Was It a Good Year in Afghanistan?

Looking back at a troubling 2012 filled with progress and peril, it's hard to determine whether the United States is winning this war.

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.

For Afghans, of course, the big question is whether their nation is getting less violent. Here too, the statistics are mixed: A broad gauge of violence, as measured by enemy-initiated attacks, is down only a few percent this year relative to last year, which was itself a modest improvement relative to 2010. The net reduction of violence over the past two years is about 10 percent.

The good news is that the numbers are going down, even as NATO starts to downsize. Fully 100,000 American "boots on the ground" worked to ensure peace and stability in 2011 -- since the surge ended, that figure has declined by more than 30,000 soldiers. Many of the cities have seen notable improvements: Kabul remains quite safe, accounting for fewer than 1 percent of all nationwide attacks -- with NATO troops providing very little of the security. Kandahar City and the northern hub of Mazar-e-Sharif are much improved, with attacks down 60 percent or more in each city this year. The western city of Herat is somewhat safer too, and the nation's ring road, which essentially follows the nation's perimeter, appears substantially more usable than a couple years ago.

The bad news, however, is that the 10 percent decline in violence nationwide is within the likely error margins, since not all violence is observed or documented by NATO or Afghan troops. As a result, it is hard to claim too much major improvement. And by other metrics -- like the number of civilians killed by the Taliban -- there is no progress at all.

Again, reaching a bottom line on what's happening in Afghanistan is hard. There is grist for both hope and anxiety in such figures.

Afghanistan's economy presents a similarly mixed picture. The good news is that it has consistently grown at a 6 to 8 percent clip in recent years. The bad news is that much of this growth is due to the twin stimulants of the huge foreign presence in Afghanistan and revenues generated from the opium economy. Even worse, widespread corruption means that wealth doesn't always trickle down to those most in need.

Other indicators of how life is improving for Afghans are less ambiguous. Some 90 percent of the population has access to basic health care within an hour's walk of their homes -- and as a result, life expectancy appears to have increased by more than a decade over the course of a few short years. Nearly 10 million children are in school, and more than 38,000 are enrolled in vocational schools, an increase of one-third over the last 12 months, preparing students for the types of jobs that Afghanistan's economy actually generates. Electricity production is up fourfold since the mid-2000s.

But even amid such statistics, there are troubling indicators. For example, access to electricity in rural areas as well as urban slums is still quite limited, and the increased availability of power has mostly benefited the privileged urban elites.

President Hamid Karzai's government is itself a mixed bag. He is personally popular and continues to poll well, with 70 percent of Afghans or more regularly saying they hold a favorable opinion of him. And more Afghans than not say their country is moving in the right direction: The latest figures from the Asia Foundation show a 52-31 favorable-unfavorable split when asked about the basic trajectory of their country. That's better than in most recent years -- or for that matter, most other countries in the world. But there are still enough disaffected Afghans to produce ample recruits for the insurgency, and uncertainty about the 2014 elections has led to fears about a possible return to civil war should the campaign exacerbate sectarian tensions. 

Afghanistan also can't be at peace unless its neighbors stop using it as a battleground from which to pursue their interests. Pakistan's role in the conflict has improved somewhat, with greater tactical cooperation near the border and a reopening of supply lines in 2012. But it continues to allow the operation of fertilizer plants within its territory that provide the raw materials for roadside bombs, rather than insisting on the production of more benign forms of fertilizer. Islamabad also continues to allow the Haqqani network to operate in North Waziristan, among its other ties with insurgent groups.

As we prepare to ring in 2013, determining what lies ahead for Afghanistan remains a murky venture. It's a close call as to whether the good news slightly outweighs the bad, but there are certainly glimmers of hope. Anyone who claims to be able to predict the future there has a clearer crystal ball than we possess.

Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images


North Korea Does Not Believe in Unicorns

But it does believe in promoting a fanciful version of its own history.

