As he appears in Washington, nearly two-thirds of Americans no longer believe that the Afghanistan war “has been worth fighting,” according to a new Washington Post/ABC News poll. Moreover, there are distinct differences emerging between US commanders’ appraisal of US progress on the ground and that of US intelligence officials.
Some are particularly striking. Petraeus, the commander of US forces in Afghanistan, tends to point to “uneven progress” that remains “fragile and reversible," a description he used frequently for Iraq as well. In testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee Tuesday, he said there had been “significant” progress on the ground in Afghanistan.
“The momentum achieved by the Taliban in Afghanistan since 2005 has been arrested in much of the country and reversed in a number of important areas,” he added. He is expected to repeat these assurances before the House Armed Services Committee Wednesday.
Difference of opinion
Yet this view stands in contrast to the assessment that Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and Lt. Gen. Ronald Burgess, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, provided in their Senate testimony last week. Burgess, for his part, noted that while the Taliban is under more pressure than ever before, the insurgent group is resilient and tenacious, and that its influence remains pervasive throughout much of the country.
Although the Taliban have taken “tactical losses, they continue to maintain influence over much of the local population, particularly outside urban areas,” he told the committee.
While US troops have had some tactical victories in the east and removed “several key leaders from the battlefield … this does not appear to have affected their operational capacity, which included conducting several high-profile attacks against [NATO] bases in 2010,” Burgess stressed.
Sen. John McCain, the Senate Armed Service Committee’s top Republican, pointed out these contrasts in testimony Tuesday. Petraeus responded: “With respect, I have tried to avoid what might be labeled optimism or pessimism,” he said, “and have tried to provide realism.”
Petraeus not alone
He is not the only military commander on the ground whose assessments have differed from those of US intelligence officials. In a Pentagon briefing earlier this month, Maj. Gen. Richard Mills, commanding general of US troops in southwest Afghanistan, told reporters that the Taliban is “short money – there’s no question about that – both from his lack of drugs to sell and from his other fund-raisers that have … been unsuccessful.”
Mills added that “a number of programs that the government of Afghanistan [has] instituted I believe has had a dramatic impact on the amount of poppy.”
Burgess, however, had another take on Taliban finances. He attributed the drop in poppy yield to a disease in the south, and he suggested that farmers made up the difference by charging more for poppy to make up for the decline in opium yields. While the Taliban have experienced some financial constraints, he added, “They have remained able to sufficiently fund fighters through various funding streams.”
Mills's testimony also contrasted with that of National Intelligence Director Clapper on the subject of so-called "alternative livelihood" programs that help farmers switch from poppy to legal crops.
Mills said the Afghan government “has a very effective crop-introduction program in lieu of poppy … that has proven to be very, very popular.”
Clapper differed. “Alternative livelihood programs designed to encourage Afghan farmers to end poppy cultivation will not significantly discourage farmers from planting poppy in 2011,” he told the Senate committee, “primarily because a lack of security impedes their implementation on a large scale.”
It is this security that remains paramount – and elusive – for US troops. On this point US military and intelligence officials are in agreement. Petraeus told the committee that “much difficult work lies ahead” for US troops.
Burgess agreed in an even more blunt assessment. “Afghanistan,” he warned, “will experience record levels of violence through 2011.”