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Is the Afghan war at a turning point?

Beating Taliban forces on the battlefield again and again is not a turning point

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Every few months, the War On Terror™ needs a turning point.

If not an actual turning point, then at least a mythical turning point – an exciting event that allows journalists and pundits discussing the war to say things like "this is a turning point" or "we may be at a turning point" or the ultra weasel-y and kinda passive-aggressive "Are we at a turning point?"

Past War On Terror™ mythical turning points include (but are not limited to): the January 2002 Afghan aid conference in Tokyo, the one where developed nations promised never again to neglect the extreme poverty and disorder that makes Afghanistan rich pickins for scummy Talibanbits and al-Qaidudes; the April 2003 capture of Baghdad by U.S. forces that was supposed to end the Iraq war; the December 2003 capture of Saddam Hussein that was supposed to end the Iraqi insurgency; the 2006 killing of Iraqi al-Qaida leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi that was also supposed to end the Iraqi insurgency; and the numerous parliamentary and presidential elections in Iraq and Afghanistan that were supposed to rally the people of each country behind their respective national leaders.

The U.S. has been fighting the War On Terror™ for eight and a half years – longer than it fought in the two World Wars and Korea combined. You'd think by now we would have outgrown the need for mythical turning points, but a recent series of events in Pakistan have prompted war pundits to start reaching for the T.P. again.

The Afghan Taliban's top military commander, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, was just captured in Karachi, Pakistan. Baradar's kind of a big deal. Us catching him is the equivalent of the Taliban catching Gen. David "Don't Call Me 'Betray Us' Petraeus and Joe Biden. The only person believed to be higher than Baradar on the Taliban totem pole is the Taliban's top leader, Mullah Omar. In fact, it was Omar who bestowed the name Baradar, which means "brother."

Just a couple of days after news of Baradar's capture was reported, we nabbed two Taliban leaders who acted as so-called shadow governors of two of Afghanistan's northern provinces. And while all this capturing was going down, the U.S., NATO and Afghan forces launched Operation Moshtarak. The largest military offensive of the Afghan war so far, it's aimed at taking control of parts of Afghanistan's Helmand province. Helmand is a Taliban stronghold and the center of Afghanistan's illicit opium poppy trade (not to be confused with neighboring Hellman's province, home of Afghanistan's booming illicit mayonnaise trade).

Several U.S. and British reports say the offensive is progressing well – in part because Taliban fighters are for the most part avoiding battles with U.S., British and Afghan forces.

In other words, after seven years of Taliban resurgence in Afghanistan, the black-turbaned menace is once again in retreat. In other words, time to start reaching for the T.P. Google "Afghanistan turning point" and sort by date, and you'll find hundreds of reporters and pundits wondering aloud if our recent successes represent a turning point in the war.

So are we at a turning point? Hell, no. Fact: Every time the U.S. and NATO square off against Taliban forces, the Taliban loses. Beating them on the battlefield again is not a turning point. Also a fact: Baradar was very important to the Taliban, but not so important that his absence will cause them to whither.

The Taliban is a widespread peasant movement, not the brainchild of two or three commanders. Talibanism will remain in Afghanistan and Pakistan for the foreseeable future.

I'm not saying turning points don't exist. I'm saying they're never as recognizable or tidy as reporters want them to be. Here's the turning point I'm looking for: How will the territory captured during Operation Moshtarak be policed and governed? Will Afghan forces be doing the bulk of the security work and, if so, will the population accept them? When the U.S. and NATO pull back, will the Afghans remain in control?

If any of those questions are satisfactorily answered, then, yeah, that's a turning point. But that's not something that's going to be evident in a day, week or month.

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