Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Afghanistan Primer

Today's WAPO editorial gives a good For Dummies version of the situation Canadian troops have inherited around Kandahar. Other than the unsurprising observation that "Canadian...units have performed well", the write-up makes note of two important facts.

1) With winter on the fade we are entering the Afghan "fighting season". And for several years now the Taliban "Spring Offensives" have been building in strength, like a tide slowly washing higher and higher. For example, "Casualties in Afghanistan increased by about 20 percent in 2005 [over the previous year], driven by new insurgent tactics such as suicide bombings."

2) This year's Spring fighting coincides with the deployment of a 6,000 strong NATO force (including our guys) to replace the U.S. troops previously stationed in the area:

The result is a crucial battle for control of the south -- crucial for both Afghanistan and NATO. A decisive defeat of the Taliban offensive could help consolidate a still-fragile democratic government, and it could validate NATO as a military alliance capable of tackling the security challenges of the 21st century. The Taliban, however, is betting it can prove the reverse: that the new Afghan political order is unworkable and that NATO is a paper tiger that cannot substitute for the U.S. troops being withdrawn.

WAPO reports that, happily enough, this battle is being won by NATO forces:

The first results have been encouraging. Canadian and British troops have fought to clear a Taliban-infested area just 15 miles from the southern city of Kandahar; with U.S. air support, scores of enemy fighters have been killed and several senior commanders captured. A Canadian and two French soldiers have been among those killed in recent fighting, along with one American, who was the 37th to die in Afghanistan this year. Though the appearance of relatively large Taliban formations is itself an alarming sign of the movement's revival, any expectation by its commanders that they could roll over the new NATO units has been shattered.

I think, though, that WAPO reverses the importance of these two facts. After four or five years of fighting off Taliban offensives each spring and summer, the U.S. forces that have thus far failed to permanently clear the area are leaving. There is frankly no reason to believe that our Canadians and their English allies will do any better at this task, although they will certainly perform admirably in any concrete encounter with Taliban fighters. But is importantly to realize that the Taliban insurgency can win the war while losing all of the battles: "You have the wristwatches, but we have the time," as they (apparently) say.

In addition, the resurrection of the Tailiban in Southern Afghanistan has been predicted in places like WAPO and the NY Times for a couple of years now, and it is more then disturbing that U.S. ground forces should be bugging out just when these predictions are starting to come true. It frankly fuels suspicions (mine at least) that the timing of this withdrawal has more to do with the state of the American political calendar (specifically, too many U.S. casualties before the November mid-terms will look bad for George W.'s Republicans) than with any kind of sound strategic thinking.

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