Gen. David Petraeus stepped down as commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan on Monday, just as the Taliban's strength seems to be on the rise. The militants' growing power comes not from conventional military victories—on that score, Petraeus has racked up considerable advances in the past year—but, rather, from what may be a shift in the real war that's going on: the war for the favor (or at least complicity) of the Afghan people.
The high-profile assassinations this past week of President Hamid Karzai's brother and one of his close associates send a clear message to Afghan people who are sitting on the fence: If Karzai and the American military can't protect powerful guys like this, they certainly can't protect you. If this perception deepens, it may be game-over not just for Karzai's regime but for the U.S.-NATO war effort.
Most insurgency wars are wars for the allegiance or control of the people. They are, in part, fought the same way all wars are fought, with combatants on two or more sides trying to kill one another. But the metrics of success are very different. These wars, ultimately, are not about conquering territory (insurgents hold no territory) or winning battles (insurgents fight battles of their choosing and can simply melt into the population if they figure the odds are against them). The "center of gravity," as strategists put it, is the population.
The insurgents usually have the easier task: They make progress by sowing disorder and thus undermining the government's legitimacy. The regime and the counterinsurgents (in this case, the United States, NATO, and the budding Afghan security forces) have to restore or maintain order—and earn, or win back, legitimacy. There are different criteria of legitimacy, depending on the society or political culture. But one standard is fairly universal: The people have to feel secure.
It is this sense of security that the recent assassinations threaten to undermine. And it's not just the assassinations. There were also the recent attacks at Kabul airport and the Intercontinental Hotel; the string of killings of American and Afghan security forces by insurgents who'd infiltrated the Afghan army or police; and several earlier assassinations of local officials and police chiefs—figures less prominent than those gunned down in the past few days but well-known in the villages where they'd served.
These are not random acts of terror but very precise and purposeful ones. The attacks on the hotel and the airport are designed to dissuade international-aid workers and prospective investors from coming to Afghanistan to bolster the regime. The infiltrations of the police and military are designed to sow distrust between NATO and Afghan security forces, just as the training and transition programs are being accelerated. The lower-level assassinations are designed to do on a local level what the killings of Karzai's brother and associate do on a national level: to convince the people that the regime can't protect them and that, therefore, they shouldn't cooperate with the regime or its foreign allies.
At the handover ceremony on Monday, Marine Gen. John Allen, * the new commander, pledged to continue the "momentum" that Petraeus has built. This momentum is real: more Afghan security forces recruited, trained, and equipped; more provinces cleared of the Taliban's complete domination; more mid-level (and a few high-level) Taliban leaders killed or captured in raids and drone-strikes.
But momentum is a dicey thing in an insurgency war. It can be turned on the proverbial dime; and, in any case, tactical military gains don't have much value if they're not followed up with political achievements. And a big problem with this war is that Karzai's regime—corrupt, incompetent, and often unwilling to delegate power to independent local leaders—has been slow, at best, in following up.
An old phrase that's gained recent favor to describe a counterinsurgency strategy is "clear-hold-build"—clear an area of insurgents, hold the area to keep it secure, then build support for the government by providing basic services (water, electricity, roads, justice, whatever it is that people most want or need). The idea is that providing these things will undermine the insurgents' popular appeal.
Petraeus has done a pretty good job at clear and hold, but the host government has to build—or at least to demonstrate that it's worthy of the people's support—and Karzai has failed at that. And, ultimately, without build, clear and hold don't much matter.
This failure was an obstacle in the war—perhaps the biggest obstacle—before the recent spate of assaults and assassinations. It's a still bigger one now.
The Taliban are not very popular, but they don't have to be. Many Afghan people remember the harshness of the Taliban's rule. Many may also know (though this is less certain) that the dramatic rise in civilian casualties in the past six months is the result primarily of the Taliban. (A United Nations report estimates that the Taliban—not U.S., NATO, or Afghan security forces—are responsible for 80 percent of these casualties.)
But this doesn't matter. The beleaguered Afghan people aren't going to risk their lives for their government if their government can't provide them security. And that's why the killings of the past week, piled on top of the regime's many other failures and shortcomings, may bode ill for the course of the entire war.
Correction, July 18, 2011: This article originally misreported Gen. John Allen's first name. (Return to the corrected sentence.)