The New York Times‘s Carlotta Gall has filed a heartening report from Kabul: “The Afghan Taliban,” she writes, “are showing signs of increasing strain after a number of killings, arrests and internal disputes that have reached them even in their haven in Pakistan.” The details of what is happening in Pakistan are murky: are Taliban commanders being killed by rivals, by the Pakistani ISI, or by U.S. agents? No one seems sure. But what is happening in Afghanistan is clear: U.S. forces are ratcheting up the pressure on the Taliban, as I saw for myself on my latest visit to Afghanistan a few weeks ago. As Gall writes:
The Taliban have been under stress since American forces doubled their presence in southern Afghanistan last year and greatly increased the number of special forces raids targeting Taliban commanders. … While there is still some debate over the insurgents’ overall strength, Pakistanis with deep knowledge of the Afghan Taliban say that they have suffered heavy losses in the last year and that they are struggling in some areas to continue the fight…One Taliban commander from Kunar Province said losses had been so high that he was considering going over to the side of the Afghan government in order to get assistance for his beleaguered community.
This is the product of the counterinsurgency campaign that General David Petraeus is directing. Its progress is palpable. So are the obstacles in its path, not the least of them being the possible weakening of the will to fight in the administration. In this connection it is interesting to read a Washington Post report that a battle is brewing over the size of the drawdown this summer, with advisers to General Petraeus pushing for the removal of a few support units and no combat troops but with White House types favoring a deeper pullback “to placate a war-weary electorate.”
The politicos are being short-sighted here. True, voters are war weary but they won’t be any less weary after the removal of, say, 10,000 troops, rather than 1,000. However removing a substantial number of troops will endanger the overall success of the mission. Extensive research shows that the prospects for battlefield success, more than any other factor, determines public support for a military mission. By endangering those prospects, a deep drawdown would make the war more unpopular–not less. And hence more of a political liability to the administration.
At this point, the best bet, whether from a military or a political perspective, is to give Petraeus what he needs to solidify progress this year. Once Afghanistan is more secure, then we we can consider major troop reductions–but not before.