Commentary Magazine


Premature Panic in Afghanistan?

That was a startling headline in the Wall Street Journal yesterday:

Taliban Now Winning: U.S. Commander in Afghanistan Warns of Rising Casualties

But I was suspicious the minute I read the first paragraph:

The Taliban have gained the upper hand in Afghanistan, the top American commander there said, forcing the U.S. to change its strategy in the eight-year-old conflict by increasing the number of troops in heavily populated areas like the volatile southern city of Kandahar, the insurgency’s spiritual home.

Note the lack of quote marks around any statement in the lead or in the headline. If General Stan McChrystal had actually said “the Taliban are winning,” why did the Journal rely on a paraphrase? Turns out because he didn’t actually say it.

According to various military spokesmen, the Journal version of McChyrstal’s remarks was “inaccurate”:

To clarify, the commander did not say the Taliban was winning, in his interview with the Wall Street Journal as suggested by the headline. He explained that International Security Assistance Forces are facing an aggressive enemy, employing complex tactics that is gaining momentum in some parts of Afghanistan. During the course of the interview he also observed that insurgents in Afghanistan face their own problems in terms of popularity, cohesiveness and ability to sustain morale and fighting capacity.

That seems a more likely description of what McChrystal actually said—and a better description of what is actually happening on the ground. It would be fair to say that the Taliban have been winning in southern Afghanistan, while eastern Afghanistan has been stalemated, and the Taliban have been starting to carry out attacks in the north and west. But that’s not to say the Taliban are winning in the whole country, as suggested by the headline. The overall level of violence is still far below what it was in Iraq at the height of its insurgency, and Kabul remains more secure than Baghdad ever was—or is today. Moreover, Taliban gains in the south and east are likely to be rolled back, at least to some extent, with the arrival of new U.S. troops, which will bring our troop total to 68,000. So, yes, we should be deeply concerned about Afghanistan—the situation certainly warrants greater American resources, including more troops. But there’s no need to push the panic button.