Even though the Marja campaign is proceeding in fits and starts right now, as is expected in such battles, the overall news from Afghanistan has been very encouraging this week. Despite some setbacks, the mission in Marja has been relatively successful to date, with only modest numbers of casualties to American and Afghan troopers, as well as Afghan civilians by the standards of such combat. And we are hearing very encouraging news about Pakistan's increased willingness to go after elements of the Afghan Taliban within in its own territory, including the arrest and interrogation of Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, its number two leader, as well as of two "shadow governors" that the Taliban hire to run virtual government structures within Afghanistan.
This news about expanded cooperation from Pakistan jives generally with what I just heard at a conference on U.S.-Pakistan strategic relations this week in Doha, organized by Brookings, and supported by Washington's National Defense University and the government of Qatar. The Pakistani participants in the meeting included a range of journalists, academics, retired military officers and former diplomats. While the Pakistanis had many criticisms and complaints about American policy, the overall tenor of the meeting suggested a great deal of common purpose between the two countries.
In fairness to the Pakistanis, and in the interest of not deluding ourselves into believing that all will be easy from this point onward, several of their common concerns should be registered. For starters, they still doubt our real commitment to the region, having heard President Obama's December 1 speech in which he promised the beginning of a U.S. drawdown in Afghanistan by July 2011, and having watched us leave the region behind on several previous occasions. They also tell us not to feel too charitable about the aid packages we offer them, estimating that in their eyes the U.S.-led Afghan campaign has cost them more than it has helped them, in financial and other terms.
Many of them are dubious about Afghans' ability to really forge a cohesive country out of their disparate tribes and sectarian groups. And they can resent the pressure from Washington for them to always "do more" in their own internal struggles against extremists, doubting that we really understand counterinsurgency operations so much better than they do, and emphasizing that they must consolidate their recent progress in places like the Swat Valley and South Waziristan before taking their campaign to other places such as North Waziristan. They also remind us not to worry too much about their own commitment-after all, whatever the stakes for us in Pakistan, that country's stability is even more important to Pakistanis themselves, and they will hardly fail to take the situation seriously, as proven by the sacrifices of many hundreds of Pakistani troops who have lost their lives combating internal extremism in recent years.
While the other Americans and I sometimes disagreed with certain Pakistani perspectives, and underscored that for the most part we consider President Obama quite committed to the theater, it must be said that a number of these Pakistani arguments were made rather persuasively.
Differences aside, there is a great deal of common purpose in Islamabad and Washington today, as reflected not only in unofficial or "Track II" dialogues like ours, but also government policy making. Taken together with the hopefulness and commitment of the Afghan people, as reflected in recent polls that show them firmly opposed to the Taliban and supportive of their own government as well as NATO forces, and the increased troops and other resources now flowing into the theater, these developments make me optimistic about what is likely to occur in Afghanistan in 2010. On U.S.-Pakistan cooperation, consider these points:
--Most importantly, Pakistanis clearly prefer a long-term partnership with the United States to going it alone. They are wary of our intentions and motives, to be sure, and they remain jaded by past experiences when short-term U.S.-Pakistani cooperation often was followed by what they perceived as abandonment. But the clear preference was for a real sustained mutual commitment to work together. As one Pakistani put it, "If you aren't serious, you might as well get out now so we can get on with things. But if you are serious, we can find a way to work together."
--Pakistanis took pride in explaining their counterinsurgency techniques that have led to major progress against their own extremists. Their military leadership, whatever its flaws, has a real patriotism and professional pride about the nation's armed forces, while acknowledging their weaknesses. For example, they know that they need more civilian capacity to carry out what we would call "build" operations after they conduct the "clear and hold" parts of the counter-Taliban campaigns.
--That said, Pakistanis are capable of disagreeing amongst themselves about matters of state policy, and even former military leaders are willing to criticize current Pakistani military operations with an eye towards improving them-echoing the debates one hears within the U.S. military about such things, and displaying a healthy intellectual openness.
--Pakistanis acknowledge that we Americans are doing a better job these days limiting civilian casualties in drone strikes on their territory, again displaying a welcome realism.
--Our interlocutors also respect the quality of U.S. strategic leadership now being directed towards their region, complimenting General Petraeus and General McChrystal among others for many of their ideas.
Taken together, these and other recent developments lead me already to revise in a favorable direction my prognosis of the Afghan campaign. Last year I saw the odds of at least moderate success as about 50-50. While recognizing that we are far from success now, I am increasingly of the view that we are likely to achieve most of our core strategic goals in the current Afghan campaign, with major progress likely this year. Of course, only time will tell.
Michael O'Hanlon is the co-author, with Hassina Sherjan, of Toughing It Out in Afghanistan, released earlier this month by Brookings Institution Press. He is also the Sydney Stein, Jr. chair and director of research for the 21st century defense initiative at the Brookings Institution.