The best indication that things are going pretty well in Afghanistan: a sundry collection of “experts” is ready to raise the white flag. A motley crew of academics and journalists (including my frequent sparring partner Nir Rosen) has just released an open letter to President Obama claiming that “the situation on the ground is much worse than a year ago” and that “operations in the south of Afghanistan, in Kandahar and Helmand provinces, are not going well.” Yet a few paragraphs later, the authors switch gears, writing, “The military campaign is suppressing, locally and temporarily, the symptoms of the disease, but fails to offer a cure.” So which is it: is the campaign failing, or is it suppressing the Taliban?
Having just visited Afghanistan, where I had the opportunity to visit Helmand and Kandahar provinces, among others, I return convinced that the campaign is, in fact, going well and that it is suppressing the Taliban. Obviously, the Taliban have not given up the struggle, as witness, for example, the terrible suicide bombing of a new Afghan-American patrol base in Kandahar’s Zhare district — an attack that killed six American servicemen. But keep in mind that Zhare has for years been one of the Taliban’s strongholds. The fact that the Taliban are still able to carry out an occasional suicide bombing there is much less significant than the fact that the area is now dotted with American patrol bases. U.S. troops have in fact had considerable, though still incomplete, success in pushing the Taliban out of many of their southern redoubts.
Once progress on the ground is further along, it is likely that elements of the Taliban will be eager to stop fighting. At that point, peace talks may produce some results. But that time is not now. Which is why the authors of the open letter are so far off base when they call on President Obama “to sanction and support a direct dialogue and negotiation with the Afghan Taliban leadership residing in Pakistan.” The open letter claims that the “Taliban’s leadership has indicated its willingness to negotiate,” which is true in the sense that the Taliban are happy to negotiate the exit of international forces in the expectation that they will then take over the whole country and reimpose their fundamentalist dictatorship. But they have so far shown little willingness to negotiate on terms acceptable to most Afghans or to the international community, which has sponsored Afghanistan’s post-2001 experiment in democracy. In fact, when some elements of the Taliban leadership showed a willingness to make concessions, they were promptly locked up by the Pakistanis, who don’t want to see their proxies surrendering without their say-so.
The notion “that mediation can help achieve a settlement which brings peace to Afghanistan” is simply delusional — at least for now. For talks to have any success, General Petraeus needs more time to pursue his comprehensive counterinsurgency strategy. Thankfully, it appears as if he will get that time from the Obama administration — which is far too sensible to listen to the counsels of despair from this open letter.