ABOARD A U.S. MILITARY AIRCRAFT — After inflicting heavy losses on weakened Afghan security forces a year ago, the Taliban under new leadership have been surprisingly slow to ramp up attacks at the midpoint of the traditional fighting season, senior American military officers said Sunday.
In an Associated Press interview, Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said he is cautiously encouraged by a relative slackening of the Taliban's aggressive tactics.
Citing "a lower level of violence from the Taliban than we have seen in the past," Dunford was quick to say that while he believes Afghan forces have seized battlefield momentum, there are no assurances that the balance won't shift again.
"We've seen peaks and valleys with the Taliban before, but certainly on the ground right now the Afghan forces have the momentum," he said, speaking aboard an Air Force C-17 transport plane en route from Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan to Stuttgart, Germany. Dunford spent three days in Afghanistan speaking with U.S. and Afghan commanders, troops and officials. On Sunday he met with President Ashraf Ghani and other senior members of Ghani's government in Kabul.
Dunford commanded all U.S. and coalition forces in Afghanistan from February 2013 to August 2014.
In separate interviews in Afghanistan over the weekend, other senior U.S. officers highlighted an unexpected easing of Taliban military pressure in the days since Ramadan, the period of traditional Muslim fasting, ended in early July. One called it a "tactical pause," another said it points to a weakening of the Taliban, but none claimed it means an early end to the long war.
Private analysts interviewed Sunday expressed skepticism about the war's progress.
Anthony Cordesman, an Afghanistan expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said there are many forces at work against the country in addition to a resilient Taliban, even if the militants may have become more fragmented.
"Poverty is rising, governance is extremely weak and virtually absent in many districts," Cordesman said in an email exchange. "Power brokers and ex-warlords are stronger. No progress has been made in fighting corruption in one of the most corrupt countries in the world. Narcotics is becoming more important in the economy, and there is a major brain drain."
He said President Barack Obama's recent decision to commit U.S. troops longer and more directly "really does matter" on the military front. "But, Afghanistan desperately needs unified and more effective leadership and governance, more economic aid and reform, and less corruption or all the weakening of the Taliban can do is to make this an endless war of attrition."
Dunford said he found Afghan commanders and officials heartened by Obama's decisions to keep 8,400 U.S. troops in the country when he leaves office, more than previously planned, and to authorize more aggressive use of U.S. forces in support of Afghan offensive actions.
"It's a psychological turning point" for the Afghan government and its security forces, he said, while adding: "I'm not sure it's a turning point on the ground" for actual war fortunes.
Col. Michael Marti, director of the U.S.-led coalition's intelligence center in Kabul, said Sunday he attributes the absence of an expected summer surge in Taliban violence to after-effects of the U.S. killing in May of the group's leader, Mullah Mohammed Akhtar Mansour.
"Their overall operational tempo appears to be decreased a little bit," Marti said, adding that the Taliban's leadership transition means they are "building a new team" under their new leader, Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada, an extremist cleric.
Cordesman said the new Taliban leader lacks charisma and credibility, and he and other key Taliban figures "seem even less interested in real peace negotiations."
Marti said it is too early to declare the slackening of Taliban attacks a trend. However, Gen. John Nicholson, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, said in an AP interview on Saturday that he views the Taliban as seriously off the rails.
"This is not the cohesive, homogenous movement that it's been known as in the past," Nicholson said. "They're not on a war-winning trajectory."
As events of the past 15 years have shown, the Taliban do not need overall military victory in order to remain a threat to the U.S.-backed government in Kabul.
"All they have to do is wait out the eventual end of outside funding for Afghan security forces, at which point the government would collapse," said Stephen Biddle, a professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University.
"This may not yield a literal Taliban military triumph even then, but the resulting chaos would be almost as bad for us — and for Afghans," Biddle said in an email exchange Sunday.
"The only real alternative to this scenario is a negotiated settlement in the meantime, and a fractured Taliban leadership could actually make that harder rather than easier," Biddle said. "So I don't disagree with Gen. Nicholson's assessment of the state of the Taliban, but I'm not sure it implies grounds for great optimism on the war's prognosis."