As spring looms, Afghanistan braces for another season of heavy fighting. With a July deadline fast approaching for the first withdrawal of American troops, the commander of ISAF and American forces in the country warned that violence may spike considerably in the months ahead.
Last year was the deadliest of the nearly decade-old war for coalition forces, with more than seven hundred killed, including nearly five hundred Americans. In an interview with the Associated Press, General David Petraeus said that he expected this year to be “as violent or perhaps even more violent” than 2010.
“They will come back in force,” the general said about the Taliban. “There is some concern that there will be sensational attacks that could be indiscriminate in nature.”
Petraeus told the Associated Press that the surge of 30,000 troops in late 2009 had led to significant gains in a relatively short amount of time, particularly in limiting the insurgents’ freedom of movement in the south of the country. The Taliban has been most active in the Pashtun dominated Helmand and Kandahar Provinces.
Under General Petraeus’ leadership, American combat operations in Afghanistan have mounted in number and intensity. Night raids increased spectacularly during the second half of last year. As ISAF operations became more widespread and more visible however, civilian casualties remained high and the Afghan government’s patience with collateral damage ran thin.
President Hamid Karzai has openly entertained the notion of negotiating with the Taliban and recently refused to accept apologies for the accidental bombing of Afghan civilians.
Petraeus said that he continued to work to bring down fatalities. There was a 26 percent drop in civilian deaths caused by coalition fire last year despite an increase in fighting, a United Nations study reported this week. Insurgents were responsible for more than 2,000 deaths in 2010; a 28 percent increase from 2009 while coalition forces were said to have killed 440 people.
In its most recent assessment of the war, the United States government admitted that progress in Afghanistan remained “fragile and reversible.” General Petraeus reiterated that sentiment on Wednesday.
Whereas the military and political leadership is cautiously optimistic, The New York Times reports that among the army rank and file, there has been little triumphalism about the counterinsurgency strategy.
The United States military has the manpower and, thus far, the money to occupy the ground that its commanders order it to hold. But common questions in the field include these: Now what? How does the Pentagon translate presence into lasting success?
At $100 billion a year, the Afghan war effort is costly and increasingly unpopular at home.
As coalition forces repel the Taliban from key areas to be turned over to Afghan security control, insurgents remain deeply rooted while Afghan military and police are often ineffective and corrupt. The Taliban have safe havens across a porous frontier with Pakistan moreover, allowing them to withdraw and regroup in the border region when coalition forces are on the offensive.
The current strategy hinges on the ability to transfer security and government responsibilities to an Afghan administration that is fraught with nepotism and lacking authority outside the capital of Kabul. Petraeus acknowledged this as a challenge this week but said it was not insurmountable.
A transition is planned to commence within four months and the first American troops are expected home after the summer. There are more than 100,000 American forces in Afghanistan along with some 40,000 NATO troops.
The alliance has agreed that by 2014, Afghan forces should have main security responsibility with most foreign troops out of the country.