Last month saw a surprising flood of good tidings from Afghanistan. We learned that the US-NATO offensive in Kandahar is succeeding; that drone strikes are breaking al-Qaeda’s back; that the Taliban and al-Qaeda are at daggers drawn; and that the Taliban is ready to negotiate a peaceful settlement of the Afghan war.
What a change since September, when the outlook was so gloomy! So what prompted these changes? Good policy? Military heroism? The Taliban realizing that it was beaten? Or was it something to do with tomorrow’s US mid-term congressional election?
My guess is that last one. After all, if you recall, the same Gen. David Petraeus who now commands in Afghanistan also delivered a similar package of remarkable and unexpected good news about Iraq when he was in charge there—just before the 2008 US presidential election. The ‘surge’ and the ‘Sunni Awakening’ had ‘succeeded,’ claims that were enough to broadly keep the Iraq war off the political agenda during the late stages of the campaign (much to the relief of both Barack Obama and John McCain). Today, it’s clear that much of the so-called success in Iraq is unravelling, with al-Qaeda returning to Baghdad and Anbar Province, and Iraqi society headed toward sectarian civil war.
This time around, Petraeus’s batch of happy news comes at a time when neither party wants to talk about how far the Afghan war is off the tracks. And, looking at the US media, the ploy has worked again.
The first three items of Petraeus’s supposed good-tidings package can be dealt with quickly. The Kandahar offensive is progressing because Petraeus and his predecessor gave the Taliban and other mujahedin eight months advance warning. As a result, insurgent leaders—never eager to stand and fight conventional forces—long ago moved most of their men and materiel to safer venues. Essentially the US-NATO campaign is succeeding because there’s so little opposition, save for the IEDs, mines and booby-traps with which the Taliban has laced the region.
Next, while drone strikes hurt al-Qaeda (no group welcomes casualties) they have no strategic impact on Osama bin Laden or his organization. Leaders are replaced and fighting goes on not only in South Asia, but also in Iraq, Yemen, Somalia and North and West Africa, in each of which al-Qaeda is far more potent than it was on 9/11.