Afghanistan policy is in crisis, at least in the United States. With Osama bin Laden now dead, some are wondering whether it's time to declare this mission accomplished -- or with Afghanistan so troubled, perhaps it's mission impossible? In fact, it is mission incomplete: The Afghanistan mission is going worse than we had all hoped, but better than many understand. With patience and perseverance, we can still struggle to a tolerable outcome.
There is no
denying that the past weeks have represented a setback for NATO efforts. Afghans,
angered by the desecration of Qurans at a U.S. base, recently demonstrated
violently against the NATO forces in their country, and the March 11
massacre of 16 Afghans by an apparently deranged U.S. soldier will only increase popular anger. These resentments have been further fueled
by Iran and Pakistan and have rightly raised doubts that international forces have sufficient
support in Afghanistan to complete the mission they have embarked upon.
But beneath the headlines, international forces are actually making substantial progress. This has been particularly evident in Afghanistan's south, reflecting Gen. Stanley McChrystal's 2009 concept that the provinces of Kandahar and Helmand represented the heartland of the Taliban movement and that securing the main population and transportation corridors in those provinces would deprive insurgents of their chief support bases. This part of the plan, at least in military terms, has worked reasonably well. Most of the populated south has been cleared of important insurgent sanctuaries, weapons caches, and improvised-explosive-device fields. Violence was down about one-third in 2011, relative to 2010. There has been at least some progress in the quality of governance, too -- for example under Gov. Mohammad Gulab Mangal in Helmand, where far more provincial and district offices are now staffed and where citizens now line up at government buildings to request officials' help with their problems and needs.
Meanwhile, the deterioration that had occurred in Afghanistan's north and west in recent years has been arrested and partially reversed. Kabul has worsened slightly in statistical terms over the last year, but only modestly: The capital still accounts for less than 1 percent of insurgent attacks nationally, despite containing about 15 percent of the country's population. Overall, enemy-initiated attacks in Afghanistan are down almost 25 percent over the last few months, relative to the comparable period last year.
Despite the recent rash of tragedies involving Afghan attacks on NATO troops, there are important indicators that Afghan security forces are improving too -- not enough to quell the insurgency, but enough to prevent Taliban reconquest of the country's major cities and transportation routes even after 2014, when U.S. President Barack Obama has announced that the current NATO mission in Afghanistan will end. Afghan security forces are securing Kabul largely on their own. They provided at least half of combined forces on major operations in the south in 2010 and 2011 and are increasingly in the driver's seat in parts of that region now. And Afghans from the south are also starting to join police forces in substantial numbers.
All is not well, of course. Afghanistan's east was 20 percent more violent statistically in 2011 than in 2010, as insurgents belonging to the infamous Haqqani network and others wreaked havoc, and international forces remain underresourced there. Obama's decision to accelerate the drawdown of U.S. forces in Afghanistan from 100,000 to 68,000 by this September will impede the previously planned reinforcement of foreign troops there. If, as recently announced, France withdraws its troops more quickly than previously expected, that also will hurt stability in the east. And U.N. statistics suggest that, if insurgent attacks are somewhat lower, crime is somewhat higher.
So there are reasons for observers to have doubts about the future of the Afghanistan mission. But this is far from a quagmire: Even without further accelerations of the U.S. troop drawdown, there is a clear campaign plan for reducing the U.S. role and presence over the next 30 months. This will happen, for better or worse -- nobody should fear an unending military commitment in Afghanistan.