US officers see unexpected slip in Taliban violence

Published 9:48 am Monday, July 18, 2016

ABOARD A U.S. MILITARY AIRCRAFT — After inflicting heavy losses on weakened Afghan security forces a year ago, the Taliban under new leadership have been surprisingly slow to ramp up attacks at the midpoint of the traditional fighting season, senior American military officers said Sunday.

In an Associated Press interview, Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said he is cautiously encouraged by a relative slackening of the Taliban’s aggressive tactics.

Citing “a lower level of violence from the Taliban than we have seen in the past,” Dunford was quick to say that while he believes Afghan forces have seized battlefield momentum, there are no assurances that the balance won’t shift again.

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“We’ve seen peaks and valleys with the Taliban before, but certainly on the ground right now the Afghan forces have the momentum,” he said, speaking aboard an Air Force C-17 transport plane en route from Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan to Stuttgart, Germany. Dunford spent three days in Afghanistan speaking with U.S. and Afghan commanders, troops and officials. On Sunday he met with President Ashraf Ghani and other senior members of Ghani’s government in Kabul.

Dunford commanded all U.S. and coalition forces in Afghanistan from February 2013 to August 2014.

In separate interviews in Afghanistan over the weekend, other senior U.S. officers highlighted an unexpected easing of Taliban military pressure in the days since Ramadan, the period of traditional Muslim fasting, ended in early July. One called it a “tactical pause,” another said it points to a weakening of the Taliban, but none claimed it means an early end to the long war.

Private analysts interviewed Sunday expressed skepticism about the war’s progress.

Anthony Cordesman, an Afghanistan expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said there are many forces at work against the country in addition to a resilient Taliban, even if the militants may have become more fragmented.

“Poverty is rising, governance is extremely weak and virtually absent in many districts,” Cordesman said in an email exchange. “Power brokers and ex-warlords are stronger. No progress has been made in fighting corruption in one of the most corrupt countries in the world. Narcotics is becoming more important in the economy, and there is a major brain drain.”

He said President Barack Obama’s recent decision to commit U.S. troops longer and more directly “really does matter” on the military front. “But, Afghanistan desperately needs unified and more effective leadership and governance, more economic aid and reform, and less corruption or all the weakening of the Taliban can do is to make this an endless war of attrition.”