Afghanistan Feels the Squeeze

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General David Petraeus (center) at Forward Base Wilson in Afghanistan in October 2010. Chris Hondros / Getty Images

If Gen. David Petraeus gets his wish, this will be the year of the snake. America’s top officer in Afghanistan recently explained his war plan as the “anaconda strategy,” designed to “squeeze the life” out of the Taliban insurgency. And according to the Pentagon, it’s working already. In Helmand and the Taliban’s home province, Kandahar, the military says, the insurgents’ momentum has been slowed or even reversed by thousands of U.S. reinforcements using get-tough tactics. In fact, another year or two of such victories might conceivably reduce the insurgency in the south to a worrisome but tolerable nuisance.

The trouble is, no one is sure how much longer U.S. troops can keep constricting. At some point President Hamid Karzai’s security forces and civilian administrators will have to take over—and so far they scarcely seem up to the job. The Taliban, who have always insisted they will win by outlasting the Americans, say Afghan civilians are getting the message. “Common people are increasingly supportive,” says Mullah Ahmed Khan, the leader of a small unit in Helmand. “They think the Taliban will come back.” In fact, he and his men haven’t even left their home area; they’re just lying low.

The insurgents seem more than confident that they can take the heat for at least the next two or three years. “If the Americans failed to win this war in 10 years, they can’t do it in the next four or five,” says Khan’s senior commander, a member of the Taliban’s ruling council, the Quetta Shura, safely headquartered in a part of Pakistan where Predator drones are not allowed to fly. The shura’s members and other senior insurgent leaders continue to direct, recruit, and supply their fighters from sanctuaries inside Pakistan despite Washington’s persistent complaints to its supposed allies in the Pakistani government. Pakistan’s military brass (and plenty of Pakistani civilians) still regard the Afghan insurgents as allies against their worst fear: the prospect of Pakistan’s archfoe, India, coming to dominate the Afghan government. As America’s own intelligence agencies have argued, until those safe havens are shut down, the Taliban will always have somewhere to slip out of Petraeus’s coils.

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