Petraeus Versus Obama

What's lurking behind the Pentagon's overly optimistic spinning of the Afghan war?

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.

The White House got into the pessimism game with an assessment that said "progress across the country was uneven," Afghan governance remained "unsatisfactory," and "district-by-district data show that only minor positive change had occurred with respect to security." The Washington Post quoted unnamed intelligence officials throwing cold water on the military's declarations of success. "[A]n intense military campaign aimed at crippling the Taliban has so far failed to inflict more than fleeting setbacks on the insurgency or put meaningful pressure on its leaders to seek peace," wrote Greg Miller.

With this steady drumbeat of bad news, it's a bit hard to understand on what basis Gen. David Petraeus recently told British interviewer David Frost, "I think it is arguable, at least, that we are winning" in Afghanistan. During a recent trip to Afghanistan I was hard-pressed to find a single journalist, NGO official, analyst, or local Afghan who found this argument even remotely compelling.

What seems most backwards about the military's congenital optimism is that even by the key metrics of their own counterinsurgency (COIN) strategy there has been almost no change for the better in Afghanistan. Governance in Afghanistan remains as hopeless as ever. September's parliamentary elections now appear to have been so fraud-ridden that the entire vote is in question. U.S. efforts to curb incessant government corruption have not led to any real crackdown on graft; instead it has heightened tensions with the Karzai government, and reports that Afghan government officials receive bags of cash from the Iranian government have been met with official shrugs in Kabul.

While the Pentagon talks optimistically of progress being made in training the Afghan Army, the force is still years away from being able to operate effectively on its own. Attrition rates remain high, drug use is rampant, and soldiers lack competence in basic military skills. During recent offensives in the town of Marjah in Helmand province and ongoing efforts in Kandahar, the Pentagon claimed that the efforts were Afghan-led. According to New York Times reporter C.J. Chivers, in surprisingly declarative language, "it was not." Other independent analysts I spoke to agreed that NATO is dramatically overstating the role and capabilities of Afghan forces in the current fight.

Indeed, NATO spokesman continue to portray last February's offensive in Marjah as a success story, in part because of re-opened schools and 300 newly trained policemen. But it's hard to square that progress with the fact that 30,000 troops remain in Helmand province -- or press reports that describe "a full-blown guerrilla insurgency" fighting against two Marine battalions in Marjah while Afghan aid workers in the region operate under threat of death for working with U.S. NGOs.

Military leaders have said repeatedly that the United States cannot kill its way out of the war in Afghanistan, and that protecting the population is paramount. This is fundamental to the military's counterinsurgency strategy and was a key talking point in internal discussions last year to dissuade the president from choosing a smaller-footprint counterterrorism strategy. In June 2009, General McChrystal even went so far as to argue that "the measure of effectiveness" in Afghanistan, "will not be enemy killed. It will be the number of Afghans shielded from violence." Yet civilian casualties jumped by 31 percent in just the first half of 2010, mainly due to insurgent activity. In Kandahar alone, the focal point of U.S. operations, the Red Cross is reporting that the number of Afghans hospitalized because of war injuries has doubled in the past year.

Today, the key metric used by military officials to assert progress is body counts; success in Afghanistan is now predicated almost exclusively on killing and disrupting the enemy. (NATO is even putting out daily kill-and-capture lists.) As Kabul-based analyst Thomas Rutting recently noted, there is "No word anymore about improving governance or fighting corruption (corrupt officials are welcome as long as they have fire power) or building a legitimate or effective government...the approach chosen is a new quick-fix, combined with talking up progress."

But even this near-term tactical gain cannot change the fact that from a strategic perspective the United States is not gaining real ground in Afghanistan. So long as Taliban insurgents can melt over the border into Pakistan and so long as the Afghan government is incapable of taking control of areas that have been cleared -- either administratively or militarily -- these gains are likely to be ephemeral.

There are important implications here for Obama. He is about a month away from a mandated National Security Council review of the war. If the military's public performance is any indication, it seems likely that Obama's generals will regale him with signs of halting progress divorced from Afghanistan's bleak reality.

Indeed, the president's commander in Afghanistan has already offered a possible preview of what was to come. According to Bob Woodward's Obama's Wars, Petraeus told White House "war czar" Gen. Douglas Lute last year, "All we have to do is begin to show progress and that will be sufficient to add time to the clock and we'll get what we need."

The simple fact is that ever since the president announced a July 2011 deadline for commencing withdrawals the military has chafed against what its views as an arbitrary deadline for pulling the plug on the operation. Rather than following Obama's admonition to not send troops into areas that could not be realistically handed over to the Afghan security forces by 2011, NATO and U.S. forces have engaged in a "clear, hold, and build strategy" in places where there is limited chance of turnover any time soon. It's hard to square that approach with a White House that seems desperate to embrace political reality and find the Afghan exit ramp.

But by spinning an optimistic tale of progress -- and pushing stories to journalists that suggest success is just around the corner -- the military could see only a nominal decrease of troops in July 2011. At the very least, it will put more public pressure on the White House to stay the course and fudge the troop withdrawal deadline.

