Aug 13, 2009

Hardly winning

"Taliban Now Winning" declared Monday's headline in the Wall Street Journal based on its interview with Gen Stanley McChrystal. But the headline was a classic case of a editor hyping the substance of a story, which the reporters of the story themselves had already applied a little touch of their own gilding to when they characterized General McChrystal's position in their interview to be that the Taliban now had the "upper hand."

In fact, when the WSJ reporters actually came to quote him, General McChrystal said rather more innocuously of the Taliban, "It's a very aggressive enemy right now... We've got to stop their momentum, stop their initiative. It's hard work." McChrystal added that the Taliban were moving beyond their strongholds in southern Afghanistan to threaten formerly stable areas in the north and west. But that's a lot different than saying either that the Taliban is "winning" or has the "upper hand." (Would the pre-Murdoch WSJ have headlined the piece in this hyped-up manner? Just asking.) McChrystal's views about the Taliban were more accurately captured by a USA Today article that appeared on the same day as the WSJ article in which he said "I wouldn't say we are winning or losing or stalemated... What I would say at this particular point is that the insurgency has a certain amount of initiative and momentum that we are working to stop and, in fact, reverse." That doesn't sound much like the Taliban are "winning" or gaining the "upper hand" either. Aside from the obvious implausibility of an American four-star general theater commander in the middle of a war saying that the enemy is "winning" in an on-the-record interview with a major U.S. newspaper -- short of the Taliban appearing en masse at the gates of Kabul -- there is another problem with this concept, which is that the Taliban are not winning or anything close to it. According to BBC/ABC polling (24 pp, pdf) only 7 percent of Afghans have a favorable view of the movement of religious warriors whom many of them had to live under. There is nothing like actually living under Taliban rule to have a healthy skepticism about their promises of a 7th century utopia here on earth. Sure, it may be that the Taliban aren't losing, which for any insurgent group is part of a strategy to win so as to wait out the domestic political clocks in the U.S. and other NATO countries. (A new national poll indicates that support among Americans for the war in Afghanistan has hit a new low: Fifty-four percent say they oppose the war in a CNN poll released last Thursday.) But it's worth recalling that the Taliban are a rather small force of up to perhaps 20,000 fighters that hasn't been able to hold on to towns in the more than seven years they have been fighting, let alone take cities. There will never be a Taliban Tet Offensive or anything remotely close to it. The Taliban are not winning, nor are they enjoying the upper hand. The movement of religious warriors will try to show the black flag of jihad around the August 20th election. My bet is that it will not be much of an impressive effort. Peter Bergen is a senior fellow at the New America Foundation and the author of The Osama bin Laden I Know.