Paul Pillar

The Misleading Optics of Progress in Afghanistan

The counterinsurgency in Afghanistan is something like the elephant that was described differently by blind men touching different parts of the animal. Descriptions of the entire enterprise vary considerably, depending on what part of the effort whoever is offering the description has come to know directly. Some of the shaping of descriptions is motivated by self-interest; it is in the interest of a field commander, for example, to portray the situation he took over as a mess, and then to portray the situation later in his tour of duty as showing substantial progress. But even if self-interest could somehow be expunged, the size and complexity of the conflict in Afghanistan would lead different people, who have come into contact with different appendages of the elephant, to convey widely differing characterizations of where this counterinsurgency is going. 

Stephen Biddle and Michael O’Hanlon offer some interesting observations about reasons for the inconsistent perspectives on trends in the war. Soldiers, they point out, expect to operate in dangerous environments and see improvement if a situation goes “from very dangerous to less so.” Civilians tend to have a different standard and to label as unsafe anywhere it is hazardous to work and travel. Biddle and O’Hanlon also contend that perceptions of spreading instability and worsening insecurity are misleading in two respects. One is that greater Taliban activity in the northern part of the country is a response to greater pressure being placed on the Taliban in the south and east. The other is that upsurges in violence in certain areas are the result of coalition forces taking on the Taliban where previous quiet was due only to the population being cowed by the Taliban. 

That logic has some validity, but a further perspective on this perspective comes from a report by Rod Nordland in the New York Times describing conditions in Kandahar, which General David Petraeus has highlighted as “one of those very important places where Taliban momentum has been reversed.” Reversed or not, Kandahar was the scene last weekend of violent disturbances, ostensibly in response to the Islamophobic Florida pastor’s burning of the Koran, in which members and sympathizers of the Taliban played a major role. If pressuring the Taliban has in part been a game of whack-a-mole, the moles are showing up not only in parts of Afghanistan to which the coalition has not given high priority but also in parts where the coalition has made a major effort. The Times report indicates that coalition successes in rural districts have driven the Taliban into Kandahar city, where they can go underground and wait for opportunities to strike back. As for the population being cowed by the insurgents, this is not just a phenomenon in quiet districts but again also is showing up in Kandahar. One resident who did not want to give his name for fear of retribution said, “Taliban are there, everyone knows it. No one knows when they are going to come out.”

As for nationwide trends over the past couple of years, two major and discouraging ones are hard to explain away. One is increased anti-foreign and anti-American sentiment in Afghanistan (again, something exhibited in Kandahar). The other is an increase in the number of Taliban fighters in the field. Moles are popping up in many places not just because they are under pressure in other places but because there are more moles.

But official optimism, and a lot of unofficial optimism, persists. A U.S. official is quoted in Nordland’s story as saying, “I wish there were another way to say ‘cautiously optimistic’ ”—a phrase often used throughout the nine years of this war. Those who uttered it probably should have been more cautious and less optimistic.