The supreme commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, said in an interview to the Wall Street Journal on Monday, August 10, that the Taliban have gained the upper hand in Afghanistan: “It's a very aggressive enemy right now. We've got to stop their momentum, stop their initiative. It's hard work.”
A senior officer on his staff, speaking on condition of anonymity, noted than in relation to the debate taking place in Washington and in American headquarters in Kabul, on whether to ship more American forces to Afghanistan, the question must be asked: “How many people do you bring in before the Afghans say, 'You're acting like the Russians'?” referring to the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s which ended in Russia's defeat.
It should come as no surprise that on the very same day the interview was published, Gen. McChrystal's chief of staff, Rear Admiral Gregory J. Smith quickly issued a statement saying:
“The commander did not say the Taliban was winning in his interview with the Wall Street Journal, as suggested by the headline.”
He (McChrystal) explained that International Security Assistance Forces are facing an aggressive enemy, employing complex tactics that are gaining momentum in some parts of Afghanistan…
Kandahar's loss will jeopardize the South and Northeast too
At he spoke, the Taliban mounted a bold attack on Pul-e-Alam the capital of Logar Province, only an hour's drive south of Kabul. It was timed for Afghan President Hamid Karzai's unveiling of his election platform in the capital.
The insurgents battled US and Afghan forces for several hours, in which, DEBKA-Net-Weekly military sources report, several suicide fighters wearing bomb vests and using a bomb car seized an uncompleted shopping mall which overlooks the main military headquarters and government buildings in the center of town.
They were backed up by forces which shelled the battle area from the surrounding hills.
On Wednesday, August 12, a similar attack took place in the northern city of Kunduz, which had so far been outside the war zone. Taliban fighters stormed the district police headquarters, killing the police chief and two of his men. A four-hour gun battle ensued.
All these incidents, which have now spread from the south to the north, east and center of Afghanistan, are ostensibly linked to the Taliban bid to scuttle the Aug. 20 presidential elections, dubbed “the ballot with a bullet.”
But US commanders in Kabul and the front lines are not optimistic about the offensive ending after the elections. Just as they know that, with all the US army's best efforts, there will be parts of the country where the ballots will not open, they see the current Taliban momentum spreading inexorably to areas which have so far been untouched by the ravages of battle.
American military movements this week, – and especially the launch of “Operation Eastern Resolve 2” in the city of Dahaneh in Helmand province – indicate that Gen. McChrystal is throwing a major effort into securing Kandahar, the key city of the South and the weakest link in the American-British military deployment.
Its fall – or even the loss of suburbs – to the Taliban would constitute the coalition's worst defeat in the eight-year war – meaning the insurgents had won the battle for Southern Afghanistan.
The Pakistani war on Taliban would go into reverse
It would also spell disaster for the fate of the war in other parts of the country.
Since the US-led NATO force has no expectation of outside reinforcements coming in at this point, they would have to be rushed in from other parts of the country, so depleting their defenses against redoubled Taliban attacks aimed at expanding its holdings in the East and the North.
The war in northwestern Pakistan would likewise go into reverse.
The Pakistan army is watching the battle of Kandahar closely and awaiting its outcome. A Taliban victory there would make it impossible for the Pakistani army to launch its general offensive in Waziristan any time soon and even jeopardize its already fragile control of the Swat Valley to the north.
So at stake is far more than getting out the vote in the greatest number of districts for next Thursday's presidential election. Riding on the outcome of the Kandahar battle is the fate of Afghanistan.
If Gen. McChrystal manages to repulse the Taliban and stabilize the situation around Kandahar, he will be able to move on to grapple with some equally vexing problems facing the American army, such as how to build a coherent US theater counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan, and how to radically repair the too-broad dispersion of US and NATO forces across Afghanistan in defiance of military logic.
As far as morale is concerned, the fighting forces cannot fathom what the politicians in Washington and in European capitals are driving at when they urge the troops to win the hearts of the local populations and gain their cooperation. The slogans sound good but so far the combatants in the field are pressed so hard fighting the Taliban in extremely rugged conditions that they don't have a breath to spare.