States of Conflict: An Update

It is fairly straightforward to summarize the past year in Iraq and Pakistan, but a more complicated matter for Afghanistan.

This was the year of two big developments in Iraq: the major reduction in American combat forces and a protracted election in which voting in March was followed by a nine-month delay in forming a new government. Despite the political confusion, violence did not escalate, and the economy continued to make slow progress. Still, Iraq cannot afford as much stalemate in the coming year as it experienced in 2010, and the new government will need to deliver security, public services and economic growth.

Pakistan had a rougher year. The summer floods may have displaced more people than any other natural catastrophe in history. The good news is that the government’s war against the Pakistani Taliban showed some progress, if not in reducing overall violence levels then at least in terms of establishing greater control over what had been insurgent strongholds.

Regrettably, however, Pakistan’s level of cooperation with the United States against Afghan extremist groups did not show measurable progress in 2010 and may even have slipped somewhat, despite the increase in effective American drone strikes in the tribal areas. Pakistan’s civilian government continued to lose ground at home politically as well.

Afghanistan saw the completion of the American and NATO troop surges that were the focal point of President Obama’s December 2009 policy decision. Afghan security forces grew both in number and quality, and NATO clarified its plan to keep partnering with them through 2014. And while September’s parliamentary elections were marred by fraud, this time it was primarily Afghans who held other Afghans accountable in the aftermath—demonstrating some fledgling aspects of a working democratic system.

Kabul and its environs are reasonably secure and under the general control of Afghan Army and police forces, not NATO troops. But the insurgents have proved resilient, as indicated by trends in violence. Extremist sanctuaries in Pakistan remain a major problem despite Washington’s increased aid to that country. And corruption in the Kabul government remains endemic. In sum, the war’s basic trajectory remains unclear.

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