Avoiding Defeatism on Afghanistan

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.

Oleg Svet’s argument that the rise in U.S. casualties reflects a counterinsurgency failure is a case in point. At its core, counterinsurgency strategy accepts a higher degree of risk as a necessary evil for advancing population security and public support for the state. In Afghanistan, as the counterinsurgency strategy became fully operational in 2010, the rise in U.S. casualties was an anticipated cost of two shifts: a massive increase in the U.S. military presence enabling an escalation in the coalition’s operational tempo and a series of operational shifts in line with best practices in counterinsurgency: restricting U.S. rules of engagement to reduce collateral civilian casualties; operating in smaller and more flexible units in populated and often remote areas; and engaging with the local population and partnering with Afghan security forces to build personal ties and gain situational awareness.

Thus in 2010–2011, the rise in U.S. casualties was, bluntly put, the expected cost of doing it right. Svet recognizes this argument, but dismisses it “on political grounds,” presumably implying that such costs are too high. But subjective political views can relate to whether the counterinsurgency effort “is worth it,” not whether it is succeeding or failing.

Beyond the near term, counterinsurgency progress should lead to a break in the casualty curve as security gains take effect and local security forces take on increasing security responsibility. This is what is happening today. Coalition casualties in 2012 have dropped by 40 percent compared to 2011. As this transition reduces the burden, security has improved, and Washington has withdrawn thirty-three thousand troops. But remember—the decline, while positive, says very little about the sustainability of the security gains.

Equally important, the U.S. military casualty rate is a very weak basis on which to assess the crucial developmental and political efforts in the counterinsurgency strategy. For while security gains in Helmand and Kandahar and progress in the transition process warrant some optimism, grave problems on the civilian side of the equation raise considerable concern. Wide-scale corruption seriously undermines the legitimacy of the state. Governance capacity is weak at all levels of the state, compounding the poor delivery of public goods. Afghan politics is increasingly ethnicized and divisive, driving a wedge between moderates who need to stand united against proponents of violence as a means to advance interests. U.S. military casualties as a single indicator is far too narrow and unreliable a lens to assess the full scope of the counterinsurgency in Afghanistan.

4. Human-Rights Setbacks

President Karzai’s recent decision to appoint Asadullah Khalid as the new intelligence chief has been highlighted as the latest—and most blatant—sign that hard-won progress in human rights is slipping. International and Afghan watch groups point to the numerous allegations of human-rights violations that taint Khalid’s past. Irrespective of Khalid’s credentials, the larger point is undoubtedly valid: progress in human rights and political freedoms, including advances in women’s rights, are under increasing pressure. This will mount as international engagement recedes.

But the controversy over Khalid has overshadowed another, and arguably more consequential, shift in Kabul’s political elite: the appointment of Bismillah Khan Mohammadi as minister of defense. As the former minister of the interior and chief of the army general staff, Bismillah Khan is both experienced and well steeped in security challenges facing Afghanistan. He is also a prominent Tajik, the principal ethnic block aside from the Pashtuns. His appointment thus serves to maintain the political balance of power between Afghanistan’s main ethnic groups, an equilibrium which is critical to the country’s political stability. The timing is no coincidence. The move helps ease the considerable concern among non-Pashtuns that Afghanistan will develop into a predatory, Pashtunized state. These fears have fuelled a disconcerting arms buildup among non-Pashtuns in the North.

Bismillah Khan’s appointment strengthens the Tajik block politically, as the military—even more than the police—is poised to become a dominant political actor in post-2014 Afghanistan. This could prove crucial ahead of the 2014 presidential election. A successful election requires that all factions continue to see the political process, however disorderly and imperfect, as a viable vehicle to advance their core interests. The alternative, that all factions opt to advance their interests through violence, spells an electoral disaster and possibly a civil war. This would leave the country’s human-rights progress in ruins.

The challenge facing the United States as it assesses developments in Afghanistan and weighs its policy options is to navigate the murky waters that Afghanistan is muddling through. The country will continue to face spikes of instability and political crises for years to come. Washington neither can nor should tailor its engagement to these near-term shifts or to undue defeatism. The United States must keep its focus on the fundamentals that keep Afghanistan’s overall development on an even keel.

Christian Bayer Tygesen is an Anna Lindh Fellow at Stanford University and a PhD Fellow at Copenhagen University. In 2011 and 2012, he conducted fieldwork and other assignments in Kabul, Afghanistan.