Today there are two wars taking place in Afghanistan. The first is the war confidently described by the U.S. military: a conflict that according to leading military commanders and even the secretary of defense is "headed in the right direction" and has a "good chance at success." This war is hard but not hopeless; more Afghan soldiers are being trained and an increasing number of Taliban commanders are, as one Western military commander recently put it, "getting an absolute arse-kicking."
But virtually every day there are press reports that speak of another war. It is one defined by rising civilian and military death tolls in a growing number of once-safe regions -- particularly in the north of the country -- now marred by violence and insecurity; government corruption and incompetence that remains as bad as ever; and an increasing sense of fatalism among the Afghan people. In this war, pessimism, not optimism, is the dominant outlook. The problem is that the latter conflict actually seems to be taking place -- while the former seems to be a figment of the military leadership's imagination.
This growing divide is increasingly bringing into question the very credibility of U.S. military statements about military progress in Afghanistan.
To be sure, this sort of over-optimism is as old as war itself -- and one can hardly be surprised that the United States' generals would accentuate the positive. What is different now is that while once rosy narratives were offered to support the civilian leadership -- think Vietnam -- today, it seems inordinately geared toward influencing the policy choices of civilians. And the Obama administration faces the possibility that its planned July 2011 deadline for the commencement of troop withdrawals may be undermined by the very individuals that are tasked with carrying out the war effort.
As was the case last summer and fall during the presidential review on Afghanistan, the military is engaged in a public lobbying effort to ensure that President Barack Obama stays the course in the conflict. The first salvo in this public relations effort came October 17: "Top U.S. military and civilian officials in Afghanistan have begun to assert that they see concrete progress in the war against the Taliban," wrote Joshua Paltrow in the Washington Post. "Despite growing numbers of Taliban attacks and U.S. casualties, U.S. officials are building their case for why they are on the right track."
That report was followed by Carlotta Gall's front-page story in the New York Times asserting that the military was "routing" the Taliban in and around Kandahar. Gall quoted Maj. Gen. Nick Carter, the British commander of the NATO coalition forces in southern Afghanistan, optimistically remarking, "We now have the initiative. We have created momentum. It is everything put together in terms of the effort that has gone in over the last 18 months and it is undoubtedly having an impact."
Yet these claims of progress are belied by the dire facts on the ground. From a security standpoint the situation in Afghanistan is worse than at any point in the past nine years. Already 406 U.S. troops have been killed this year -- if the trend continues, the highest annual death toll since the conflict began.
A recent report by the Afghan NGO Safety Office (ANSO), a respected independent group that advises non-governmental organizations about the security situation in Afghanistan, paints a very different picture than the one described by U.S. officials. The authors conclude that the insurgency is in its ascendancy and describe it as "increasingly mature, complex and effective." ANSO also reports that between July and September of this year Taliban attacks rose by 59 percent compared with the same period in 2009. One recent week in September saw 1,600 attacks across Afghanistan, 500 more than in the any previous week of the war. And in the north a third of the region's provinces have seen significant increases in violence.