The only exception is the South on the Pakistan border. There, too, US, British, Danish and Afghanistan forces stage only occasional attacks, while the other foreign contingents are prevented by their governments from proactive combat, except in self-defense.
The Taliban are therefore free to range at will in most of the country except for the South. In the Kunar Valley for instance, members of the Dutch NATO contingent actively seek out Taliban contacts to forge ad hoc agreements for shared control of the terrain.
3. Even in the South, US commanders say US-British tactics are outdated and too sluggish to cope with swiftly changing conditions in the field and keep up with the Taliban’s lightening movements from place to place by vehicle, animal or on foot.
New Pakistani president cultivates Taliban connections
4. While the Taliban has undoubtedly suffered pain from American military operations, reverses still leave them able to speedily regroup with fresh forces on the Pakistani side of the border and return to the fray.
5. US ground raids and drone-borne missile strikes against Taliban and al Qaeda sanctuaries inside Pakistan are too few and far between to affect the odds measurably.
6. The Americans have shown reluctance to step them up until now, deterred both by the adamant refusal of Islamabad and the Pakistan military to countenance incursions and because every raid exacerbates Pashtun hostility in the tribal lands.
But many field officers counter that it is too late to start wooing the Pashtun tribes after seven years of warfare. In any case, quite a few Pashtun chiefs, while withholding support from NATO, are sitting on the fence to see who comes out on top, the Western coalition or Taliban.
Nonetheless, the dilemma is real: The number of Pashtun fence-sitters is whittled down and pushed into the arms of the Taliban by every US raid on their turf.
7. While Pakistan’s ex-ruler Pervez Musharraf most certainly played two sides of the conflict, his successor Asif Ali Zardari, since taking office on Sept. 2, does not look like getting down to a single-minded crackdown on the Taliban-al Qaeda sanctuaries in his country, although he pledged support for the US war on terror if Washington helped him get elected.
According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s Islamabad sources, the widower has lost no time in picking up the contacts cultivated by his slain wife Benazir Bhutto in circles associated with Taliban.
A full-time supreme commander needed for Afghan/Pak arena
And that is not all. The new president shows no sign of addressing early signs of civil war, fanned by Taliban and al Qaeda. High quarters in Islamabad have an ambivalent attitude towards al Qaeda.
Trendsetting religious leaders may publicly condemn Taliban’s violent ways, yet they also abstain from querying the movement’s Islamic motives.
Maulana Faza Rehman, of Jamiat Ulema-Islami, for instance, focuses his ire on the Western forces for the civilian deaths they caused in operations in the North West Frontier Province and Afghanistan.
The message the public receives is that Taliban is at fault but the foreigners are criminals.
It goes down well in Pakistan and Afghanistan, where Western armies are no more popular or trusted than the succession of foreign forces which preceded them over the past decades. They are all regarded as self-interested invaders rather than bearers of light for the region.
Pakistanis often prefer to live in denial of the local Taliban movement’s atrocities and goals. Their leaders are fully aware that the fundamentalist terrorists are fighting a civil war but prefer not to officially recognize it.
Given the complexities and high risks innate in the Afghan/Pakistan theater, DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s military sources warn against expecting too much to quickly of the incoming American regional war chief, Gen. Petraeus, who comes fresh from his successful “surge” policy in Iraq.
As head of the US Central Command, he must juggle several conflicts and potential warfronts, encompassing Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, the Caucasus (vis-a-vis Russia), Iran, the Persian Gulf, Israel and the Palestinians and Hizballah.
Afghanistan, with Pakistan tagged on, requires a full-time supreme commander, a Petraeus B, which he will have to appoint. Neither Taliban nor al Qaeda can be expected to hang around until the new US commander gets on top of his new duties.