As 2012 draws to a close, we should all cast a thought to the roughly 68,000 American living in dusty military outposts in places such as Kabul and Kandahar who are celebrating the holiday season far from their loved ones. It has been a busy year in Afghanistan -- U.S. forces have downsized by one-third, Afghans have assumed much more responsibility for the security of their country, NATO supply lines through Pakistan were reopened, and the U.S.-Afghan Strategic Partnership Agreement was signed. But the question remains: Are we really winning this war?
When assessing the facts and figures, it's hard to separate spin from substance. Reaching any hard conclusions about where Afghanistan is heading is no easy task. For those who want to believe the mission is going badly or who believe the war is a distraction from more pressing American national priorities, it is easy to find dismal trends to make their case. For those still hopeful, it is comparably easy to identify signature successes that put the United States on track to achieving President Barack Obama's stated goal of ending the current mission by 2014.
Take the recent debate, spurred by the Pentagon's December 2012 semi-annual "1230" report to Congress, on the evolution of Afghan security forces' capabilities. That report identified only one Afghan army brigade that is in the top tier of readiness and no longer requires any outside help for its operations. Some critics have concluded that this illustrates the failure of U.S. efforts to develop strong Afghan security partners.
Admittedly, the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF), the country's military and police forces, is a work in progress at best. But at a time when the ANSF lacks ample airpower or logistics support, this is in fact inevitable. These deficits are almost by design, as such capabilities were viewed by NATO and Afghan officials as secondary priorities -- to be emphasized once the core infantry force structure was built.
Beneath the surface, meanwhile, there have been significant improvements within the Afghan military. It is now near its full, intended size of roughly 350,000 soldiers. There are now 92 kandaks -- formations of battalion size, or a few hundred soldiers -- scoring in the top two tiers of readiness. That's triple the number of late 2010, and 30 more than at this time last year.
A better indicator of ANSF preparedness is the percentage of missions Afghan forces are now leading -- or even conducting entirely independently of foreign assistance. This metric not only speaks to technical readiness, but morale, leadership, and the commitment of the armed forces to the nation.
Encouragingly, these numbers are improving fast. A year ago, Afghan forces led less than 40 percent of all missions -- today, according to the "1230" report, the figure is closer to 85 percent. Admittedly, this information does not tell us if the Afghan forces are now leading the most challenging operations or how well they are doing, but it does tell us something about their willingness to put their lives on the line for their country. The Afghan special forces represent a particular bright spot: They are not only leading a large fraction of all special operations missions -- they are undertaking responsibilities that are in fact quite difficult.
Other metrics are also on their way up. For example, about half of all Afghan security forces now have at least first-grade levels of literacy. The bad news, of course, is that this is a very low standard. The good news is that the figure was under 10 percent just two years ago, so progress has been rapid.
The casualty rate for Afghan forces is telling, too. Afghan army and police suffered around 1,000 fatalities a year from 2007 to 2009, then the figure grew to about 1,500 in 2010, 2,000 in 2011, and more than 3,000 this year.
This may sound as if the Afghan army is suffering more defeats with each passing year, but the story is more complicated than that. These high loss rates for Afghan forces suggest they are committed to and fighting for their country. Of course, such figures also indicate that the enemy is still resilient and dangerous, so the message is mixed. U.S. losses have declined as the ANSF has stepped up: Despite dozens of insider attacks this year -- which thankfully began to slow toward year's end -- American fatalities declined from some 500 in 2010 and more than 400 in 2011 to around 300 in 2012.