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The Return of ‘Catastrophic Success’

I just got off a conference call with Brig. Gen. Robert Holmes, a deputy director for operations at U.S. Central Command, which directs U.S. military operations in most of the Middle East and South Asia. Naturally, the call centered around yesterday’s spectacular Taliban attacks in Afghanistan, in which company-sized Taliban forces assaulted a French outpost while another detachment went after U.S. troops. The confident Holmes brought back the specter of an old term from the Iraq war: "Catastrophic Success."

So I asked Holmes what the attacks signified. "This threat has been there all along," he said, suggesting that the Taliban might have "gotten a little bolder" and taken advantage of the arrival of new, unprepared French forces into the area. "Does it mean we’ve mis-gaged the situation in Afghanistan? I don’t think so. My take is the Taliban have not went away. It’s not so much a resurgence as response — that we recognize we’re presenting more force there… As we present a greater sustained force there, the Taliban come out to fight," perhaps assisted by Al Qaeda. "Did we miscue? Not necessarily."

Holmes’ answer didn’t strike many other bloggers on the call as convincing. Andrew Lubin and Military.com’s Christian Lowe (who showed himself to be a rather tenacious reporter) pressed Holmes to explain how increased Taliban massed attacks didn’t indicate a strengthened enemy. Holmes said it was to be expected: "They’re fighting in more organized TTP [tactics, techniques and procedures] than we would have seen six years ago, when we fouht bands of irregular fighters. We’ve seen TTP changes so they’re fighting more in company-sized elements… I’m not saying necessarily that they’re more effective. A lot of their TTP remains the same… it’s not to say they’re growing stronger." The Taliban’s attacks aren’t necessarily "achieving great military effect," he said. "What we see is that they use the attacks for great [information operations], great strategic communications value. I don’t deny that. That’s part of the asymmetric fight."

The idea that an insurgency is only attacking us because a) we’re pressing them harder and b) they’re looking to get a good headline is nothing new. In 2004, as part of a general state of denial, President Bush said much the same thing about the situation in Iraq, using the term "catastrophic success." In other words, all the increased casualties and increased chaos proved was that we were winning — why else would the insurgency feel such an urgent need to attack us? It would take Bush several years and over 2000 more U.S. troop deaths to admit that this was an obvious absurdity. Clearly, however, the absurdity lives on, several thousand miles to the east.

For more on yesterday’s attacks, see RockRichard at VetVoice:

When will the powers that be recognize that we need to stop chasing the easter bunny in Iraq before the Taliban and Al Qaeda over run our bases in Afghanistan? Hopefully, a moment of clarity will come soon and several thousand additional boots can be on the ground before the next Taliban attack is more successful than this one.

And also VetVoice’s Brandon Friedman for a broader overview:

The war in Iraq–at its most violent peak–was never as dangerous for our troops as Afghanistan now is. In the past 10 weeks, three American soldiers have been captured, killed, and chopped up. Nine American soldiers were killed in a single instance when their outpost was overrun by Taliban militants. And today, the violence only intensified: 10 French soldiers were slaughtered in an ambush, with four of them being captured and subsequently executed. Around the same time, Afghan insurgents launched a coordinated attack on a major U.S. base.

The fatality rate in Afghanistan during the past 10 weeks would be equivalent to 353 deaths in Iraq at the same time–a rate not even seen during the bloody crescendo of 2007.

This is a crisis.

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