To U.S. voters weary of war after a decade of casualties, high costs and frustration, the conflict in Afghanistan may look like a quagmire.
The accepted image now seems to be North Atlantic Treaty Organization troops trekking through remote mountain villages until they get blown up by IEDs. Meanwhile, the U.S. presence pumps money into a corrupt economy in support of a weak, ineffective government, and Pakistani perfidy across the border makes the job even harder. Alas, there are elements of truth in this.
No one who has worked or fought in Afghanistan, or even studied its recent history, is going to talk about an easy win at this point. The “counterinsurgency lite” strategy devised by President Barack Obama, former Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Gen. David Petraeus and former Gen. Stanley McChrystal has had some notable achievements — but it also has been a slog — three years and counting.
For many, especially with Osama bin Laden dead, the temptation is to declare victory, or something like it, and go home. We would leave our drones behind — but not much else. Indeed, the White House reportedly is considering a faster drawdown than previously discussed.
But despite the sense of hopelessness in Afghanistan, there is progress — and there is a plan. We hardly are guaranteed a successful outcome, and progress on the political and anticorruption fronts is still needed. But our odds of attaining at least the core of our strategic goals are reasonably good if we remain patient over the next three years and work to build up and support the Afghan troops, who will bear responsibility for their nation’s future.
Over the past two years, International Security Assistance Forces, led by U.S. troops, with substantial help from British and several other allies, have concentrated efforts in the south. This reflected McChrystal’s 2009 idea that the regions of Kandahar and Helmand were the Taliban’s heartland. Securing the main population and transportation corridors, according to this strategy, would deprive insurgents of their main support bases.
This part of the plan has worked reasonably well, with Afghan forces often providing about half of all coalition manpower themselves in key operations. Most of the populated south has been largely cleared of main insurgent sanctuaries, weapons caches and IED fields. Violence is down about a third in 2011, relative to 2010. Afghans in surveys indicate a greater sense of personal security — by roughly 10 percent to 20 percent, on average.
There also has been progress in the quality of governance — particularly under Gov. Mohammad Gulab Mangal in the Helmand province. Afghans from the south are starting to join police forces in substantial numbers, which suggests increased buy-in by local tribes.
Meanwhile, the deterioration in the country’s north and west has been stopped; even partially reversed. Kabul security has grown slightly worse in statistical terms this past year, but only modestly.
Kabul still accounts for less than 1 percent of all Afghan insurgent attacks nationally – though it has 15 percent of the population. Better yet, it is secured primarily by Afghan troops, who are doing a passable job of defending it -- despite the horrible (and hard to prevent) tragedy this week targeting Shia pilgrims. Enemy-initiated attacks in Afghanistan countrywide are down almost 25 percent in the last few months, compared to the same period last year.
All is not well, of course. The country’s east is now 20 percent more violent statistically than it was in 2010 — as the Haqqani insurgents and others wreak their worst, and the ISAF remains under-resourced there. Obama’s decision to draw down U.S. forces in Afghanistan from 100,000 to 68,000 over the next year will most likely force changes in how foreign troops are used. It would require that Afghan troops play a larger role sooner than currently planned.
At this time, the campaign plan for 2012 and 2013 focuses on several key priorities. First, secure areas below Kabul — so the part of the country’s nationwide “Ring Road” connecting Kabul to Kandahar can be safely traveled. This would also help protect Kabul with a layered defense against insurgents.
Second, consolidate security forces’ “hold” in the south, while gradually handing off more responsibility to the Afghan forces.
Third, keep building Afghan security forces to their needed size and capability. This process will most likely remain intensive for two more years, to reach the goal of at least 350,000 trained and equipped Afghan army and police units. They must not only go through basic training, they need to spend at least a year in the field intensively mentored by NATO forces and fighting with them.
Afghan forces today number more than 300,000. But while they are committed to the fight and consistently rated “better than Iraqis” by U.S. commanders, they are not yet ready to handle this job on their own.
A number of these tasks are foreign-troop intensive. That’s why we can’t rush to the door in Afghanistan. By 2014, ISAF is to have completed the transition so Afghan forces have led responsibility nationwide. That process can and should be accelerated, but only within reason.
In fact, Obama would do well to announce a mission change — from “counterinsurgency” to “support Afghan security forces” at the May NATO conference in Chicago.
NATO forces could still take the lead in the east and some of the south. But in much of the country, NATO’s mission could change to supporting Afghan troops, with embedded advisory teams. These U. S. adviser squads formed from current American Army units could be trained in 2012 and deployed in 2013.
This means that substantial U.S. forces would remain in Afghanistan, in a backup and partnering role, through the 2013 and 2014 fighting seasons.
The teams would include combat personnel and be part of combat operations. Their advising would not be a desk job. So U.S. troop totals should remain as close to 68,000 through 2013 as is politically and fiscally possible.
But emphasizing the transition would be effective politics in Afghanistan — and effective politics at home. It could help sustain at least passive U.S. public support for a war that most are, understandably, wishing would end.
Even after 2014, 15,000-20,000 foreign troops probably still would be needed for training, mentoring, air support, special operations and logistics. But the U.S. role can be modest.
To support this military plan, we need a better political and anticorruption strategy for Kabul and Islamabad. Certainly, Afghans need a successful political transition in 2014 — when President Hamid Karzai must step down.
A good military plan is a necessary — yet not sufficient — condition for success. But there is hope for the future. Many Americans may still see Afghanistan as a quagmire, but there really is a strategy. And it’s beginning to work.