During Tuesday night’s State of the Union address, President Obama largely glossed over the ongoing war in Afghanistan, where nearly 100,000 American soldiers are fighting to prevent the reemergence of a terrorist safe haven in the region.
He did, however, deliver a misleading statement on the subject in declaring that “the Taliban’s momentum has been broken, and some troops in Afghanistan have begun to come home.” The President’s inaccurate statement was duly noted by the Associated Press’s SOTU fact check, which highlighted findings of the latest National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Afghanistan. The classified NIE, representing the consensus view of the U.S. intelligence community, reportedly declares the war a “stalemate” for the time being but also warns that as the U.S. precipitously withdraws, the Taliban will grow stronger, bolder, and more threatening.
The NIE notes that although the international security forces have succeeded in slowing the Taliban’s momentum and ousting them from certain population centers, the Afghan government’s low credibility, pervasive corruption, and weak authority have created a fundamental distrust between Kabul and Afghans in Taliban-heavy areas, undermining U.S. gains. In addition, the NIE warns that with its safe havens in neighboring Pakistan, the Taliban will continue to rule the countryside.
Most alarming in the report is that the U.S. intelligence community believes the Taliban are manipulating nascent negotiations with the U.S. to gain international legitimacy and simply stall for time as America draws down its forces. In other words, the Taliban have no real desire to broker a peace deal, but rather are biding their time, just as Heritage’s Lisa Curtis warned. This is especially troubling amid reports that the U.S. government will release senior-level Taliban officials from Guantanamo Bay in return for the Taliban’s opening a political office in Qatar, a move Curtis dubs “premature and dangerously naïve.”
Finally, Afghanistan is no safer now than it was a year ago. Human Rights Watch declared 2011 “the most violent year ever” in the war. According to NATO, although overall attacks in Afghanistan declined by 9 percent in 2011, the number of attacks in the south and east rose by 19 percent and 6 percent, respectively—significant as the primary International Security Assistance Force thrust against the Taliban is located in these regions. Troop casualties are down slightly from 2010 levels but are still higher than 2009, and January of 2012 has proved just as bloody as January of 2011, despite the typical lull in winter fighting. Civilian casualties through September of 2011 were 7 percent higher than the same period in 2010, with targeted killings of governors, police chiefs, and pro-Western tribal elders on the rise, according to a United Nations report.
The point is that despite Obama’s remarks to the contrary, the Taliban’s momentum simply has not been broken. Indeed, the NIE, spearheaded by current CIA Director and former commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan David Petraeus, warns that the picture will turn even bleaker as the U.S., bereft of any real strategy, diverts its attention away from Afghanistan, much like it did in the late 1980s.
President Obama can try to score political points and drum up support for a premature troop withdrawal, but the facts on the ground will speak for themselves. Instead of misleading the American public with a catchy one-liner about “winding down the war,” he should have been more honest about the situation in Afghanistan and what’s at stake there for U.S. national security.