Petraeus Versus Obama

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

Mark Wilson/Getty Images
Mark Wilson/Getty Images

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.

Trending Now Sponsored Links by Taboola

By Taboola

More from Foreign Policy

By Taboola