Within the U.S. military's rank and file, there are growing doubts about winning in Afghanistan, a mood that contradicts upbeat war reports delivered to Congress last week by the top commander and officials.
A senior military intelligence official who has served in Afghanistan and participates in daily briefings on the war told The Washington Times there is a "weariness" among officers as the war nears the nine-year mark in October.
"We are a battle-hardened force, but eight years now in Afghanistan has worn us down," said the officer, who asked not to be named because he holds a sensitive intelligence job. "Folks I work with and talk to every day just shake their heir heads in weariness."
The U.S. military is in what many consider the last critical phase of its longest war, as a surge of some 30,000 troops is being carried out and a battle to wrest control of southern Afghanistan from the Taliban is about to begin.
The intelligence source said commanders still have not found the key to shifting the loyalties of Pashtun tribal leaders away from the rigidly Islamic Taliban and toward the democratic government of President Hamid Karzai.
"We're fighting a cultural battle we have yet to come to grips with," the official said. "We don't get the Pashtun mindset. We can't figure out how to work through the system of corruption."
The source recalled a briefing where a three-star officer expressed little optimism about a good ending of the conflict. His remark stunned those in attendance.
The pessimism comes amid a recent increase in U.S. casualties as summer fighting between Taliban and allied forces increases. A United Nations quarterly report made public on Saturday stated that security declined in the first four months of the year as the number of roadside bombings and other attacks rose sharply.
Since the war began in October 2001, a total of 1,036 troops have been killed.
Anthony Cordesman, a member of a special assessment team a year ago that advised the top officer in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, wrote last week that the U.S. might leave without victory.
"The U.S. may be forced into leaving Afghanistan, regardless of its intentions to stay, or face conditions that make any stable form of victory impossible," he wrote on his website at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "Containment from the outside may be the only choice."
One glaring problem, said Mr. Cordesman, is the July 2011 deadline set by President Obama to begin troop withdrawals. While officials, including Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top regional commander, repeatedly have said the date only begins assessing how to start leaving, it has created great confusion among Afghans.
"Many Afghan officials and officers, and allied officers and diplomats, are at best confused and at worst privately believe that we will leave," Mr. Cordesman said. "Any visitor to Afghanistan also sees efforts at every level to rush operations in time to meet November 2010 and July 2011 reporting deadlines. The end result is that a vague de facto deadline exists."
White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel said on ABC's "This Week" on Sunday that July 2011 is "a firm date" for the pullback of the 30,000 additional troops sent to the country.
Stephen Biddle, who served with Mr. Cordesman on the assessment team and is returning to Afghanistan for an update, said in an interview it is too soon to judge the surge.
"I think it's too early to know very much," said Mr. Biddle, an analyst at the Council on Foreign Relations. "The obvious point is, the surge isn't even all deployed yet. The broader point is, counterinsurgency as a form of warfare always has a darkest-before-the-dawn quality to it.
"When you expand your area of operation and begin contesting insurgent control of populated areas, violence goes up," he said. "And it goes up whether things are going well or things are going badly."
The military has inserted 21,000 of the planned 30,000 additional troops in the surge, which is scheduled to be completed in August, bringing total U.S. commitment to 98,000.
Right now in Afghanistan, Mr. Biddle said, there is a "complex mix of indicators, some of which are getting better and some of which are not."
Gen. Petraeus testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee last week and urged patience. The backdrop: The U.S. death toll is increasing, some NATO allies plan to pull out next year, more members of Congress are speaking out against the war's cost of more than $300 billion, and press reports from the field are generally negative.
The hearing room scene was somewhat similar to 2007, when the four-star general tried to convince a politically charged Congress that included then-Sen. Barack Obama that the Iraq surge was beginning to work. He was right then, and is asking lawmakers a second time to stick with him.
"The conduct of a counterinsurgency operation is a roller-coaster experience," he testified on Wednesday. "There are setbacks as well as areas of progress or successes. It is truly an up and down, when you're living it, when you're doing it, even from afar, frankly. But their trajectory, in my view, has generally been upward, despite the tough losses, despite the setbacks."
Part of the negative press stemmed from Gen. McChrystal telling reporters in Brussels on June 10 he was delaying the overall offensive around Kandahar. The city stands as the Taliban's birthplace, from which it rose to power in the 1990s and formed an alliance with Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda.
Lt. Col. Tadd Sholtis, Gen. McChrystal's spokesman, told The Times the commander simply wants to give more time for the political process in the south to win over the populace.
"We're moving at a deliberate pace toward decisive operations in the fall rather than summer because we don't want to rush the political process that the security effort supports," Col. Sholtis said.
The spokesman said right now security forces are using an "inside-out" approach in Kandahar, as Afghan police and NATO soldiers are trying to secure Kandahar to make Taliban bombings and ambushes more difficult to carry out.
"Later in the summer and fall, we'll step up counterinsurgency operations with army and police units to secure the districts bordering the city," he said.
Col. Sholtis said the surge is designed to produce decisive effects in key areas and to reverse the insurgents' momentum. It also seeks to set the conditions for the transition of responsibility for security to the Afghan government, he said.
"Regardless of when security forces are ready to conduct operations, and many are ready now, it makes little sense to launch operations now simply because we can," Col. Sholtis said. "We have to have the governance and development pieces in place to cement those expected security gains."
Said Gen. McChrystal: "Unlike conventional military operations where you circle a hill on the map and then you take the hill, when you go to protect people, the people have to want you to protect them. And so we've got to do that shaping process to get that right."
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