Avoiding Defeatism on Afghanistan

Four drivers of pessimism and why they don't mean the Afghan war has been a failure.

Media reports have not been kind to Afghanistan in recent weeks. The rising threat of insider violence, anti-U.S. demonstrations and high-profile attacks, the U.S. death toll surpassing two thousand and the appointment of a controversial intelligence chief have fuelled pessimism about the country’s fate.

This negative view has also been put forth in The National Interest. Oleg Svet argued that counterinsurgency had failed in Afghanistan, noting the rise in U.S. casualty rates since 2009 as the principal evidence. James Joyner called the Afghanistan war “unwinnable” and the mission “unachievable”; the decision to limit NATO cooperation with Afghan security forces marked the point when the United States “finally admitted the obvious.” Michael Barrett argued that Washington should cut its losses to avoid unacceptably high levels of economic and reputational costs.

This comes just after the United States completed its drawdown of the thirty-three thousand surge forces and as the Obama administration contemplates the contours of the U.S. effort toward the day that Afghanistan assumes full responsibility for its security. Recent setbacks must be taken seriously. But they should not lead to revived defeatism based on unbalanced assessments of developments. Consider the four latest drivers of pessimism on Afghanistan:

1. Green-on-Blue Violence

Western troops have suffered more than fifty casualties in 2012 at the hands of Afghan counterparts, surpassing the toll in 2011 and from 2008–2010. The attacks tear at the vital bonds between Afghan and international forces and further strain the public and political support for the mission. In this light, the decision to temporarily restrict coalition cooperation with Afghan forces was a timely step to prevent a vicious cycle driven by the centrifugal forces of rising insider attacks and waning international political will.

But the risk should be put in perspective. Today, some one hundred thousand coalition soldiers collaborate with 350,000 Afghan forces on a daily basis. Afghan soldiers man the frontline in areas covering about 75 percent of the population. Coalition training and mentoring of Afghan security forces is critical to the goal of a stable Afghan state and a viable international withdrawal. As Afghans step up and the coalition steps back into a mentoring role, overall Western casualties will continue to decline while the share of noncombat casualties will increase.

2. Anti-American Sentiments and New High-Profile Attacks

Recent anti-U.S. demonstrations and high-profile attacks, most notably the September 14 attack on Camp Bastion, a key coalition base and logistical hub in Helmand province, have led to claims that the security situation is worsening or at least not conducive to a responsible international military drawdown. Surely, the rise in anti-American sentiment complicates U.S. efforts, strengthens the hand of antidemocratic forces and makes it harder for moderate Afghan leaders to stand shoulder to shoulder with American allies. This can create significant long-term challenges to U.S.-Afghan cooperation. High-profile attacks, in turn, are important reminders of the insurgency’s capacity to sow disorder and challenge the authority of the Afghan state.

Yet these challenges should be assessed alongside other, more encouraging signs: civilian casualties and insurgent attacks are in decline compared to 2011; security has improved or remained stable in areas where Afghan forces have taken lead security responsibility; the monthly rate of reintegration, or insurgents at the mid- and lower levels who stop fighting and accept alternative livelihoods provided by the state, is up by almost 50 percent in 2012. Moreover, most Afghans still recognize that the vision of a stable and more prosperous Afghanistan requires a long-term, robust and functional relationship with the United States. These trends are, as it has been said many times before, neither irreversible nor decisive. But they should be taken into account in any fair and balanced assessment.

3. Total U.S. Casualties

The U.S. death toll passed a dark milestone recently as it reached two thousand war casualties in Afghanistan. In addition, one must neither forget or disregard the thousands of the U.S. servicemen and women who have returned from Afghanistan with physical and mental scars. The toll raises a legitimate debate over how to balance U.S. national interests, costs and strategy in Afghanistan. Valid and nuanced arguments can lead to very different calibrations of this balance. But too many arguments, on both sides of the debate, rest on biased assessments and weak analysis.