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America's Failed War of Attrition in Afghanistan

Jeremy Scahill

At the end of the NATO summit in Lisbon, Portugal this weekend, the
leadership of the Afghan Taliban issued a statement characterizing the
alliance's adoption of a loose timeline for a 2014 end to combat
operations as "good news" for Afghans and "a sign of failure for the
American government." At the summit, President Barack Obama said that
2011 will begin "a transition to full Afghan lead" in security
operations, while the Taliban declared: "In the past nine years, the
invaders could not establish any system of governance in Kabul and they
will never be able to do so in future."

While Obama claimed that the US and its allies are "breaking the
Taliban's momentum," the reality on the ground tells a different story.
Despite increased Special Operations Forces raids and, under Gen. David
Petraeus, a return to regular US-led airstrikes, the insurgency in
Afghanistan is spreading and growing stronger. "By killing Taliban
leaders the war will not come to an end," said the Taliban's former
foreign minister, Wakil Ahmad Muttawakil, in an interview at his home in
Kabul. "On the contrary, things get worse which will give birth to more
Former and current Taliban leaders say that they have seen a swelling in
the Taliban ranks since 9-11. In part, they say, this can be attributed
to a widely held perception that the Karzai government is corrupt and
illegitimate and that Afghans--primarily ethnic Pashtuns--want foreign
occupation forces out. "We are only fighting to make foreigners leave
Afghanistan," a new Taliban commander in Kunduz told me during my recent
trip to the country. "We don't want to fight after the withdrawal of
foreigners, but as long as there are foreigners, we won't talk to

"The Americans have very sophisticated technology, but the problem here
in Afghanistan is they are confronting ideology. I think ideology is
stronger than technology," says Abdul Salam Zaeef, a former senior
member of Mullah Mohammed Omar's government. "If I am a Taliban and I'm
killed, I'm martyred, then I'm successful. There are no regrets for the
Taliban. It's very difficult to defeat this kind of idea."

But it is not simply a matter of ideology versus technology. The Taliban
is not one unified body. The Afghan insurgency is fueled by fighters
with a wide variety of motivations. Some are the dedicated jihadists of
which Zaeef speaks, but others are fighting to defend their land or are
seeking revenge for the killing of family members by NATO or Afghan
forces. While al Qaeda has been almost entirely expelled from
Afghanistan, the insurgency still counts a small number of non-Afghans
among its ranks. Bolstering the Taliban's recruitment efforts is the
perception in Afghanistan that the Taliban pays better than NATO or the
Afghan army or police.

The hard reality US officials don't want to discuss is this: the
cultural and religious values of much of the Pashtun population--which
comprises 25-40% of the country--more closely align with those of the
Taliban than they do with Afghan government or US/NATO forces. The
Taliban operate a shadow government in large swaths of the Pashtun areas
of the country, complete with governors and a court system. In rural
areas, land and property disputes are resolved through the Taliban
system rather than the Afghan government, which is widely distrusted.
"The objectives and goal of the American troops in Afghanistan are not
clear to the people and therefore Afghans call the Americans
'invaders,'" says Muttawakil. "Democracy is a very new phenomenon in
Afghanistan and most people don't know the meaning of democracy. And now
corruption, thieves and fakes have defamed democracy. Democracy can't
be imposed because people will never adopt any value by force."

The US strategy of attempting to force the Taliban to surrender or
engage in negotiations rests almost exclusively on attempts to
decapitate the Taliban leadership. While Taliban leaders acknowledge
that commanders are regularly killed, they say the targeted killings are
producing more radical leaders who are far less likely to negotiate
than the older school Taliban leaders who served in the government of
Mullah Mohammed Omar. "If today Mullah Omar was captured or killed, the
fighting will go on," says Zaeef, adding: " It will be worse for
everyone if the [current] Taliban leadership disappears."

In October, there were a flurry of media reports that senior Taliban
leaders were negotiating with the Karzai government and that US forces
were helping to insure safe passage for the Taliban leaders to come to
Kabul. The Taliban passionately refuted those reports, saying they were
propaganda aimed at dividing the insurgency. Last week the Taliban
appeared vindicated on this point as Karzai spoke in markedly modest
terms on the issue. He told the Washington Post that three months ago he
had met with one or two "very high" level Taliban leaders. He
characterized the meeting as "the exchange of desires for peace," saying
the Taliban "feel the same as we do here - that too many people are
suffering for no reason."


