The national mood on the Afghanistan war has soured fast, and it’s not hard to see why. American combat deaths have exceeded 100 for the summer, the recent Afghan election was tainted by accusations of intimidation and fraud, and Joint Chiefs Chairman Mike Mullen says the security environment there is "deteriorating."
Meanwhile, congressional leaders worry about the war's impact on the health-care debate and the Obama presidency more generally. Antiwar groups are starting to talk about "another Vietnam." Opposition is mounting to the current policy – to say nothing of possible requests for additional troops from the U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley McChrystal.
The questions and concerns being raised are legitimate. Clearly, the mission has not been going well. Problems with our basic strategy, especially on the economic and development side, still need immediate attention. Moreover, our Afghan friends have a crucial role to play in both security and development, and if they fail to do so the overall warfighting and state-building effort will not succeed.
However, it is important to remember our assets, and not just our liabilities, in the coming debate over Afghanistan policy this fall. Democracies sometimes talk themselves out of keeping up the faith in tough situations, and we should avoid any such tendency towards defeatism, especially so early in the execution of the Obama administration's new military/civilian/economic strategy, which combines stronger and more widespread counterinsurgency measures with increased nation-building efforts. Indeed, the U.S., our NATO allies, and the future Afghan government – be it another Hamid Karzai presidency, or a new administration – have a number of major strengths in this mission. Consider:
- The Afghan people want success. There is frankly too much talk of Afghanistan as the graveyard of empires, as land of a xenophobic and backward people who will always resist efforts to enter the modern world. Afghans fought against the British in the 19th century and the Soviets in the 20th century because these imperialist powers were pursuing their own agendas. Today, Afghans consistently show a desire for progress, and their support for the Taliban hovers just above 6%, according to an ABC News/BBC/ARD poll taken in February; support is essentially zero among the non-Pashtun majority of the population.
- Afghans are still largely pro-American. As the war slipped away from us in recent years, U.S. favorability ratings fell too, winding up at about 30% last winter, according to polls conducted by the International Republican Institute (IRI). But the new Obama strategy, combined with at least some modest excitement about the presidential elections, has changed that. IRI polls this summer show that Afghans now give the U.S. (and NATO) favorability ratings of 60%. A similar percentage express optimism about their own future, despite all the challenges of current life.
- The Afghan Army is reasonably effective. It is too small, with roughly 90,000 total soldiers. But by most accounts, the Afghan Army is fighting well, and cooperating well with NATO forces. Gen. McChrystal's new approach to training Afghan troops will greatly strengthen and deepen this cooperation. Not only will NATO finally field enough personnel to embed with each Afghan unit in mentoring teams, but its combat units will partner with Afghans at every level on every major operation – living, planning, operating, and fighting with each other in one-to-one formal partnerships.
- Even the Afghan police show some hope. This force is too intertwined with drug dealers, underequipped, and overstressed by the hazards of combat, taking up to 100 or more fatalities a month. But it is willing to fight. As a member of an IRI observing team on election day, I (O’Hanlon) was impressed with their professionalism. They did a passable job securing voting sites, and while there were many insurgent attacks that day, there were very few civilian casualties. Also the reform efforts promoted by the very able Interior Minister Hanif Atmar are showing signs of progress.
- The economy is better. Afghanistan remains poor, its economy remains dominated by opium, and the twin scourge of corruption and insecurity plagues efforts to revitalize the agricultural system. Despite all that, legal GDP has been growing up to 10% a year, health care reaches much larger segments of the population than before, and seven million children are in school (in contrast to a nationwide total of less than one million during Taliban rule). What's more, the Afghan people know these things, perhaps helping explain why they are guardedly optimistic about the future despite worsening security.
- The elections were not all bad. Whether President Karzai secures the 50% vote total needed to avoid an October runoff in the presidential race or not, the tainted election process has nonetheless had many impressive attributes. The campaign this summer was serious and focused largely on the issues. Although the state-run media favored Mr. Karzai, Afghanistan's flourishing private media provided balanced coverage, and millions watched or listened to presidential debates. Poll workers were well prepared and serious about their jobs on election day. Independent election groups are now carefully scrutinizing ballots and investigating claims of fraud, and they will probably do their jobs well.
To be sure, our strategy is not perfect yet. Gen. McChrystal may not yet have the resources he needs to connect what counterinsurgency theorisists call "oil spots" – pockets of government control and stability – in the crucial south and east of the country with adequate numbers of NATO and Afghan forces. Economic donors do not yet coordinate their efforts adequately, or involve Afghan businesses sufficiently in the development effort. Pakistan's commitment to its own related fight has improved but remains tenuous. And we do not yet have a sufficiently sophisticated approach to improving law and order. We must still establish a network of courts that work with local and tribal justice systems.
These problems need to be corrected soon. Even then, it will take at least 12-18 months to see results. Our chief challenge in Afghanistan is building state institutions and that is an inherently slow process. But as we debate new changes to our strategy this fall, we would do well to remember all that is working in our favor in this crucial effort.