The Taliban don’t stop fighting in winter, Kilcullen says. They simply turn their energies from combat in the rural areas to terrorism in the towns and cities, targeting important local and national officials.
“I would say a better description of the seasonality is that the insurgency doesn’t stop in the winter, it just goes urban,” he said.
Casualties are indeed much higher in the warm months, but Kilcullen said that to focus on sheer numbers was a mistake.
He cited the assassination attempt in December on Asadullah Khalid, the head of the Afghan domestic intelligence service, who was badly wounded. Khalid had built a reputation as a particularly aggressive foe of the Taliban.
“The sheer number of guys killed doesn’t track to the importance of any given hit,” he said. “If just three guys are killed in an attack, but those three guys killed were important Afghan ministers, that’s big, and Khalid, even though he wasn’t killed, that had a pretty significant political effect.”
The war’s characteristic cycles have another impact, said James Dobbins, a former U.S. special envoy to Afghanistan who’s now the director of the RAND International Security and Defense Policy Center: They make it hard for a commander to track progress.
“It can lead to sort of false positives, where violence starts to go down and one thinks one has made progress until one remembers it goes down every year at this time,” he said “So, instead of measuring yourself against a constant line, you have to measure yourself not against where you were last month, but where you were this same month last year. This means that each commander is not measuring his progress against his own previous experience, but against the previous commander’s experience.”
That also applies to combat troops, most of whom now serve a year or less in Afghanistan, and thus don’t ever see two winter lulls. That means they can’t build on their previous experience.
“People have described it as not being a 10-year war but rather 10 wars of one year each,” Dobbins said. “There’s something to that.”
Kilcullen, who now runs Caerus Associates, a consultancy in Washington, thinks the summer-winter pattern also masks broader changes and trends, including changes in the way the Taliban are approaching the war.
"Right now, you’ve got guys at ISAF” – the International Security Assistance Force, the NATO-led coalition – “saying, ‘Well, we’ve broken the back of the insurgency. The operational defeat of the Taliban is accomplished, because are not seeing the guerrilla groups out in the countryside like we were two or three years ago,’ ” Kilcullen said. "But that’s not necessarily true, right? It may be that they have gone to another mode of operating and we won’t know for sure until the drawdown takes place.”
As to the high mountain passes to Pakistan being closed by snow, Kilcullen doesn’t believe that’s the central reason for the winter drops in rural fighting. Pakistan aside, Afghans traditionally stay indoors as much as possible in the harsh winter months.
“Afghanistan, probably half of it is covered by snow every year for three or four months, and yet there is no evidence I have ever seen of any attempt at developing over-the-snow technology: no skis, no sleds, no skates, no snowshoes, nothing,” he said. “So for thousands of years, no one has said, ‘Hey, why don’t we figure out some way of moving over it?’ They all just basically sit down for four months.”