There’s good reason to question the logic behind the fight against the Taliban, which has the United States playing whack-a-mole—defeating insurgents in one area, only to have them pop up elsewhere. As one lieutenant described a single battle, so too goes the war:
The sole escape for the insurgents was to ford the Helmand River and disappear into Zamindawar, an ungoverned desert extending from the dam to the foothills of a towering mountain range several miles north. “And they did exactly that,” the platoon commander said. “That’s the Wild West up there. We won’t ever go up there.”
Since everyone agrees that ISAF forces cannot be everywhere at once (or stay indefinitely), the only long-term strategy is to build up the Afghan national army and police force. Yet France’s decision to pull out many of its trainers by the end of 2013 shows the practical problems the coalition faces in executing it.Secretary Panetta’s announcement that the United States will play only a supporting role in combat by mid-2013 is an attempt to reconcile the urgency and the difficulty of training the ANA by shifting the incentives. Right now, coalition forces have every incentive to defeat the Taliban. Why? Put bluntly, because officers’ promotions depend on their units’ performance on the battlefield far more than on their progress made in training and integrating the ANA. But forcing hard-charging soldiers and Marines to take a backseat might be the only way to force the ANA to get up front. Necessity is the mother of invention.It’s also double-or-nothing. If the ANA can’t handle the Taliban and ISAF is out the door, there’s no prize for guessing what comes next.