New data from the United Nations on the military advances by a resurgent Taliban is alarming for what it says about the deteriorating security situation in Afghanistan — and what it suggests about the American military’s honesty about what is happening there.
The fall of Kunduz two weeks ago was a startling sign of how the Taliban has reasserted itself, wresting a northern city from the control of the NATO-trained Afghan Security Forces, who are not doing a great job of showing they are up to defending their country. The United Nations data, reported by The Times on Monday and backed up by interviews with local officials, paint an even bleaker picture of an expanding insurgency that has spread through more of Afghanistan than at any point since the Taliban government was deposed at the end of 2001.
Compiled in early September before the latest uptick in violence, the data shows that United Nations officials have rated the threat level as high or extreme in about half of the country’s administrative districts. Contrast that with the assessment offered by Gen. John Campbell, the American commander in Afghanistan, when he testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee last week. “The Afghan security forces have displayed courage and resilience,” he said. “They’re still holding. The Afghan government retains control of Kabul, of Highway One, its provincial capitals and nearly all of the district centers.”
According to The Times’s Rod Nordland and Joseph Goldstein, Highway One, which connects all of Afghanistan’s main cities, has long suffered repeated Taliban attacks; in recent weeks, the insurgents have cut a highway in Baghlan Province, which had been an uncontested government stronghold. Meanwhile, in many districts that are nominally under government control, like Musa Qala in Helmand Province and Charchino in Oruzgan Province, Afghan military forces hold only the government buildings in the district center and are under constant siege by the insurgents.
Administration officials say General Campbell has been forthright in private about the challenges faced by the Afghan Security Forces as well as about the political divisions within the unity government. These officials argue that President Obama understood when he ordered the withdrawal of most American troops that the Afhgans would not be able to secure the whole country right away. They say Afghan forces fought hard and have suffered thousands of casualties, even though they failed to hold Kunduz and have yet to field an air force.
But the contrast between the image offered by the Pentagon and the reality on the ground as portrayed in the United Nations report and the Times article raises far-too-familiar memories of the Pentagon’s habit of manipulating the facts to maintain public support for wars that are going badly. That was powerfully true in Vietnam, but also in Iraq, and at other times in Afghanistan. American military officials far too often have provided misleadingly upbeat assessments of battlefield efforts and belittled reporting that contradicted their narrative.
Now, at the request of Afghan officials, Mr. Obama is considering whether to delay the withdrawal of the remaining 9,800 American troops.
As long as this country has troops and money invested in Afghanistan, Congress and the public need to hear the truth about how the mission is going. That truth will come out, sooner or later, and, meanwhile, trying to hide it just feeds people’s cynicism about government and the military and can produce disastrous policy.