The White House review of the war in Afghanistan is cautiously optimistic about the situation in that fractured, friendless country. Among other things, the report declares, “al Qaeda’s senior leadership in Pakistan is weaker and under more sustained pressure than at any other point since it fled Afghanistan in 2001… the momentum achieved by the Taliban in recent years has been arrested in much of the country and reversed in some key areas…the surge in coalition military and civilian resources, along with an expanded special operations forces targeting campaign and expanded local security measures at the village level, has reduced overall Taliban influence.” Moreover, there has been “significant progress in disrupting and dismantling the Pakistan-based leadership and cadre of al Qaeda over the past year.” Even so, the report warns, “these gains remain fragile and reversible.”
What could reverse the hard-earned, fragile gains of 2010 in 2011?
The U.S. military and its coalition partners have just endured the bloodiest, deadliest year of the war. As of this writing, 491 Americans have been killed, and 208 allied troops have been killed—up from last year’s totals of 317 and 294, respectively, which was way up from 2008’s totals of 155 and 140. This is starting to have an impact on allied populations. Support for the war is at a record low, according to a recent ABC News/Washington Post poll, with 60 percent of Americans saying the war has not been “worth fighting.” Seventy percent of Brits say the war is unwinnable; 62 percent of Germans want to withdraw their forces.
That leads us to the danger of sending mixed signals to the Taliban and al Qaeda. Because of the costs of war and lack of overall progress, NATO’s commitment to, and footprint in, Afghanistan is starting to shrink. Although all of NATO’s 28 members technically have troops in Afghanistan, several are token contingents—some in the single digits—that serve no military purpose at all. Worse, the Dutch are withdrawing their contingent. Italy plans to begin pulling out its forces next summer. France wants to speed up the handover of its area of responsibility. And Canada will withdraw its combat forces by mid-2011. Although Canada will leave 950 military trainers in Afghanistan, the training mission “will occur in classrooms,” according to Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
Even Washington has sent mixed signals. It pays to recall that when Gen. Stanley McChrystal asked for the resources necessary to win what President Barack Obama has called “a war of necessity,” the president balked. Then, after a lengthy re-review of his own policy, the president concluded that “it is in our vital national interest to send an additional 30,000 U.S. troops to Afghanistan,” before promising that “after 18 months, our troops will begin to come home.”
Of course, vital national interests don’t have expiration dates, and letting the Taliban know when the U.S. military will end its offensive won’t make victory any easier to achieve. Hence, the president has backed away from the withdrawal promise. However, the Taliban hasn’t forgotten about it and no doubt sense that America’s commitment is waning.
Global Reaction to the Drone War
The surge of forces, including additional Special Ops personnel, has been an important part of the recent gains inside Afghanistan, as has Gen. David Petraeus’ insistence on an unfettered air campaign. But what’s arguably having the greatest impact on degrading the leadership of al Qaeda and the Taliban is the so-called “drone war” in Pakistan. And it’s starting to draw criticism from the usual suspects.
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