The 350,000 ANSF troops operating today are doing a good job this fighting season -- their first with responsibility across the entire country -- in taking the fight aggressively to the Taliban. There has been a sharp drop in U.S. and allied casualties, a natural outgrowth of the NATO force stepping back and letting the ANSF do the fighting. This augurs well for potential success if we stay committed to mentoring and training the Afghans.
What does "success" mean in Afghanistan? It means a democratic (if somewhat corrupt) nation that has reasonable control over its borders (with occasional cross-border incidents to be expected), dominance over an ongoing but not state-threatening insurgency, improving if imperfect levels of economic growth, and a forward-leaning and growing education system with equal access for females.
The good news is that a reasonable amount of progress has already been made on these and other fronts. Nine million children, 4 million of whom are young girls, attend school (as opposed to fewer than 500,000 boys under the Taliban). Sixty percent of the population has access to health care (up from less than 10 percent under the Taliban), and life expectancy has risen from 42 to 62 years over the past two decades, the largest rise the United Nations has ever seen in such a short period of time. There has been robust growth in media outlets, computer access, and cell phone use (there are more than 16 million mobile phones in Afghanistan today). And, whatever its problems, the Afghan government remains relatively popular (with over 60 percent approval in recent NGO surveys), while the Taliban is deeply unpopular (with support from less than 10 percent of the population).
Nevertheless, four critical tasks remain. First, there must be an election to replace Hamid Karzai, demonstrating the consolidation of democracy in the governance of Afghanistan. This is scheduled for next spring, and it must remain on track. Second, allied troops -- hopefully about 15,000 -- must remain after 2014 as trainers and advisors. Third, we must fund the ANSF to the tune of about $4 billion a year, which is a bargain compared to the $100 billion or more we have been spending annually. This bill will be shared across the entire coalition, with the U.S. portion being around $2 billion. Finally, the United States and Afghanistan must quickly conclude a basic security agreement that establishes the structure and rules under which the post-2014 mission will unfold.
If we accomplish those four items, we have a reasonable chance of success in Afghanistan.
There are, of course, huge challenges: corruption, narcotics, divisive governance, disruptive neighbors, and dependency on the international community for many elements of growth. None of this will be easy, but I remain cautiously optimistic we have a better than even chance of success.
Stating the level of U.S. and allied commitment is the right next step to ensure we optimize our chances for a positive outcome. The so-called "zero option" is not an option, but rather the path to a probable mission failure. Now is the time to commit to a 15,000-troop U.S. and allied force.