What to make of Afghanistan today? Certainly newspaper-headline readers tend to have a negative view. Beyond the fact that this is now our nation's longest war, and also a rather deadly one with several hundred GIs per year losing their lives in battle, progress seems minimal. The latest bad news is a string of high-profile assassinations in the country by a combination of Taliban sympathizers, disgruntled individuals and Afghan soldiers gone berserk. Before that there was the attack on the Intercontinental Hotel in Kabul. Before that the scandal with President Karzai trying to muscle out sixty-two members of parliament over purported electoral irregularities that in fact he was not supposed to adjudicate himself. Before that Karzai publicly accused the United States of questionable intentions towards his country. Before that the Kabul Bank scandal in which Karzai cronies apparently enriched themselves illicitly on a scale not seen since Wall Street circa 2007–2008. On top of all this, overall violence levels—while down slightly nationwide—have declined less than many of us would have hoped given all the progress with clearing Taliban-infested areas last year. And Pakistan remains a highly dubious partner in the broader enterprise, continuing to protect sanctuaries for Afghan insurgents on its soil. As new American leadership takes over in Kabul in the form of General John Allen and Ambassador Ryan Crocker, is there any basis for hope?
The answer is yes. But only with the right and realistic definition of success. Rather than expecting to defeat the insurgency in the years between now and 2014, when the NATO-led mission is supposed to have fully handed the baton to Afghan security forces nationwide, we should think of this stage of the war as just that—a stage—that prepares Afghan forces to carry on the fight themselves thereafter. The best analogy might be Colombia, where narcotraffickers remain dangerous today, but where the momentum is on the side of the state and the problem is at least partially contained.
Put differently, we are after an Afghan state that can control its own territory reasonably well so that extremist groups cannot use it the way al-Qaeda did before. It should be able to do so with only modest outside help in the form of foreign boots on the ground, even if substantial financial and technical assistance will have to continue indefinitely. And even if it cannot stamp out all insurgency on its soil, it should be capable of preventing an insurgency from growing, and also of going after particularly pernicious elements that may arise in the future. One major concern is indeed al-Qaeda—which may be substantially less defeated than Secretary of Defense Panetta unwisely intimated the other day. Another concern is the Pakistani Taliban with its designs on that country's government and nuclear arsenal. A further major worry is Lashkar-e-Taiba with its designs on India and its willingness to spark an Indo-Pakistani war that could conceivably go nuclear. Were the Afghan state to fail in the future, it would present a far larger and safer potential sanctuary for these groups than any spot in Somalia, Yemen or even the tribal belts of Pakistan.
By these standards of success—helping the Afghan state deny large safe areas to such groups—we have a very good chance of accomplishing the mission. Consider numerous recent developments and current realities:
• Last year, in major clearing operations in Kandahar and Helmand provinces, Afghan forces provided more than half of combined troopers for the missions, with NATO providing a minority.
• Today in Kabul, Afghan forces have primary responsibility for security and lead night raids there as well.
• Even in cases where insurgents still strike in the capital city, as in this month's Intercontinental Hotel tragedy, Afghan forces have taken the lead in repulsing the attacks. NATO snipers on a helicopter took out two of the attackers in that incident, but Afghan police special forces, led on the scene by Minister of Interior BK Mohammadi, found and killed the other seven without using bursts of indiscriminate gunfire or large explosive charges that could have caused additional casualties to innocents.
• As has been frequently discussed of late, Afghan forces are taking over primary security roles now in places including Lashkar Gah in Helmand Province. That is impressive, given the severity of the insurgency in that region in recent times. They are also constantly on patrol with NATO units throughout the deadly south, and in some cases they are initiating operations on their own.
• It is true that only one battalion of Afghan Army forces is rated truly independent out of more than 150 nationwide. But a more important standard is the number of battalions conducting operations with only modest NATO help. That group now makes up one-third of the total. Another third is rated as being effective when in full partnership with NATO—in other words, capable of doing maybe half the job at present. These numbers signify huge progress since a year or two ago.
• Assassinations have been, to be sure, hugely concerning, with at least three prominent police chiefs and two major politicians killed in recent months, in addition to the rank and file troops and police who lose their lives daily. But, knock on wood, it is also worth remembering that no district governors or cabinet members have been killed in recent times, nor have top-level foreign officials. The country is at war, and dangerous, and people are fearful to be sure. But again, think Colombia, or Sicily in earlier times, or even Iraq today. These kinds of losses are part of the tragedy of conflict, but probably do not foretell a crumbling state.
We have a long way to go in Afghanistan. President Obama's decision to pull out one-third of all U.S. troops by the end of next summer rather than allow commanders the additional months they had requested makes the job harder—and perhaps ultimately slower. Even more, politics in Kabul (and Islamabad) remain largely broken, and their sorry state contributes to the insurgency by disenfranchising and angering many Afghans. We have our work cut out for us. But there is lots of positive news to give encouragement to the effort.