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October 27, 2010

A Tale of Two Wars
Posted by Michael Cohen

A friend was commenting to me this morning that it's become nearly impossible to understand what's happening in Afghanistan today . . . because every news story seems to reflect an agenda-driven leak. 

And right on cue we have these two headlines from the Washington Post . . appearing in the same paper on back-to-back days.

U.S. operations in Kandahar push out Taliban - October 26, 2010

U.S. military campaign to topple resilient Taliban hasn't succeeded - October 27, 2010

How does one understand what's happening in Afghanistan when the same major American newspaper has two articles making diametrically opposite arguments about the status of the war?

Well, here's a helpful hint - try to figure out who is leaking the information. Here's what the more pessimistic story has to say:

An intense military campaign aimed at crippling the Taliban has so far failed to inflict more than fleeting setbacks on 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.

The blunt intelligence assessments are consistent across the main spy agencies responsible for analyzing the conflict, including the CIA and the Defense Intelligence Agency.

Here's the source of the information from the more optimistic story about US military progress:

With 2,000-pound bombs, 12,000 troops, and one illiterate but charismatic Afghan border police commander, the American military has forced insurgents to retreat from key parts of this strategically vital region, according to U.S. and Afghan commanders.

US military commanders on the ground are more optimistic about the situation on the ground than intelligence analysts across the US government. Imagine that! Seriously, who could have seen that one coming?

But if you're still not sure who to trust, consider the other Washington Post article on Afghanistan today:

U.S. and other international development programs in a key Afghan province are "incoherent" and lack mechanisms to avoid wasteful overlap or to monitor their success, according to a new report by government auditors.

This is happening in Nangahar province, which is considered relatively stable (ish), compared to the situation in Kandahar. So one might be able to draw the conclusion that even if the US is making progress in pushing out the Taliban it's going to have a very difficult time maintaining those gains. Ultimately, that should be the corrective to any of these "we're making progress" or "we're killing lots of Taliban" stories - can we hold what we've gained.

So far the evidence on that count is a bit more conclusive. 


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Both the "push out Taliban" and the "campaign to topple resilient Taliban hasn't succeeded " are true. When a ponderous ISAF force telegraphs that it will move into an area, the Taliban leaves, and as the invasion peters out they return. It's simply a common-sense evasive tactic, what the military PR people call a "rout."

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