In the L.A. Times today, Pete Mansoor and I have an op-ed reporting on our recently completed trip to Afghanistan. (Mansoor is a retired army colonel who served two combat tours in Iraq and now teaches history at Ohio State). In brief, our message is that we are now winning in Afghanistan, at least in Helmand and Kandahar, the heartland of the Taliban, where we have focused most of our resources. But don’t take our word for it. The New York Times runs a fantastic article by Carlotta Gall and Ruhullah Khapalwak that quotes an unnamed mid-level Taliban commander conceding that “the government has the upper hand now” in and around Kandahar — a message confirmed by local residents they spoke with. The article explains:
“The people are not happy with us,” the Taliban fighter said. “People gave us a place to stay for several years, but we did not provide them with anything except fighting. The situation is different now: the local people are not willingly cooperating with us. They are not giving us a place to stay or giving us food.”
NATO’s announcement that it would remain until a transfer to Afghan forces in 2014 has also convinced people that it will not withdraw quickly, he said.
“The Americans are more serious, and another thing that made people hopeful was when they said they would stay until 2014,” the Taliban commander said. “That has made people change their minds.”
Naturally, the article reports that the Taliban will plan to return to their old stomping grounds in the spring, but “in a dozen interviews, Afghan landowners, tribal elders and villagers said they believed that the Taliban could find it hard to return if American troops remained.”
That was exactly what Mansoor and I found. But isn’t there a danger that the insurgency, after setbacks in the south, will simply move to the north or east? That’s what another New York Times article claims.
Alissa Rubin reports from Kunduz in the north — an area garrisoned primarily by Germans — where she finds security conditions have deteriorated. No doubt that’s true, but there is scant chance that the Taliban could re-create strongholds in other parts of the country after being chased out of the south. That’s because the Taliban have essentially no appeal outside the Pashtun community, and there are few Pashtuns in the north or west. True, the Taliban have made some inroads among Pashtun pockets in those areas, but let’s not exaggerate. Most days, there are no reported attacks at all in the north or west. The Taliban may be spreading some fear and intimidation, but there is a natural limit on their appeal. The odds of their gaining support in the Tajik or Hazara communities are about as great as the odds of Hamas winning supporters in Jewish neighborhoods of Israel.
I do not, by any means, suggest that all the news from Afghanistan is great. As Mansoor and I note, governance and Pakistan sanctuaries remain difficult challenges, and the eastern part of the country — where there are a lot of Pashtuns — has not yet seen the kind of concerted counterinsurgency campaign that has taken place in the south. (There simply aren’t enough troops even now to pacify both south and east at the same time.) But overall, we are making great progress with the surge, which, after all, has only just been completed.