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.