Op-Ed

States Of Conflict: A Final Update

Ian Livingston and Michael E. O’Hanlon

A version of this chart has been appearing in the op-ed pages every few months for eight years. The first was published eight months after the invasion of Iraq, and data from the conflicts in Afghanistan and Pakistan were added in more recent years. Gains have been made in these three countries, but violence persists and peace is by no means assured. Nonetheless, with the end of the war in Iraq officially announced last week, this will be the last of the series.

Of the three, Iraq has presented the most extreme swings. In the months after the invasion, the country was relatively quiet — at least on the surface — but then it exploded in violence. Since 2007, however, war-related violence has declined more than tenfold, even as the role of United States forces has gradually shrunk. That, along with accelerating economic progress, is the good news. The bad news is that violence persists. Politics remain unstable and there are signs of increasing sectarian division. This fall, the government of Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, a Shiite, summarily arrested hundreds of former Baathists, many of them Sunnis. Fewer than 40 percent of Iraqis say they are hopeful about the future.

Pakistan has seen some slight political progress since the military dictatorship ended in 2008. And the rise of the Pakistani Taliban appears to have been checked by the Pakistani Army. But extremist violence and assassinations continue, and civilian control of the country is weak. A recession — set off by the financial crisis in the United States — has set back the country’s economic trajectory. And elements in the government and security service appear to be playing a double, if not triple, game in Afghanistan. The United States has less and less confidence that Pakistan can be viewed as an ally.

Afghanistan was relatively peaceful in 2003, when the recently deposed Taliban had yet to start a full-fledged insurgency. Since then the country has returned to a state of war. President George W. Bush, and to a greater extent President Obama, responded with a major increase in troop levels. The fruits of those efforts are finally emerging — nationwide, there were 20 percent fewer insurgent attacks in the latter part of 2011 than in the same months of 2010. But that statistic masks the fact that, in the east of the country near the Pakistani border, there were actually 20 percent more insurgent attacks in that period. And a culture of corruption — which American aid has often inadvertently reinforced — continues to infect almost every sector of business and government. Nonetheless, the average Afghan’s quality of life has improved. And the Afghan Army is increasingly competent, though still relatively small.

Finally, al Qaeda writ large is much weaker than it was eight years ago. More than half of its top leaders have been arrested or killed — including, this year, Osama bin Laden and Anwar al-Awlaki. But we must keep a wary eye on it, as well as on related terrorist groups, like the Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Taiba.

On balance, it has been an extremely painful and costly decade. But it does seem possible to conclude, with cautious optimism, that America is somewhat safer. And we are certainly closer than ever to ending our current round of overseas wars.

View a chart of indicators for the conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan at nytimes.com »

Authors