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Measuring Quick Sand

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In the Autumn of 2006, in the western part of Iraq's Anbar Province, US Marine and Army units were taking dozens of attacks a day. Leaving one of the many bases we occupied in the Euphrates River Valley seemingly guaranteed a firefight, attack by a sniper or, more likely, a strike from an IED. Cooperation and coordination with local Anbaris, was, to put euphemistically, difficult. When we came on the streets, the people left the streets. Tom Ricks' prize winning account of our war in Iraq, Fiasco, could not have had a better title to account for what we were enduring.

However, visible and evident change in the conflict occurred because of the Anbar Awakening and the transformation of "Anti-Iraqi Forces" into "Sons of Iraq". Those Iraqis that had formed the core of the insurgency in Anbar changed sides. The Anbaris that had been putting bombs in the sides of roads and providing safe shelter for snipers turned on the bomb makers and shooters. Politically, the tribal leaders of Anbar abandoned their previous hospitality towards al-Qaeda and other extremist groups, and reversed their previous rejection of cooperation with the Shia dominated government in Baghdad. For those present, what was most important was that attacks against us, against US Marine and Army units that were operating in the hell that was Anbar Province, were, by early Spring 2007, down to merely a handful. The presence of this change was meaningful and concrete. It was not limited to just certain locations, its rapidity was spooky and the very dramatic drop in our casualties was real proof of its existence.

The change in the Iraq War that began in Anbar in late 2006 was sincere and lasting. In April 2007, one of my replacements lamented his deployment into "a boring area", while by September, General David Petraeus, backed by clearly understandable data and evidence, was testifying to Congress that progress in Iraq, again, best underscored by a very real drop in violence and casualties, was well underway.

Now, similar claims of progress in Afghanistan are being pronounced and accepted despite an absence of evidence to demonstrate such progress. Statements from officials, military or civilian, are swallowed without question and even stalwart critics of the war in Afghanistan caveat their assessments and recommendations with assertions of military progress.

But progress, militarily and on a strategic level, is just not there.

If General Petraeus were to testify today and to use the same forms of data he used in 2007 it would show this past May to have been the deadliest May ever for US and NATO troops; with April and March achieving the same dubious titles. He would note wounded totals on pace for 600 a month, while IED attacks occur over 50 times a day. The General would show that from January-March 2010, the insurgency launched roughly 1800 attacks in Afghanistan, while from January-Mach 2011 they were able to launch nearly 2700. General Petraeus would highlight that attrition in the Afghan Security Forces is so bad that we must recruit three Afghans to fill each space and would acknowledge that currently eight in ten Afghan men believe our operations are bad for their country. All this following 2010, which was the deadliest year of the war for all sides.

Against this, and nearly all other data and evidence, it is clear that the insurgency's momentum and tempo of operations has not been adversely affected by our surge in Afghanistan. Against a great input of American troops and money over the last two years, and by any measurable standard, the insurgency has only gained in its effectiveness and strength, which translates into an increased reluctance to negotiate.

In 2009, the United States had the opportunity to disengage itself from an internal Afghan conflict and to transition its role from one of belligerent to one of mediator. Rather than de-escalate the conflict in an attempt to stabilize Afghanistan and the broader region, we chose to escalate the conflict. We now must accept we have gone from being waist deep to chest deep in someone else's quicksand.

We expect our service members in Afghanistan to do the hard, brutal and savage fighting our policies ask of them without question. They do. Their expectation of those of us in Washington, those of us in air conditioned offices, wearing ties and high heels, who wake each day safe with our families, is that we ask hard questions, examine the reality of the conflict and not accept assertions of success without fact. As we reach an opportunity in July to transition our role in Afghanistan, we must recognize our current policies have proven counter-productive and shift to a policy of de-escalation and negotiation.

Similar to Henry Kissinger's recommendation yesterday, the Afghanistan Study Group recommends ceasefires, large troop reductions (30,000 this year, 40,000 in 2012), reformation of the Afghan government, and political negotiations within Afghanistan and amongst its neighbors to stabilize Afghanistan and the region, and to begin to get the United States out of Afghanistan's quicksand.

You can help by calling your Senators' offices and tell them to sign onto the bi-partisan Merkley-Lee-Udall letter urging President Obama to begin significant and substantial troop reductions from Afghanistan next month. You can also sign this petition.