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Turning in Circles in Afghanistan

Defense Secretary Robert Gates told reporters late last week that he thinks we may turn the corner at the end of this year in Afghanistan. Again. Turning the corner, or the tide, or the momentum, or what have you, has become a semi-annual ritual in the failing U.S. war in Afghanistan. While all these turned corners make for great soundbites, the reality is that we're just turning in circles in Afghanistan.

Here's what Gates said:

"We have driven the Taliban out of areas they have controlled for years, including their heartland. They clearly intend to try and take that back. If we can prevent them this year from retaking the areas that we have taken away from them and we can continue to expand the security bubble, I think it's possible that by the end of this year we will have turned a corner, just because of the Taliban being driven out and, more importantly, kept out."

First of all, let's not fail to notice that this is the latest a continual string of promises about "turning a corner." Joshua Foust and Win Without War over the past months have compiled fairly extensive lists of the embarrassment of "turned corners" claimed by U.S. officials. Here's Foust's list, just to give you an idea:

  • February 20, 2010: "Western officials believe that a turning point has been reached in the war against the Taliban, with a series of breakthroughs suggesting that the insurgents are on the back foot for the first time since their resurgence four years ago."
  • August 31, 2009: "Monday marks the end of August, a month with both good and bad news out of Afghanistan -- and the approach of a key turning point."
  • February 6, 2008: "But the ties that bind NATO are fraying badly - and publicly - over just how much each member state wants to commit to turning Afghanistan around. 'It's starting to get to a turning point about what is this alliance about,' says Michael Williams, director of the transatlan- tic program at the Royal United Services Institute in London."
  • July 23, 2007: "Taken together these may reflect a turning point in how the war in Afghanistan is to be waged."
  • September 12, 2006: "The Afghan front is at a critical turning point that imperils many of the hard-fought successes of the early phase of the conflict and the prospects for snaring bin Laden."
  • September 22, 2005: "Abdullah Abdullah, Afghanistan's foreign minister, called the recent parliamentary elections 'a major turning point' on his country's path to democracy."
  • January 27, 2004: "A statement from U.S. ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad called the enactment of the constitution a 'turning point for the Afghan nation.'"
  • February 26, 2003: "The growing aggressiveness by guerrillas is a relief for US forces, who greet the possibility of a real engagement with the Taliban as a possible turning point in the war. 'We want them to attack us, so we can engage them and destroy them,' says one Special Forces soldier from the US firebase at Spin Boldak, who took part in the initial firefight that led to Operation Mongoose.
  • December 2, 2002: "But in 'Bush at War' there's a glaring omission. Woodward misses the turning point in the war in Afghanistan against the Taliban and al Qaeda forces. It's as though the most important scene had been left out of a movie, say, where Clark Kent turns into Superman."

It's almost a yearly tradition for some ebullient U.S. official to come to some microphone and claim we're ready to hang a left or a right onto the road to glorious victory. It's silly, and it insults our intelligence.

Gates' comments imply a growing level of security in Afghanistan. That is a patent falsehood.

  • Insurgent attacks are at an all-time high in Afghanistan. March 2011 saw 68 percent more insurgent-initiated attacks than March 2010.
  • In fact, every March since at least 2006 has been more violent than the last. The same is true for every February, and it looks like attacks are on track to make that true for every April as well, according to the Afghanistan NGO Safety Office's (ANSO) figures.
  • Looking at the entire first quarter of the year, insurgent attacks have skyrocketed by a horrendous 51 percent compared to the prior year. ANSO reports that in the first quarter of this year, insurgent attacks averaged "35 per day, surpassing even the August 2009 summer peak during Presidenial elections."
  • The number of insurgent-initiated attacks in the first quarter of 2011 was more than twice the level of insurgent-initiated attacks in the first quarter of 2009, when President Obama took office and started launching his repeated escalations of the military campaign. That strategy has obviously failed.

Insurgent-Initiated Attacks in Afghanistan through Q1 2011

Rolling into places like Marjah with lots of troops and TV cameras hasn't done a thing to increase security nation-wide for Afghans or blunt the growth in insurgent-initiated attacks. We're not "turning a corner." We're turning in circles. It's time to make a U-turn and get those troops home.

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