Are we taking it too easy on the Taliban?

Today's NY Times has an odd op-ed by "intelligence analyst" Lara Dadkhah (who apparently works for a defense consulting firm), suggesting that the more restrictive rules of engagement the United States is now employing in Afghanistan are counterproductive. Dadkhah may be correct that the restrictions make it less likely that the United States will use airpower quickly against Taliban fighters, but the overall analysis confuses the relationship between tactics and strategy. The purpose of the more restrictive rules of engagement is to cut down on accidental deaths inflicted on Afghan civilians, precisely because such actions make the U.S./NATO presence less popular, diminish support for our Afghan allies, and make it easier for the Taliban to recruit new soldiers. Killing more civilians also undermines troop moral and support for the war back home. Taking the gloves back off, as she suggests, might actually undermine our long-term prospects. Thus, whatever you may think about the wisdom of our engagement there, the new rules of engagement make sense.

The op-ed also contains another line I just don't understand. At one point she justifies heavier reliance on airstrikes by saying that the U.S. military "does not have the manpower in Afghanistan to fight the insurgents one-on-one." This may just be careless writing/editing, but surely she is not suggesting that the Taliban has the same number of troops as the United States? (According to this source, we outnumber them by about 12-1). If we can't take them on "one-on-one," then we're in bigger trouble than I thought, despite the encouraging news of the past few days.


Stephen M. Walt

Musings about Marjah

I've been trying to make sense of the recent news from Afghanistan and Pakistan, so let me share my musings here. There's no question that the news from the past week or so is encouraging. The Marine-led effort to clear the Taliban out of the Afghan city of Marjah appears to be going well (despite some obvious mishaps, like the accidental killing of a dozen Afghan civilians by an errant rocket attack), and the capture of a top Pakistani Taliban commander is likely to weaken those forces and suggests that the Pakistani government is taking this fight more seriously.

These are encouraging signs, and we should all hope that progress like this continues.  Whether you supported Obama's escalation of the war or not, the obvious way to end America's costly and distracting efforts in Central Asia is to achieve a rapid victory that enables us to withdraw. I'm still not optimistic about our long-term prospects (or convinced that it is as vital a contest as others think) but I'd be delighted to be proved wrong on this one.

That said, there are several reasons why it's premature to be hoisting the "Mission Accomplished" sign at this stage (and to be fair, I haven't seen anyone doing that yet).

First, most of the accounts we are getting from Marjah are from official sources or embedded journalists, and these initial reports often tend to highlight achievements unless the operation is a complete disaster. In short, there may be a bit of an upward bias in the reports we've seen so far.

Second, it is always difficult to know whether a tactical success is strategically significant, especially in this sort of engagement. There was never much question about the Marines' ability to expel the Taliban, the only question was how much resistance they would face and what the casualty ratios might be. Casualties do not seem to be that high on either side, however, which suggests that many (though not all) of the Taliban have slipped away to fight another day. That problem has always been one of our major strategic challenges, especially given the porous Afghan/Pakistani border. How can the United States and its allies pacify the entire country, when the adversary can flee and wait us out?

Third, as others have already noted, the real issues are 1) will Afghan security forces will be able to hold the area after the Marines move on, and 2) can the various groups and factions in Afghanistan achieve a workable political formula that will stabilize the country and (eventually) permit the United States and NATO to withdraw? Unfortunately, as Juan Cole notes today, there are still good reasons to be skeptical about the ongoing effort to train reliable Afghan police and security forces. And there are still few signs of genuine political reconciliation (or even compromise). 

What I can't decide is whether the capture of Mullah Baradar is a step forward or something more ambiguous. On the one hand, it's hard not to be pleased by signs that Pakistan is taking the counter-Taliban campaign more seriously, and equally hard to be displeased when a top Taliban military commander is no longer in the field (and is presumably giving up useful information while in custody). But as the Times notes today, this development may also give Pakistan a bigger voice in the deliberations over Afghanistan, and its past support for the Afghan Taliban hasn't always been constructive (at least, not from the U.S. point of view).

The lesson I draw from all this -- admittedly speculative -- is that U.S. military efforts in Central Asia need to supplemented by even more energetic efforts at regional diplomacy. We don't have the military forces, staying power, cultural insight, or influence to play unilateral "kingmaker" in that part of the world, and we ought to be putting as much of the burden on regional actors as we can. So it may be a good thing if the Pakistanis now have a more credible claim to a place at the table, provided we seize the opportunity and are open to a wide range of possibilities. Paging Ambassador Holbrooke?

The key thing to remember is that we ultimately don't care very much who is running Afghanistan or Pakistan, provided that whoever is in charge isn't giving anti-American terrorists free rein to attack the United States, and in the case of Pakistan, provided they are maintaining reliable control over its nuclear arsenals. Helping the regional actors work out a modus vivendi may be our best strategy, even if the outcome doesn't conform perfectly to our own ideals or political values.

So I see the past week or so as somewhat encouraging, but I'm not breaking out the champagne yet. And neither should anyone else.

UPDATE: In my haste this AM, I mistakenly referred to the captured Taliban official, Mullah Baradar, as a member of the Pakistani Taliban. That’s wrong: he is/was of course part of the Afghan Taliban (though he was hiding out in Pakistan before he was captured). My bad. And I'm still not sure what it tells us about Pakistan's overall aims at this point.

A reader also challenged whether it makes sense to refer to Marjah as a city. Wikipedia gives its population as 85,000 or so, swelling to 125,000 if you include the surrounding areas, and Radio Free Europe described it as a "large village." CNN used the term “city” in a recent background story, and the video found here makes it look like either term would be appropriate.  So I’ll stand by my original use of the word, but would happily defer to anyone who’s actually been there and has a different and well-informed view.

For additional “musings” on what all this might mean, see here.