Afghanistan policy is in crisis, at least in the United States. With Osama bin Laden now dead, some are wondering whether it’s time to declare this mission accomplished — or with Afghanistan so troubled, perhaps it’s mission impossible? In fact, it is mission incomplete: The Afghanistan mission is going worse than we had all hoped, but better than many understand. With patience and perseverance, we can still struggle to a tolerable outcome.
There is no denying that the past weeks have represented a setback for NATO efforts. Afghans, angered by the desecration of Qurans at a U.S. base, recently demonstrated violently against the NATO forces in their country, and the March 11 massacre of 16 Afghans by an apparently deranged U.S. soldier will only increase popular anger. These resentments have been further fueled by Iran and Pakistan and have rightly raised doubts that international forces have sufficient support in Afghanistan to complete the mission they have embarked upon.
But beneath the headlines, international forces are actually making substantial progress. This has been particularly evident in Afghanistan’s south, reflecting Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s 2009 concept that the provinces of Kandahar and Helmand represented the heartland of the Taliban movement and that securing the main population and transportation corridors in those provinces would deprive insurgents of their chief support bases. This part of the plan, at least in military terms, has worked reasonably well. Most of the populated south has been cleared of important insurgent sanctuaries, weapons caches, and improvised-explosive-device fields. Violence was down about one-third in 2011, relative to 2010. There has been at least some progress in the quality of governance, too — for example under Gov. Mohammad Gulab Mangal in Helmand, where far more provincial and district offices are now staffed and where citizens now line up at government buildings to request officials’ help with their problems and needs.
Meanwhile, the deterioration that had occurred in Afghanistan’s north and west in recent years has been arrested and partially reversed. Kabul has worsened slightly in statistical terms over the last year, but only modestly: The capital still accounts for less than 1 percent of insurgent attacks nationally, despite containing about 15 percent of the country’s population. Overall, enemy-initiated attacks in Afghanistan are down almost 25 percent over the last few months, relative to the comparable period last year.