White House is fighting two battles in Afghanistan: one against the Taliban, and one against the public perception at home that the U.S. is losing.
The U.S. military is bolstering the defenses around Kabul in response to a string of high-profile attacks inside the Afghan capital, but the moves may come too late to prevent a further deterioration in public support for the Obama administration's handling of the unpopular war.
The White House is in effect fighting two separate battles inside Afghanistan: one against the Taliban and its allies, which have mounted an array of bloody attacks recently inside Kabul, and one against the public perception at home that the U.S. is losing in Afghanistan and that the war is no longer worth the human and financial costs.
The challenge for the administration is that it can register gains on the battlefield but reap little if any political reward here at home. The Pentagon-backed by an array of independent military analysts-argues that the current U.S. war plan in Afghanistan is beginning to show clear signs of progress, with violence down in many parts of the country and American and Afghan forces now in control of several regions which had until recently been held by the Taliban.
But that modest good news is being drowned out inside the U.S. by the Taliban's continued ability to mount high-profile attacks against American and Western targets across Kabul.
On Saturday, for instance, a suicide bomber rammed a heavily armored bus in downtown Kabul, killing 12 Americans in the highest one-day U.S. loss of life in months. The attack was the latest in a string of militant strikes inside well-secured Kabul in recent weeks, including an hours-long assault on the heavily-fortified U.S. embassy, raids against a Western cultural center and well-known hotel, and the assassination of the country's top peace negotiator and former president.
Many U.S. officials and outside analysts believe the strikes are important less for pure military significance and more for insurgents' success in eroding public and political support for the war in Washington and other Western capitals.
In mid-October, for instance, a CNN/ORC International poll found that U.S. support for the war had dropped to an all-time low with 58 percent of Americans arguing that Afghanistan was turning into another Vietnam. The poll found just 34 percent of the public said they support the Afghan war, while 57 percent said it was a mistake to send U.S. troops into the country after the Sept. 11 terror attacks.
"They're attacking the confidence of the Afghans, the confidence of the Western publics, and the confidence of Western governments and parliaments about the prospect of victory in Afghanistan," said Dave Barno, a retired three-star general who served as the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan and now works as a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security. "They're very cleverly targeting their attacks to achieve political ends. They're trying to control the narrative."
The apparent success of that insurgent strategy poses a major political problem for the Obama White House, which made Afghanistan its top foreign-policy priority and expended an enormous amount of political capital on its decision to surge 30,000 reinforcements into the country in early 2010, a decision sharply opposed by most Democrats in both the House and Senate, as well as by broad swaths of the Democratic base. Heading into an election already shadowed by the moribund economy, that decision-and its uncertain military gains-could further depress Democratic turnout and harm Obama's standing among war-weary independents.
For now, the White House remains committed to its current strategy for the war, which it believes is beginning to pay off. White House spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden said the administration hadn't made any changes to its withdrawal timetable which calls for 10,000 of the surge troops to come home this year and withdrawing the remaining troops by next September.
"The president's announcement this summer marked the beginning-but not the end-of our effort to wind down the war in Afghanistan," Hayden said. "We will have to do the hard work of keeping the gains that we have made, while we transition responsibility for security to the Afghan government."
On the ground in Afghanistan, meanwhile, U.S. commanders are making tactical shifts in response to the militant strikes inside Kabul. Maj. Gen. Daniel Allyn, the top American commander in eastern Afghanistan, told National Journal that U.S. and Afghan forces were being shifted to Logar and Wardak, provinces on the outskirts of Kabul, to prevent militants from reaching the capital or using safe havens in the two regions to plan new attacks.
A Pentagon report released on Friday said that violence across Afghanistan had fallen roughly 8 percent since last year, but found that the fight in eastern Afghanistan was continuing to intensify. It found that the bloodshed there was 16 percent higher than the same period in 2010, with violence rising in the province of Ghazni by 11 percent, in Logar by 76 percent, and in Wardak by 19 percent. "The rise in violence and the insurgency's ability to carry out operations in the east is directly attributable to safe havens in Pakistan," the report found.
Allyn claimed his forces were reversing any insurgent momentum by launching a series of sustained offensives against the Haqqani network, the most lethal militant group in Afghanistan. The commander believes the assaults have eliminated 12 of the group's top 61 leaders, killed hundreds of Haqqani fighters, and reduced violence in much of the east by as much as 25 percent.
"We are making sustainable progress," he said. "The insurgent networks are not just on their back heels; they're reeling."
Still, such gains may be too little, too late for the White House, which needs to show quick and measurable progress to counter the high-profile insurgent strikes inside Kabul. The U.S. may be scoring some wins on the battlefield, but the Taliban appear to be winning the propaganda war.