Why NATO Commanders Are Suddenly Giddy

NATO generals are boasting about recent successes against the Taliban. But the war is more than just killing the enemy.

Despite an uptick in ambushes and attacks by Taliban insurgents last month, American military officials are reporting that the war effort may finally be moving in the right direction. All of the additional troops pledged last December are now in place, the deadly Haqqani network is losing fighters every single day, and Taliban representatives are exploring negotiation with Hamid Karzai’s government. The military cites the killing of 3,000 insurgent fighters in Afghanistan over the past few months. American civilian officials are boasting about the implementation of new reconstruction projects and the building of new schools. And NATO training teams are increasingly confident that the Afghan Army is growing in both manpower and capability.

Not to sound skeptical, but the celebratory statements coming out of NATO headquarters are still a bit premature. As US Ambassador to Afghanistan Karl Eikenberry states, “there are areas with significant instability.” Insurgents continue to cross the Afghan-Pakistani border with virtual impunity, which is making the lives of coalition forces in eastern Afghanistan more difficult. Taliban commanders are being killed and captured at a record rate, but the lack of troops in the north and northeast of the country provide other Taliban factions with an opportunity to expand in areas that were quiet before.

But perhaps the greatest setback to NATO’s positivity is the lack of trust between coalition forces and the Karzai government. Afghan military units see little cause for celebration, particularly when Pakistan is still the big elephant in the room that remains unaddressed. Indeed, insurgents are still relatively secure in Pakistan’s tribal agencies. The lull in offensive operations by the Pakistani military (or at least well publicized operations) provides the Quetta Shura and the Haqqani network the time they need to regenerate their ranks after some are lost. With all of these loopholes still present, rounding up insurgents inside Afghanistan should be seen more as a tactical success instead of a turning point.

Embedded deep within the rhetoric is another point worth considering. Both the United States and NATO are consistently disclosing how many insurgents have been killed, as if killing the enemy is evidence that the Taliban are losing popular support in the war. Yet the conflict in Afghanistan is anything but a war in the conventional sense. Killing the adversary is meaningless if the instigators of insurgency are still left to fester — corruption, a sense of helplessness, economic disparity, etc. If this were World War II style combat, then bragging about succeeding on the battlefield would be appropriate. But the fighting in Afghanistan is much more dynamic than simply putting a bullet in between the Taliban’s eyes. The insurgency has no official army, no uniforms, no conventional weaponry, and doesn’t follow the laws governing international conflict. What is more, it will probably not surrender after a final battle.

In this context, the kill/capture ratio is but a sideshow to the operations that will really “win” this war — regular employment, a more or less clean government in the capital, an indigenous security service that is professional, and a power-sharing agreement that will represent all of Afghanistan’s ethnic communities. These are the metrics that the United States and NATO should be talking about.