In early December, the Korean Central News Agency, North Korea's state wire service, provoked much online merriment when it reported that archaeologists had "reconfirmed" an ancient "unicorn lair" in the heart of Pyongyang. The discovery, "associated with legend about King Tongmyong, proves that Pyongyang was a capital city of Ancient Korea," the article claimed.

The legend in question has it that the king, who founded the powerful Koguryo kingdom in the third century A.D. and was a descendent of the creator of the world, rode a mythical beast. The Koguryo extended through northeastern China toward the Mongolian frontier and down the Korean peninsula south of Seoul; it was one of the most powerful kingdoms in Asia, and its later capital was in Pyongyang.

So was North Korea claiming that unicorns exist, as some mocking accounts put it? Nope. A Korea scholar quickly debunked that interpretation, explaining that "unicorn" was a mistranslation. The mythical beast was actually a kirin, a four-legged creature with the head of a dragon and the body of a tiger. And it turned out that the North Koreans weren't using the fanciful story to prove that the kirin actually existed. Instead, they were reinstating their claim on the king's birthplace, to remind their people and their neighbours that North Korea was once a great nation, and can be so again.

North Korea's relentlessly propagandistic state media often mentions how Tongmyong built a military powerhouse by unifying tribes throughout the peninsula, and has mentioned his 7th century successor, King Yeongyang, who slaughtered tens of thousands of Chinese troops instead of paying tribute to Beijing. North Korea is keen to portray Kim Jong Un as the inheritor of this legacy. In mid-December, KCNA called his successful rocket launch an event "to be specially recorded in the 5,000-year-long history of the nation." A Jan. 8, 2012 propaganda documentary about Kim placed him in the tradition of Korean kings by describing his relationship to Mount Paektu, the mythical birthplace of both the Korean nation and Kim Jong Il. Two days after state media praised Kim Jong-un's horse-riding prowess, KCNA ran an article extolling ancient Koguryo traditions -- of horsemanship.

Glorifying past kings is unsurprising in a country where leaders are worshipped like gods. In 1993, then President Kim Il Sung approved the reconstruction of King Tongmyong's tomb complex -- a year before he himself was interred in a marble mausoleum in the heart of Pyongyang that cost an estimated $100 million to construct. The country is reportedly expanding former President Kim Jong Il's massive marble tomb so he can lie in state next to his favourite Italian yacht.

But North Korea also commemorates Koguryo to remind its neighbours that the past is just as important a battleground as the present. Apart from Pyongyang, the world's largest concentration of Koguryo tombs lies in that empire's former capital Ji'an, a city that now belongs to China. When Kim Jong Il passed through the area on his armored train in August 2010, he was allowed to stop in a nearby city to sample wine, but couldn't stop in Ji'an, where the Chinese have been constructing a new museum to tell their story of the Koguryo -- that it was always Chinese, not Korean. In November 2011, after a high-ranking Chinese delegation left Pyongyang, KCNA ran several articles about Chinese cowardice and malfeasance -- in the 7th and 11th centuries.

And it's not just China: North Korea's historical beef with Japan goes well back into the 16th century, when samurai plundered the southern half of the Korean peninsula and invaded Pyongyang. The invasion comes up regularly in North Korean children's stories, popular documentaries, and historical dramas, where it's portrayed (inaccurately) as a Korean victory despite Japanese savagery. Pyongyang reaches even further back in history for the Dokdos, a group of small islands in the Sea of Japan whose ownership it disputes with Japan and South Korea. In May, KCNA wrote about a "detailed report" put out by Kim Il Sung University proving that the "Koguryo expanded its territory" to a nearby region, putting those islands under its control and thus disproving Japan's claim as "brigandish sophism."

When a delegation of Japanese came to Pyongyang during a brief thaw in October, the North Koreans made sure to film them in front of a huge new mural of Korean naval victories over Japan of the late 1590s, placed in one of Kim Jong Un's signature "theme parks." The subtext was clear: North Korea defeated Japan in the past, and could do so again in the future.

In short, North Korea may not be claiming that unicorns exist, but its other forays into history are just as fanciful.