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Losing the War in Afghanistan

The Washington Post front-pager, a week before national elections, is staggering:

An intense military campaign aimed at crippling the Taliban so far has failed to inflict more than fleeting setbacks to the insurgency or put meaningful pressure on its leaders to seek peace, according to U.S. military and intelligence officials citing the latest assessments of the war in Afghanistan.

Escalated airstrikes and special operations raids have disrupted Taliban movements and damaged local cells. But officials said that insurgents have been adept at absorbing the blows and that they appear confident that they can outlast an American troop buildup set to subside beginning next July.

“The insurgency seems to be maintaining its resilience,” said a senior Defense Department official involved in assessments of the war. Taliban elements have consistently shown an ability to “reestablish and rejuvenate,” often within days of being routed by U.S. forces, the official said, adding that if there is a sign that momentum has shifted, “I don’t see it.”

The idea that you could bomb your way to victory over a home-grown insurgent movement was always destined for failure. The Taliban has an internal network and plenty of reinforcements available to withstand this pressure. The WaPo frames it as a confirmation of George W. Bush’s old “they’ll wait us out” theory, which is why I think Petraeus-friendly sources leaked this, to make the argument that the timeline, not the escalation, is the problem. But if the timeline for withdrawal were two decades from now, the outcome would be the same. Insurgents melt away from the fight, and replace losses in a matter of days. They have the capacity to do this virtually indefinitely.

As for whether you can bomb a group to the negotiating table, the talks have been revealed as an elaborate psy-op, which WaPo doesn’t acknowledge. But there’s a plausible reason for some Taliban commanders to negotiate even as they advance on the battlefield. Robert Naiman has some good thoughts about this:

Note that if we believed this assertion about human nature, it would be a grim forecast for the prospect of negotiations to end conflicts, since, assuming that everyone is operating from more or less the same set of information, and therefore that it would be unlikely that two parties to a conflict would simultaneously become convinced that they are losing, the only conflicts that could be ended through negotiation would be ones in which the winning chances of both parties were 50-50 and both sides agreed that this was so.

But this assertion is easily falsified with examples from history. Japan negotiated the end of the Russo-Japanese war, even though it thought it was winning; the African National Congress negotiated the end of apartheid, even though it thought it was winning; North Vietnam negotiated the Paris Peace Accords, even though it thought it was winning.

Individual insurgent sects, which are in partnership but also in competition with others, could negotiate to get the upper hand locally over their rivals, in addition.

And while I’m not convinced any of this is going on, the US should move to facilitating this as quick as possible. Because what we’re trying simply isn’t working. Nor is it necessary for our national security interests. It’s just another protracted, needless war burning up lives and treasure.

See also Steve Clemons discussing Hamid Karzai’s bags of money from Iran.

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David Dayen

David Dayen

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