Winter is approaching.
In the United States, cold weather means lots of things — binge eating with people you love, baristas ruining perfectly good cups of coffee with nutmeg or cinnamon, another goddamn Mannheim Steamroller Christmas CD.
In Afghanistan, cold weather brings something even more meaningful — a lull in insurgent violence.
The Taliban insurgency, which has gotten stronger each year since the United States' Operation Enduring Freedom drove it from power in late 2001, slows down when the weather gets cold.
The Taliban insurgency depends in large part on access to safe bases in neighboring Pakistan, accessible via rugged mountain passes.
When the weather's cold, many of the passes are, well, impassable.
For Afghanistan's central government, the United States and NATO (which have 41,000 troops in Afghanistan), the country's freezing over is an opportunity to pause for a bit, take stock and look ahead to challenges that will come when mountain passes thaw again in 2008.
By any measure that isn't being devised by the White House, Fox News or Rush Limbaugh, 2007 has been a lousy one in Afghanistan.
The hyped Taliban Spring Offensive of 2007 did not, as threatened, see southeastern Afghanistan fall to Taliban control. The past year has been, however, the most violent in Afghanistan since the United States invaded in 2001.
More than 5,000 Afghans have died in insurgency-related violence so far in 2007, according to the Associated Press. In 2006, that number was 1,000.
Coalition deaths are also on the rise. So far, 205 coalition soldiers have died in 2007, up from 191 last year and 58 in 2004.
Of the 205 coalition fatalities in 2007, 101 were American troops. Nearly as many American troops died in Afghanistan in 2007 as died in 2001, 2002 and 2003 combined.
The United States and NATO report inflicting heavy losses on Taliban forces, but the insurgency continues to grow because new recruits are constantly joining. This year saw fighting between Taliban and coalition forces in northern Afghan provinces far away from the Taliban's traditional strongholds. A sprawling insurgency could be catastrophic for U.S., NATO and Afghan government forces. Remember: Afghanistan is bigger and harder to get around than Iraq. If 169,000 U.S. troops can't pacify Iraq, do you think 41,000 NATO forces will have better luck in Afghanistan?
The growing Taliban movement has been fueled by chaos and misrule in neighboring Pakistan. Last year, Pakistan's central government abandoned its pledge to the United States that it would try to rein in pro-Taliban tribes that live along Pakistan's border with Afghanistan. The Pakistani government's (in)action led to an immediate upsurge in Taliban violence in Afghanistan. The recent "emergency" declaration by Pakistan's President-General/General-President Pervez Musharraf is a sign of more chaos to come. And a chaotic Pakistan will almost certainly fuel violence across the border in Afghanistan.
Not all the news from Afghanistan is bad.
President Hamid Karzai recently thanked foreign aid workers for a dramatic reduction in child mortality.
And according to the New York Times, farmers in the country's northern province Balkh are increasingly heeding their central government's requests to abandon opium cultivation. They are instead now growing cannabis. Right on.
But Afghanistan is definitely moving in the wrong direction — toward the same awfulness that made the country a safe haven for the people who instigated the 9/11 attacks.
The war is not lost, however. Unlike Iraq, Afghanistan has real leaders acting sincerely to steer their country away from violence and extremism. They are begging for our help. Afghanistan's attorney general recently said his government needs the backing of foreign troops for at least 10 years.
What Afghanistan needs is for the Bush administration to treat economic and political development in Afghanistan with as much urgency as, say, the way it responded to people calling Gen. David Petraeus bad names.
The insurgency can still be stopped. But it will require more troops (which we'll only have if we pull some out of Iraq); more money devoted to social, economic and infrastructure development in Afghanistan; and a robust training program for the country's security forces.
What Afghanistan needs is a surge.