WASHINGTON -- Racing through the Phoenix airport, a Wall Street Journal headline immediately captured my eye: "Taliban Now Winning." I grabbed the newspaper and headed for my flight. By the time I arrived in Washington, I had a half-dozen e-mails from my Fox News colleagues asking for my assessment of the situation. There was also a "be prepared" message from my boss alerting me to pack my kit for another trip to the Hindu Kush. Seeing as I haven't been there for a year, it seemed like a good time to get smart about what's happening behind the headlines.
Here is some of what I learned from those now on the ground -- including our Fox News correspondent Greg Palkot and cameraman Mal James -- some of the troops who have returned recently, and others getting ready to go:
First, there is no doubt that allied casualties in Afghanistan have spiked from a year ago. Last month, 76 coalition troops were killed in action, including 45 Americans. The toll for August is likely to be even higher.
Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the senior U.S. and NATO commander in Kabul, predicted higher casualty rates as the number of U.S. and allied troops "in-country" climbed and "optempo" increased. There are 30,000 more American soldiers, sailors, airmen, guardsmen and Marines on the ground today than there were when I was there last year. For the first time since Operation Enduring Freedom began, in 2001, the International Security Assistance Force numbers more than 100,000 troops, and that includes 62,000 Americans.
Second, U.S. and coalition forces are pushing into Taliban strongholds, particularly in Helmand and Kandahar provinces, where there has been little or no Afghan government or ISAF presence for years. On July 2, U.S. Marines and Afghan soldiers launched Operation Khanjar (Sword Thrust) into southern Helmand, while a parallel column spearheaded into neighboring Kandahar province. Faced with the prospect of losing control over heroin production areas that finance their insurgency, the Taliban decided to stand and fight instead of melting away.
Third, next week's presidential and provincial council elections have precipitated a last-ditch attempt by the Taliban to disrupt the balloting. Seventeen million of Afghanistan's 33 million people have registered to vote Aug. 20. Countrywide, there are more than 3,000 candidates vying for 420 seats on the provincial legislatures. Among the contenders are 300 women, a fact that has driven the misogynist Taliban leadership over the brink.
Efforts to secure polling places have met with fierce resistance in the southern, largely Pashtun, part of the country. When the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Brigade launched Operation Eastern Resolve II in the Helmand River Valley this week, they were confronted by well-armed, dug-in Taliban fighters, who employed improvised explosive devices, mortars, rockets, rocket-propelled grenades, automatic weapons and snipers to prevent Afghan authorities from setting up election sites.
Unfortunately, things are unlikely to calm down much after next week's balloting. The Afghan Constitution requires the leading vote-getter to receive more than 50 percent of the vote to avoid a runoff against the second-place challenger. Though incumbent President Hamid Karzai leads the field of 38 presidential candidates, his Pashtun-Tajik coalition may not garner enough votes to avoid another contest in October.
A drawn-out election process isn't the only thing that will keep "optempo" high. "Our strategy for the remainder of 'the fighting season' is based on the need to wrest the opium production region from Taliban control and do so with a minimum of 'friendly' casualties," a U.S. officer told me this week.
It's a mission that makes sense. The Taliban insurgency depends on financing provided by opium, Afghanistan's No. 1 export commodity. Most of the "ratlines" for precursor chemicals and delivery of processed heroin and morphine flow across the porous border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Because Islamabad finally has decided to crack down on the Taliban in Pakistan's federally administered tribal areas and its northwestern provinces, there is a greater chance for success now than at any time since 2001.
That doesn't mean accomplishing this mission is going to be easy. One U.S. commander told me, "Our greatest operational challenge is logistics" to support the offensives. That's something that hasn't changed in the 11 months since I was there. As I reported then, "Afghanistan, with only one paved highway, too few airbases and insufficient air assets, is the most difficult country to move men and materiel that I have ever seen." Apparently, it still is.
Finally, there is the difficult task of winning the "hearts and minds" of the tribal people who live in the shadow of the Hindu Kush. Achieving that goal requires more than allied courage, tenacity and perseverance; it necessitates recruiting, training and equipping another 100,000 Afghan police and soldiers, who will become responsible for the fate of their own country.
When that happens, we will know we have won. If it doesn't, the headline will read, "Taliban Win."