It's not just special-ops troops. According to the latest unclassified Air Force data, U.S. warplanes and drones dropped or fired 1,600 weapons on Afghan targets in the last three months, nearly half of them—700—in September alone. In the same three months last year, just 1,031 aerial weapons were released, 257 of them in that September. (Though the data are not entirely clear, it appears this more aggressive strategy has not resulted in an increase of civilian casualties. For more on this point, click
This new twist in the strategy seems to be having some effect. One senior officer said (and other officials confirmed) that 300 midlevel Taliban have been killed or captured in the last three months, including a number of shadow provincial governors, district commanders, and trainers or facilitators in the use of roadside bombs. In addition, more than 800 rank-and-file insurgents have been killed, and more than 2,000 have been captured.
Intelligence intercepts indicate that Taliban insurgents in the field are more scattered and confused, that their leaders are slow to send new unit commanders when the old ones have been killed, and that the replacements are often less competent.
There have also been "a couple dozen instances" of surrenders, a senior officer said, involving anywhere from a handful to several dozen insurgents. In one incident still ongoing, about 200 insurgents who had been fighting in southern Helmand province marched northwest to Herat in order to surrender.
The officer stopped short of claiming that these surrenders signaled a large-scale or higher-level co-optation to come. First, those 200 insurgents marched from Helmand to Herat in order to evade reprisals from other Taliban—a sign that, even among those willing to do so, surrendering is risky. Second, Afghan fighters have a long tradition of switching sides and switching back again (see the first chapter of Dexter Filkins' excellent book, The Forever War); those who surrender today might be back on the fighting fields tomorrow.
Still, the trends are unmistakable. One U.S. official, who has been very skeptical about the war in the past, said in a recent e-mail: "There's a reasonable strategy in place with a reasonable chance for reasonable success." A NATO adviser, who was downright pessimistic three months ago, said, "I'm now a glass-half-full guy."
Two caveats, which these same sources are quick to point out: First, these comments are laced in caution; they're not at all fist-in-the-air yelps of victory. Second, they speak to tactical progress, not strategic success.
If the airstrikes and special-ops raids continue to kill insurgents, ratchet up the pressure on the survivors, and force Taliban leaders to the negotiating table, that's hardly the end of the game.
What kind of deal will these Taliban negotiate? One condition Gen. Petraeus has set is that any Taliban seeking reconciliation must pledge to support Afghanistan's constitution and elected leaders. If they do so, will they cross their fingers and soon break the deal? Although U.S. troops might stick around to help enforce such accords, the ultimate guarantor must be Karzai. Will he hold up his end of the bargain without either demanding too much obeisance or cravenly caving in?
Finally, in order for any deal to take hold and result in political stability, there must be economic growth, credible institutions of justice, and a steady flow of basic services to the population. In that sense, COIN theory is still valid—and that leads back to the original concerns that have made a COIN campaign so slow and difficult: How can growth, good government, and basic services develop if the regime lacks political legitimacy?
There's another wild card, rarely addressed in these sorts of discussions: the fighters of the Northern Alliance, the former insurgency group that helped U.S. special-ops forces overthrow Afghanistan's Taliban regime in 2002. These fighters disarmed when Karzai came to power, but some intelligence analysts—and Afghans—worry that they might take up arms again if the Taliban were to come back into the government as part of a power-sharing deal. If that happens, civil war could once again break out.
The path to the end of this war is suddenly a bit clearer, but how this thing ends and what happens afterward remain as murky as ever.