New Reasons for Hope in Afghanistan

The outcome of the Afghanistan conflict is still up for grabs. But after meetings there with NATO officers, Afghan officials and U.S. Embassy officials on a recent trip, I saw more basis for hope than recent perceptions in the United States would allow.

There was at least some positive news on the election. Four million in turnout is not bad for a midterm election in a troubled, war-torn country.

To be sure, there was a fair amount of violence during the Sept. 18 parliamentary elections. Turnout was mediocre overall, even poor in places. But as I saw there with the International Republican Institute’s election observation — IRI was ecumenical enough to include a Democrat like me — these problems were at least partly balanced by the remarkable resolve of many Afghans, including election workers and security forces.

Insurgents had months to prepare for attacks on Election Day. While any loss of life is regrettable, the 20 to 25 deaths that day were far fewer than anticipated. Yes, there were irregularities, as the U.S. media have been reporting. But these stories often lack perspective on realistic expectations for a young democracy. Moreover, Afghan agencies have already been charged with investigating the election — a hopeful sign. 

Major challenges remain in Afghanistan that, if not addressed, may still cause the U.S. to fail there. It is far too early to give up on the current strategy and fall back on a Plan B. But it is not too soon to consider some dramatic new efforts — starting with a bold proposal to Pakistan.

First, though, here’s a review of the situation as it looked to me over my 10-day trip.

The problems in Afghanistan are legion and serious — and well-known. But a few points merit emphasis. The estimated size of the insurgency, particularly the Afghan Taliban and Haqqani networks, continues to grow. Despite a major increase in lethal attacks by U.S. Special Forces and other coalition assets, the resistance remains resilient.

Violence in Afghanistan has grown even faster than the uptick in coalition forces, suggesting that it is not just our increased tempo of operations that drives the fighting. Though the number of roadside bomb attacks has stabilized relative to last year (and declined in the east), we are still losing too many coalition and Afghan troops and police to these horrible weapons. And direct-fire attacks from small-arms fire are way up.

Needless to say, failures to address corruption — much of it in President Hamid Karzai’s inner circle, some of it a result of traditional Afghan social customs, lots of it exacerbated by the U.S. way of doing business there — create a sense of anger and disenfranchisement among many Afghan citizens.

This should be no surprise. History shows that strong presidencies in weak states that benefit from easy sources of cash (in this case, foreign aid and the foreign military presence) are prone to corruption problems. But these are no less serious because they are expected.

Balancing these huge challenges, the United States and its partners in Afghanistan have major assets working in their favor.

First are the Afghan population’s hardiness, optimism and generally pro-Western views.

Whatever Karzai’s limitations, there are a number of impressive reformers within his Cabinet and an improving slate of provincial governors; 18 of 34 were replaced over the past year, and most look like improvements. 

Westerners were upset by Karzai’s firing of reform-minded Interior Minister Hanif Atmar last spring. But his successor, Bismillah Mohammadi, seems every bit as good. He reportedly takes taxis to visit his police forces on duty without warning — both to keep them on their toes and to gauge what training and equipment they require. He recently replaced 27 police chiefs, appointing successors who, on balance, seem stronger choices.

In addition, Karzai finally approved an Afghan local police program that could organize some community defense forces under NATO instruction and Interior Ministry supervision. This is to provide intermediate, if stopgap, security in some secondary areas.

The goal is to organize 10,000 Afghans, with the potential for substantially more later if the Afghan government approves. This effort may be complemented with stronger local reconciliation efforts — not a grand bargain with the Taliban, most probably, but community-based peace plans that Gen. David Petraeus is promoting. Some in the International Security Assistance Force believe this could quickly reduce the size of the insurgency by 10 percent to 20 percent.

The best news may be about the Afghan security forces. About half of all Afghan army units are now assessed at 3 or better on a 5-point scale of effectiveness. The evaluation system has been toughened up and measures quality of leadership as well as troops’ dependability and loyalty.

Sectarian tensions within units are now generally not severe. In addition, new efforts are under way to recruit more southern Pashtuns, who have been severely underrepresented, though Pashtuns from the center and north are present in good numbers.

Most important, nearly all Afghan army units are now partnered with NATO/ISAF forces, meaning they collaborate frequently and often patrol together. This intensive apprenticeship is helping reform and improve not only the army but also the police.

The Afghan government’s civilian departments remain weak. But efforts like the National Solidarity Program, which disburses modest cash grants to communities that form informal development councils under government and ISAF supervision, help compensate.

In addition, H.R. McMaster, acknowledged as one of the U.S. Army’s leading one-star generals, is now running a new task force to reform ISAF contracting practices — which enrich some Afghans while enraging others. McMaster probably can’t solve this problem, but if he mitigates it and allows financial benefits to reach a wider array of tribes and communities, the insurgency is likely to have fewer Afghan recruits.

Where does this leave us? One can hope that the positive trends outweigh the negative. But it is a close call and too soon to be optimistic. We need further improvements in our strategy, beyond McMaster’s task force and other new efforts.

The biggest opportunity may lie in Pakistan. Earlier this year, Pakistani forces moved into tribal regions to go after their own Taliban and arrested some of the Afghan Taliban as well. But progress has slowed or even reversed. The terrible floods diverted the army’s attention, and Pakistan now appears to be tolerating, if not actively supporting, greater activities by Afghan insurgents on its territory.

It is time for reinvigorated high-level diplomacy with Pakistan and perhaps a new bargain with Islamabad. Even if Pakistan cannot yet be persuaded to eliminate its terrorist sanctuaries, viewing them as a hedge against a rapid U.S. departure, Pakistani leaders might be induced to insist that these insurgent networks cool their activities.

This would give us a chance to build a stable Afghanistan, which would surely serve Pakistan’s long-term interests more than a lawless western frontier. In addition to increased aid, Washington might even propose a new bilateral alliance, formalized once the war in Afghanistan turns the corner.

This would be a conditional offer — contingent on improved assistance from Pakistan. It could be tied to a nuclear energy deal similar to that recently approved with India. Then Pakistan would have solid relations with both China and the United States, perhaps reducing its leaders’ desires to seek a sphere of influence or of “strategic depth” within Afghanistan.

Afghanistan remains a tough fight, but at least three-quarters of the country — starting with bustling Kabul, extending into most of the north and west and including parts of the east — is either in reasonably promising shape or improving.

So we should remain hopeful for now. The current strategy could well produce significant and convincing progress within a few months.