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General Petraeus, Proconsul of Fantasyland

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The gap between General Petraeus' rhetoric and the reality on the ground in Afghanistan grows every day.

Yesterday, the Afghan NGO Safety Office (ANSO) released its quarterly report (.pdf) on the security situation in Afghanistan, which described the continued growth of the Afghan armed resistance and a deterioration of security in areas where ISAF made major military pushes. Yet, today, General Petraeus crowed in London about "progress" made in Afghanistan. Americans are wise to the game and don't buy this sort of clap-trap anymore: most Americans believe the war in Afghanistan is a "situation like Vietnam (.pdf)." Yet Petraeus spins on, damaging his own credibility and fooling no one.

The ANSO report paints a grim picture of the reality on the ground in Afghanistan:

The [Taliban] counter-offensive is increasingly mature, complex & effective. Country wide attacks have grown by 59% (p.10) while sophisticated recruitment techniques have helped activate networks of fighters in the North where European NATO contributors have failed to provide an adequate deterrent (p.11). Some provinces here are experiencing double the country average growth rate (p.12) and their districts are in danger of slipping beyond any control. Clumsy attempts to stem the developments, through the formation of local militia's and intelligence-poor operations, have served to polarize communities with the IEA capitalizing on the local grievances that result. In the South, despite more robust efforts from the US NATO contingents, counterinsurgency operations in Kandahar and Marjah have similarly failed to degrade the IEA's ability to fight, reduce the number of civilian combat fatalities (p.13) or deliver boxed Government.

By contrast the [Taliban] are showing signs of transition to their own 'hold & build' phase. Already operating advanced administrations in the rural South & East, local 'shadow governance' structures in the North are being buttressed by cadres of loyalists to reinforce the ideological and political cohesion of the movement. Field reports suggest that these efforts are drawing in more conservative recruits from the Uzbek, Turkmen and Tajik communities affording highly valuable opportunities for expansion. Internal factionalism is being addressed with junior opposition partners (domestic and foreign) being slowly subordinated to their command structure, sometimes violently. At the strategic level, leaders are outlining tentative foreign policy, reassuring neighbors of cooperation on narcotics, the environ- ment and commerce, while alluding to 'the upcoming system of the country'. The sum of their activity presents the image of a movement anticipating authority and one which has already obtained a complex momentum that NATO will be incapable of reversing.

...This year has seen nine consecutive months of deterioration, with each month since May breaking a new record, and high levels of attacks extending well in to the traditional downturn season (Aug-Dec).

In other words, the counterinsurgency campaign is failing all over the dang place. ANSO very helpfully updated their chart showing the number of armed-opposition-group-initiated attacks over time, and the picture is worth a thousand words:

ANSO AOG Initiated Attacks, Q3 2010

...The data rises above day-to-day tactical assessments and presents a remarkably consistent five year pattern of intra-annual cycles, summer peaks and winter troughs driven by climatic conditions on the ground, paired with a very steady 45-55% growth in total attacks between years.

Each new year retains approximately 80% of the previous years growth suggesting that once ground, or capability to attack through manpower, technology or technique, is gained it is seldom relinquished. The pattern suggests careful and deliberate building on last years gains, expanding, consolidating and expanding again.

Lest you think the ANSO data is an outlier, remember that military assessments in both December 2009 and late March 2010 both said that the insurgency's organizational capabilities are qualitatively and geographically expanding.

Now, in this context, with a clear and easily available body of data that includes U.S. military reports, no U.S. media outlet should be uncritically passing along any quote from any military official claiming "progress" in Afghanistan. The American adventure in Afghanistan is a 9-year-plus unequivocal failure with the indicating statistics showing a remarkable consistency.

Yet on Friday, October 15, General Petraeus laughably attempted to paint "a picture of Afghanistan in which the Taliban's ability to mount attacks is being reduced..." The ABC News coverage of Petraeus' remarks came under the headline, "General Petraeus Upbeat, Cites Signs of Progress in Afghanistan." The subsequent story is little more than stenography, reporting Petraeus' narrative without including information that would challenge the general's false depiction of the situation on the ground. The story even claims--without substantiation--that the insurgency has been "knocked back." That's laughable, and easily disproved. See above.

Petraeus went on to describe plans to "link the growing Kandahar security bubble with the one in central Helmand." That begs the question: what planet is Petraeus living on?

Marjah is a basketcase--an example of the failure of the McChrystal/Petraeus strategy. Here's a brief description, courtesy of the Associated Press:

Eight months on, the Taliban are still here in force, waging a full-blown guerrilla insurgency that rages daily across a bomb-riddled landscape of agricultural fields and irrigation trenches.

As U.S. involvement in the war enters its 10th year, the failure to pacify this town raises questions about the effectiveness of America's overall strategy. Similarly crucial operations are now under way in neighboring Kandahar province, the Taliban's birthplace.

There are signs the situation in Marjah is beginning to improve, but "it's still a very tough fight," said Capt. Chuck Anklam, whose Marine company has lost three men since arriving in July. "We're in firefights all over, every day."

Also from the ANSO report:

"Data from Marjah, Helmand (below) paints a similar picture with high rates of attacks persisting 30 weeks after OP MOSHTARAK and an average of two residents per week being killed by AOG in acts of intimidation or collaterally in IED strikes. The closed nature of Marjah makes reliable reporting difficult but anecdotal reports suggest the fighting is much more intense than ANSO records show with possibly as many as 70-100 kinetic events per week. Both operational areas shows signs of the 'dynamic occupation' process typical of the region with AOG melting away ahead of IMF operations only to reappear intact in their wake."

Kandahar is similarly a wreck. Security for the civilian population has rapidly deteriorated since the launch of the ISAF military push there, resulting in a doubling of the war-related injury rate for civilians, according to the International Committee of the Red Cross. ANSO's data confirms the dire security situation:

"The daily attack rate [in Kandahar] has grown from 0.1 in Week one to 2.8 per day by Week 35 suggesting that the ele- ments of OP HAMKARI un- dertaken so far are not de- grading the AOG ability to conduct attacks. Field reports suggest that the Taliban retain up to 4,000 fighters inside the city and continue a wide- spread campaign of intimidation, targeted assassination and the widespread deployment of IEDs against Police and Military targets."

If those are security bubbles, the only thing Petraeus is going to succeed in linking is a discreet arc of deteriorating safety for civilians and rising insurgent attacks. Petraeus's slippery aspirational language can't hide the fact that he and his strategy are failing to produce promised results.

There are no "security bubbles" to link.

These aren't signs of progress.

These are signs of failure.

With roughly 60 percent of the American people opposed to the war in Afghanistan, it's clear that Petraeus is no longer fooling anyone. We know failure when we see it, and we see it in the counterinsurgency strategy pushed by Petraeus, McChrystal, and their think-tank allies.

Where Petraeus is succeeding, however, is in demonstrating conclusively just how disconnected the generals are from reality. But as long as President Obama suspends his disbelief and allows their warped version of reality to drive U.S. policy in Afghanistan, we'll continue to waste lives and resources on a failed policy that corrodes the national interests of the United States. The president once declared he was against, "dumb war." It's past time he acted like it and acted aggressively to rein in the Proconsul of Fantasyland.

The Afghanistan War isn't making us safer, and it's not worth the cost. If you're tired of this brutal, futile conflict, join us at http://facebook.com/RethinkAfghanistan.