It has become a familiar refrain that America and its allies are “losing the war in Afghanistan.” But a closer look at developments on the ground tells another story.
At first glance, the report out of Afghanistan this week would seem to validate the defeatist outlook. On Monday, Taliban guerillas ambushed and killed ten French paratroopers, while affiliated suicide bombers staged a raid against a U.S army base. Such highly publicized attacks on NATO troops are part of the enemy’s strategy to undermine public support for the war in Europe.
In the case of France at least, the Taliban’s strategy failed miserably. France’s resolute president, Nicolas Sarkozy, arrived in Afghanistan to show his troops “that France is at their side.” Declaring that his “determination is intact,” Sarkozy stressed that “France is resolved to pursue the fight against terrorism, for democracy and liberty. The cause is just; it is the honor of France and its armies to defend it.” Commentators may drone that Afghanistan is a lost cause, but France plainly disagrees.
That explains why, despite high-profile attacks, the French have operated as though Afghanistan were very much a winnable war. For instance, Sarkozy recently has strengthened France’s military contribution to the conflict by dispatching a 700-man battalion and by expanding the French contingent’s area of operations. (Previously, French troops, which now number about 3,000, were stationed mostly in Kabul.) If the Taliban thought it could scare a major European power into submission, it miscalculated.
There have been other attacks, to be sure. In a separate strike, on U.S. Camp Salerno near the Pakistan border, between six to 12 Taliban wearing suicide vests tried to breach the perimeter but failed, with several dying in the attempt. No American casualties were reported. Had they gotten close enough to American troops to detonate their deadly loads, the Taliban doubtless could have expected spectacular headlines.
But the truth is that despite the media-savvy Taliban’s endeavors to impress the world with reports of successful operations, it is losing ground. For all intents and purposes, the Afghan war is what experts term a “low-intensity conflict.” And the statistics prove it.
After almost seven years, American combat deaths number 361. That is much lower than the combat death rate in both the Vietnam War and World War II. Altogether, including deaths by accident and sickness, about 500 Americans have died in Afghanistan since 2001. A military news site further reports that “gun battles with the Taliban are down fifty per cent this year.” Another hopeful sign is that fewer civilians, and more Taliban and al-Qaeda, are being killed.
Credit for this achievement goes to Afghanistan’s steadily improving 70,000-man army – it was an Afghan unit that surrounded and killed some of the suicide bombers at Camp Salerno – as well as to the nearly 60,000 American-led NATO troops. Facing well-trained, professional soldiers, backed by smart bombs and air superiority, the Taliban has had difficulty finding new recruits despite offering generous pay. Ignoring Taliban propaganda, many Afghans seem to realize that guerrilla tactics are not going to win this war.
As a result, the Taliban has been forced to rely more on suicide bombers and roadside bombs. However, these brutal tactics have caused the deaths of countless civilians, and in the end could turn the population against the Taliban, much as al-Qaeda’s massacres in Iraq ultimately inspired a nationwide backlash against the terrorist organization. To take one example among many, last February a suicide bomber aiming for Canadian troops in a crowded market place in the southern city of Kandahar wounded four soldiers but killed forty Afghan civilians. It may be just a matter of time before Afghans rise up against the Taliban’s indiscriminate carnage.
Why then is the popular perception of Afghanistan so bleak? One reason, surely, is the selective news coverage that fails to provide critical context to the fighting. Thus, while the New York Times has noted that 173 foreign troops have died so far this year in Afghanistan, a figure set to exceed last year’s total of 232 and the highest since 2001, the paper failed to point out how small that number is when compared to the number of NATO troops in Afghanistan. Dwelling on the negative, the Times also failed to mention other coalition successes and Taliban failures. For instance, despite the Taliban’s repeated threats of a “spring offensive” that will overrun Kabul, no such campaign materialized this year, a clear sign of the Taliban’s relative weakness.
Nor does the recent uptick in violence necessarily imply that the Taliban is resurgent. NATO forces are encountering more al-Qaeda fighters this year who were successfully defeated in Iraq and have now fled to Pakistan and Afghanistan in search of better prospects. The Pakistani army’s recent offensive against Taliban forces in that country’s tribal outlands suggests that the Taliban may also be hard-pressed on another front.
Indeed, just about the only area where the Taliban has enjoyed success is in its attacks on undefended schools. A German report shows that Taliban fighters staged 44 raids on schools last year alone and 440 such attacks have been registered since 2004. According to the report, such attacks have become a weekly occurrence. “It is better for my children if they live, even if they have to be illiterate,” one fearful father was quoted as saying. Having failed to drive out coalition forces, the Taliban is training its sights on that other threat to its theocratic vision: schoolchildren.
The Taliban does have one advantage: drugs. Afghanistan provides opium for 90 percent of the world market, and it is the enormous profits from this deadly business that fuel the war, providing the Taliban with money to buy weapons and hire fighters. Recognizing its importance, retired U.S. general and former NATO commander James L. Jones once called the Afghan narcotics trade “… the cancer that is eating Afghanistan inside out.” The point can be interpreted literally, since some Afghan government officials are involved, either directly or through bribes, with the drug gangs. For all of NATO’s successes, there will be no swift resolution to the war unless the drug trade stopped.
Real though they are, those challenges should not obscure the larger and more hopeful picture. Notwithstanding the relentlessly negative news narrative, coalition forces are slowly but surely defeating the Taliban. The terrorists may win the headlines, but the U.S. and its allies are winning the war.