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Contrary to the rhetoric emanating from NATO and Washington, the Taliban
are not on the ropes and, from their perspective, would gain nothing
from negotiating with the US or NATO. As far as they are concerned, time
is on their side. "The bottom line for [NATO and the US] is to
immediately implement what they would ultimately have to implement...
after colossal casualties," stated the Taliban declaration after the
recent NATO summit. "They should not postpone withdrawal of their

Depending on who you ask, the fact that Gen. Petraeus has brought back
the use of heavy US airstrikes and is increasing night raids and other
direct actions by Special Operations Forces could be seen as a sign of
either fierce determination to wipe out "the enemy" or of desperation to
prove the US and its allies are "winning." Over the past three months,
NATO claims that Special Operations Forces' night raids have resulted in
more than 360 "insurgent leaders" being killed or captured along with
960 "lower-level" leaders and the capture of more than 2400
"lower-level" fighters. In July, Special Operations Forces averaged 5
raids a night. Now, according to NATO, they are conducting an average of
17. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called the raids
"intelligence-driven precision operations against high value insurgents
and their networks," adding, "There is no question that they are having a
significant  impact on the insurgent leadership."

The raids undoubtedly have produced scores of successful kill or capture
operations, but serious questions abound over the NATO definitions of
Taliban commanders, sub-commanders and foot soldiers. Most
significantly, the raids consistently result in the killing of innocent
civilians, a fact that is problematic for NATO and the Karzai
government. "A lot of times, yeah, the right guys would get targeted and
the right guys would get killed," says Matthew Hoh a former senior
State Department official in Afghanistan who resigned in 2009 in protest
of US war strategy. "Plenty of other times, the wrong people would get
killed. Sometimes it would be innocent families." Hoh, who was the
senior US civilian in Zabul province, a Taliban stronghold, describes
night raids as "a really risky, really violent operation," saying that
when Special Operations Forces conduct them, "We might get that one guy
we're looking for or we might kill a bunch of innocent people and now
make ten more Taliban out of them."

Hoh describes the current use of US Special Operations Forces in
Afghanistan as a "tremendous waste of resources," saying, "They are the
best strike forces the world's ever known. They're very well trained,
very well equipped, have a tremendous amount of support, and we've got
them in Afghanistan chasing after mid-level Taliban leaders who are not
threatening the United States, who are only fighting us really because
we're in their valley."

In an interview with The Washington Post in mid-November, President
Karzai called for an end to the night raids. "I don't like it in any
manner and the Afghan people don't like these raids in any manner,"
Karzai said. "We don't like raids in our homes. This is a problem
between us and I hope this ends as soon as possible. ... Terrorism is
not invading Afghan homes and fighting terrorism is not being intrusive
in the daily Afghan life."

Karzai's comments angered the Obama administration. At the NATO summit,
President Obama acknowledged that civilian deaths have sparked "real
tensions" with the Karzai government, but reserved the right to continue
US raids. "[Karzai's] got to understand that I've got a bunch of young
men and women... who are in a foreign country being shot at and having
to traverse terrain filled with IEDs, and they need to protect
themselves," Obama said. "So if we're setting things up where they're
just sitting ducks for the Taliban, that's not an acceptable answer
either." Republican Senator Lindsey Graham blasted Karzai's statement
calling for an end to night raids, saying, "it would be a disaster for
the Petraeus strategy."

Along with Afghan government corruption, including a cabal of war lords,
drug dealers and war criminals in key positions, the so-called Petraeus
strategy of ratcheting up air strikes and expanding night raids is
itself delivering substantial blows to the stated US counterinsurgency
strategy and the much-discussed battle for hearts and minds. The raids
and airstrikes are premiere recruiting points for the Taliban and,
unlike Sen. Graham and the Obama administration, Karzai seems to get
that. In the bigger picture, the US appears to be trying to kill its way
to a passable definition of a success or even victory. This strategy
puts a premium on the number of kills and captures of anyone who can
loosely be defined as an insurgent and completely sidelines the blowback
these operations cause. "We found ourselves in this Special Operations
form of attrition warfare," says Hoh, "which is kind of like an
oxymoron, because Special Operations are not supposed to be in attrition
warfare. But we've found ourselves in that in Afghanistan."

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