General David Petraeus and Ambassador Richard Holbrooke speak in Afghanistan on October 26. (photo: ISAFMedia on Flickr)

Despite a propaganda buildup that began last weekend, with both General David Petraeus and NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen making claims of regaining momentum against the Taliban in the Kandahar offensive, Wednesday’s Washington Post destroys those claims with the headline that “U.S. military campaign to topple resilient Taliban hasn’t succeeded“.   As if the destruction of Petraeus’ propaganda offensive by the Post is not enough on its own, BBC chimes in Wednesday, as well, with a fresh quote from Mikhail Gorbachev that victory in Afghanistan is impossible.

Last weekend’s spin began with a Reuters article published on Friday, where Rasmussen was given the opportunity to speak:

“The insurgency is under pressure, under pressure like never before in Afghanistan. Our aim for this year was to regain momentum,” Rasmussen said. “Now we have it.”

The article then went on to explain the means by which NATO claimed to be regaining momentum:

Tarak Barkawi, a defense expert at Britain’s Cambridge University, said the stepped up activity, driven by U.S. and NATO commander General David Petraeus, aimed to put pressure on the insurgents while encouraging them to seek reconciliation.

He said the strategy had been backed by a big increase in special forces activity, and in the use of unnmanned aircraft to target insurgents in Afghanistan and Pakistan’s tribal areas.

“Petraeus is fighting a much more kinetic war. He’s let loose the airstrikes a bit more; there’s a huge special forces war going that’s largely outside of media coverage,” he said.

“They have set up a killing machine that is absolutely relentless in the pressure it’s putting on the insurgents. They are clearly now killing off various commanders in the Taliban hierarchies, which is inflicting some serious pain.”

Petraeus himself then grabbed the spotlight in the Washington Post on Saturday:

Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, said allied forces are in the “final stages” of a large operation to clear insurgent fighters from key regions just west of Kandahar, the country’s second-largest city and principal focus of the coalition’s military campaign against the Taliban.

Petraeus, speaking in an interview at NATO headquarters in Kabul, said the operation in the Zhari and Panjwai districts, which began a month ago and involves thousands of U.S., Afghan and Canadian troops, is proceeding “more rapidly than was anticipated.” Military officials and Afghan leaders have reported increasing stability in large swaths of the area that had been firmly in the grip of insurgents a few weeks ago, although they acknowledge that they remain contested by pockets of Taliban holdouts.

The progress in Kandahar City’s western fringe is shaping up to be an important part of the case Petraeus plans to make, during crucial assessments of the mission this fall by NATO and the White House, that international and Afghan forces have regained the momentum after years of losing ground to the Taliban.

Petraeus was no doubt very pleased with himself for having planted the concept that momentum was now back on his side in Afghanistan, so he must be quite upset with today’s Post article pointing out that this “momentum” is meaningless:

An intense military campaign aimed at crippling the Taliban has so far failed to inflict more than fleeting setbacks on the insurgency or put meaningful pressure on its leaders to seek peace, according to U.S. military and intelligence officials citing the latest assessments of the war in Afghanistan.

Escalated airstrikes and special operations raids have disrupted Taliban movements and damaged local cells. But officials said that insurgents have been adept at absorbing the blows and that they appear confident that they can outlast an American troop buildup set to subside beginning next July.

“The insurgency seems to be maintaining its resilience,” said a senior Defense Department official involved in assessments of the war. Taliban elements have consistently shown an ability to “reestablish and rejuvenate,” often within days of [sic] routed by U.S. forces, the official said, adding that if there is a sign that momentum has shifted, “I don’t see it.”

Clearly, the “senior Defense Department official involved in assessments of the war” not only isn’t on the same page as Petraeus and Rasmussen, but is flinging their “momentum” claim back in their faces, with an “I don’t see it”. That’s going to leave a mark.

BBC piles onto the pushback against Petraeus, trotting out Mikhail Gorbachev, who has a bit of experience with losing wars in Afghanistan, to offer some advice to Petraeus and the US:

The former leader of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev, has warned Nato that victory in Afghanistan is impossible.

Mr Gorbachev said that the US had no alternative but to withdraw its forces if it wanted to avoid another Vietnam.

/snip/

“Victory is impossible in Afghanistan. Obama is right to pull the troops out. No matter how difficult it will be,” Mr Gorbachev said in an interview with the BBC’s Moscow correspondent Steve Rosenberg.

The picture at the top of this post represents the competing forces at play as the December White House assessment of Afghanistan nears. Will Obama double down on the “relentless killing machine” and the “huge special forces war going that’s largely outside of media coverage” with Petraeus, or will Richard Holbrooke, the special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan appointed by Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, be given a larger role in diplomatic efforts to end the war and withdraw the troops because victory is impossible? Stay tuned as the various factions in these discussions continue to jockey for position prior to the December assessment.