Slogging it Out in Afghanistan

How is it really going in Afghanistan? In his recent testimony before Congress, Gen. David H. Petraeus reported substantial if fragile progress and conveyed a can-do attitude reflecting confidence about our prospects. Yet press reports and some organizations and individuals on the ground seem to grow more dispirited by the month. Is this mission really doable – and should we stick with it?

In fact, both supporters and critics of the current effort in Afghanistan make valid points. Based largely on a recent trip there under U.S. military auspices, we find the military gains promising. At the same time, the challenges of working with the Afghan and Pakistani governments remain severe, and the insurgency is proving very resilient. On balance, given the stakes and the natural path toward a gradual exit inherent in current strategy, it makes little sense to pull up stakes prematurely. The war is a slog, but a slog worth sustaining.

Gen. Petraeus made many encouraging points – for example, about offensive military successes in Helmand and Kandahar provinces; the expanding “security bubble” around the capital of Kabul; growth and improvement of the Afghan army and police; and a grass-roots security program supervised by the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) and the Afghan government known as the Afghan Local Police. To this one might add:

1. A gradual improvement in security in the country’s key population centers over the past year. While such methodologies can always be questioned, the ISAF assessed that just 30 percent of such provinces were at least reasonably safe last winter, whereas this year’s figure is up to 50 percent.

2. More important, the Afghan population seems to agree with such judgments. Recent surveys show that 45 percent of Afghans feel safe traveling about today – a far cry from acceptable figures, but up a dozen percentage points relative to last summer. Importantly, Afghans credit not just NATO-led forces but their own army and police for the improvements.

3. The ISAF estimates that 95 Afghan army battalions, while hardly independent yet, are at least somewhat effective when operating with foreign partners. That is almost twice as many as a year ago and represents two-thirds of the country’s military units. (The main police forces have further to go by most accounts.)

4. Despite recent tragedies, the country’s north is hardly falling apart. Foreign troops have more than doubled there over the past two years even as Afghan leaders and forces have stepped up their game, too. While the ambient level of violence is regrettably higher than before, about seven in 10 northerners believe overall trends are favorable, according to recent surveys.

5. Despite the tensions with President Hamid Karzai, which are serious, and the problems of weak governance and corruption, those working in the field with Afghan governors and with many ministers report slow but gradual progress in the overall quality and performance of Afghan leaders.

6. Even though it remains too reliant on the country’s Tajiks, the elite Afghan National Police force shows steady improvement even as it grows – including a reduction in its annualized AWOL/attrition rate from 75 percent of all personnel a year ago to 40 percent now.

7. Under Brig. Gen. H.R. McMaster, the ISAF is getting serious about corruption. Nine corrupt firms, including some that used to subcontract to Taliban-related elements, have been debarred from working with NATO. In addition, contracts have been broken down in size in an effort to spread the economic benefits of the foreign military presence to a broader range of actors and key tribes.

To be sure, there is ample reason for worry as well. Violence was way up overall last year, and it is too simple to explain all of this as simply the result of more ISAF/Afghan government offensive operations. Pakistan’s true commitment to deny sanctuary to Afghan insurgents operating on its territory is open to serious doubt. Malign actors continue not only to skim money from the government’s revenues, but to grab land and attack the nation’s core institutions such as Kabul Bank as a result of their greed. Mr. Karzai does not appear complicit personally in such actions, but he is unable to corral his friends and allies. His own commitment to the mission and to partnership with NATO is shaky at best. Reconciliation and reintegration efforts are going very slowly, and the prospects for rapid success, as suggested by a recent U.S. task force, while worth exploring, seem mediocre overall.

Making a net assessment of the Afghanistan war’s trajectory is thus very difficult, and it is hardly surprising that different people come to different assessments. Fortunately, even if this summer’s military drawdown proves modest, as we believe it should be, the coalition is on a path toward substantial troop reductions beginning sometime next year. Largely because of the improvement in Afghan security forces, the outcome of all this effort may be a weak but functioning Afghan state, albeit one that may not be able to control all of its territory. That is not a glorious prospect, to be sure. But it is still far better than the likely alternative if we leave too soon.