To be fair, military leaders appear to believe they are doing what it is necessary for the United States to "win" in Afghanistan. And as Woodward's book laid out in dispiriting detail, they will push the president as far as they can to embrace their vision of what success requires. But that doesn't mean anyone -- least of all the White House or the American people -- should confuse the military's assessment of the situation in Afghanistan with the truth.

Mark Wilson/Getty Images


Why Is Osama bin Laden Going After the French?

There's a few reasons why al Qaeda’s most wanted is trying to stir up trouble in France.

Yesterday, in an audio recording released to Qatar-based news station Al Jazeera, al Qaeda Central leader Osama bin Laden for the first time singled out France as a target of attack, saying, "The equation is very clear and simple: as you kill, you will be killed; as you take others hostages, you will be taken hostages; as you waste our security we will waste your security."

Excoriating France for its participation in "Bush's loathed war" in Afghanistan (where France has around 3,750 troops in combat, training, and support roles) and its ban on full-body covering garments such as the burqa and niqab last month, bin Laden also claimed some manner of credit for the kidnapping last month of five French and two non-French nuclear energy workers in Niger by al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). He noted, "The taking of your experts in Niger as hostages, while they were being protected by your proxy [agent] there, is a reaction to the injustice you are practicing against our Muslim nation." He also attacked France for its "intervention" in North and West Africa, and the taking of wealth from Muslim nations.

While statements from al Qaeda Central leaders and affiliates have in the past singled out France, this statement marks a distinct escalation in rhetoric, one that has added credibility in the wake of nearly a month of warnings about possible terrorist attacks in Europe, including France. Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner dismissed bin Laden's threats, calling them "opportunism," though Kouchner's spokesman subsequently added that the tape "only confirms the reality of the terrorist threat" to France. (Defense Minister Herve Morin told Agence France-Presse today that France would begin withdrawing its troops from Afghanistan in 2011, but said that date was linked to NATO timelines and not bin Laden's tape.)

But why is bin Laden taking on the French now?

For one thing, the mention of these controversial headlines -- the bans and the kidnappings -- shows that bin Laden is not only alive and kicking, but attuned to the news cycle. More specifically, this latest tape could be an attempt to stir up the French public over the already unpopular war in Afghanistan while simultaneously preying on fear among French and other European Muslims about restrictions on their religious practice, even if very few French Muslims actually wear the garment in question.

In a broad sense, though, this kind of statement fits neatly into one of al Qaeda Central's historical goals: fusing anger at Western governments for occupation in Muslim countries with perceived slights against Muslims everywhere. In doing so, the organization justifies its attacks against Western countries' or their allies, on the grounds that they have attacked the "Muslim nation" (umma in the original Arabic) as bin Laden referred to it. Bin Laden made the connection between restrictions on Muslim freedoms and anti-occupation violence explicit, saying, "If you unjustly thought that it is your right to prevent free Muslim women from wearing the face veil, is it not our right to expel your invading men and cut their necks?"

According to my New America Foundation colleague and al Qaeda expert Brian Fishman, "Al Qaeda has always tried to conflate two phenomena that other jihadis have historically seen as distinct: the direct occupation of Muslim countries by 'Infidels' and the oppression of Muslims in the Muslim world or in the West. By doing this, al Qaeda hopes to leverage popular anger and commonly accepted religious justifications for armed opposition to generate support for its terrorist attacks against the West."

Bin Laden's remarks demonstrate this conflation, equating France's military involvement in Afghanistan with restrictions on Muslim religious expression in public, France's strong business and political interests in Africa, support for local regimes, and recent (if limited) armed intervention in Mali.

There are also several other ways to read bin Laden's remarks. While experts are divided over the seriousness of the reports of terrorist threats to Europe, there is little doubt that increasing numbers of European Muslims, both those of immigrant origin and converts, have been traveling to the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region to receive training in militant camps and possibly fight international forces.

Bin Laden could be trying to convince small groups of radicalized, trained Muslims to go back to their own countries, and wage attacks. Indeed, al Qaeda has done this before, notably with Afghan-born American citizen Najibullah Zazi, who originally traveled abroad to fight American forces in Afghanistan, only to be convinced by al Qaeda leaders to return home to plan bombings against the New York subway system.

Another possible explanation for bin Laden's "claiming" of the Niger kidnapping operation is more of an internal issue. Al Qaeda Central may be attempting to take some rhetorical control over its fairly weak, nebulous North African affiliate, AQIM. Despite some claims from experts, there is little to no evidence of coordination or even communication between al Qaeda Central and AQIM, an organization that attacks Algerian and Sahelian security forces while runing smuggling, drug protection, and kidnapping-for-ransom operations. By placing his stamp of approval on a kidnapping almost certainly motivated more by monetary than religious or defensive concerns, bin Laden is trying to show (and exaggerate) al Qaeda's reach, indicating an omnipresence that is illusory at best.

But ultimately, this tape is about al Qaeda's raison d'être, so to speak. For al Qaeda to exist, it must always have enemies to fight, and an umma to protect. And as long as bin Laden is alive, he will continue to seek out new adversaries and areas of operation, in order to attract new recruits, funds, and allies to his cause.