Commentary Magazine


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Shift in Momentum in Afghanistan

I am soon heading to Afghanistan to see for myself how the war effort is progressing, but in the meantime I note several news accounts that give a sense of cautious optimism. That doesn’t include the reports this morning that high-level negotiations with the Taliban are starting and are being facilitated by NATO forces. There have been stories along those lines for years, and they haven’t gone anywhere, because the Taliban have no serious incentive to negotiate until they see that they are losing the war on the ground.

In that connection, it is interesting to read the assessment of a French general that the situation has improved dramatically in his area of operations in eastern Afghanistan. He even claims that Afghan troops will be ready to take responsibility for this once-dangerous area by next summer. Is he right? Who knows? But it does indicate that things are moving in the right direction in at least one important area.

That is also the assessment of retired Gen. Jack Keane — one of the architects of the Iraq surge — who has just returned from Afghanistan and reports: “There are already some early signs of a beginning of a momentum shift in our favor.”

New York Times correspondent C.J. Chivers, a former Marine, also notes progress in training Afghan security forces:

Two main training sites — the Kabul Military Training Center, used principally by the Afghan Army, and the Central Training Center, used by the police — have become bustling bases, packed with trainers and recruits, and there is a sense among the officers that they are producing better soldiers than before.

The military center has been graduating 1,400 newly trained soldiers every two …. The ratio of instructors to students has gone from one for every 79 trainees in 2009 to one for every 29, officers at the center say, suggesting that the new police officers and soldiers are getting more attention than in years past. The soldiers are paid better and desert less often, officials say.

Another interesting data point comes from this report that coalition air strikes are up 172 percent: “Last month, NATO attack planes dropped their bombs and fired their guns on 700 separate missions, according to U.S. Air Force statistics. That’s more than double the 257 attack sorties they flew in September 2009, and one of the highest single-month totals of the entire nine-year Afghan campaign.” That should help allay the concerns of those who worry that U.S. forces are so handicapped by rules of engagement that they can’t take the fight to the enemy. In fact, tight rules are necessary to prevent unnecessary civilian casualties, but these statistics suggest that American airpower is still being used effectively to help win the fight. There has also been a less-publicized increase in Special Operations raids, which are taking a nightly toll on the Taliban’s leadership.

I would caution against reading too much into any of this. It’s still early days, the full complement of surge forces having arrived in Afghanistan only last month. There is much hard fighting ahead, and many setbacks are certain. But at least there is now a sense that the war may be moving, however haltingly and slowly, in the right direction.