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October 9, 2011

Does It Matter If We Are Succeeding in Afghanistan?

by Mike M

An interesting trend in Afghan reporting—from journalists and contractor-bloggers, Afghans, and analysts on the ground—is that events are headed in a very disturbing direction.  What’s not as clear is whether this matters. 

Since the Obama administration’s latest strategy was announced for Afghanistan—that’s two or three and counting, the one from December 2010, the one the president sketched out himself, Bob Woodward tells us, after being insufficiently impressed by the ones his Defense Department was able to gin up—there have been two overriding strategic questions bearing on its fate.

The strategy, you will recall, could be fairly described as “surge, pound, talk, transition.”  Get more resources to American commanders—even as we build up the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) to levels totally unsustainable by a country that has struggled to get its tax receipts into the neighborhood of $2 billion a year.  Go after the insurgents so hard they begin to doubt their ability to hold on.  Begin a process of negotiations to bring a political end to the war.  And slowly transition authority for everything Americans are now doing to Afghans.

One obvious problem with the strategy is governance.  We simply don’t have a reliable partner to work with:  Many Afghans view their government as predatory, corrupt, and in business to serve the interests of a few well-connected individuals.

It’s not as if this is a new challenge; Washington has been grappling with it since the Bush administration, without noticeable effect.  In the Obama administration strategy discussions recounted in Bob Woodward’s book, various principals must state twenty times that, without a better governing partner to work with in Kabul, U.S. efforts may be destined for failure.  In nearly all cases, in Woodward’s telling, these statements are greeted with bracing silence—everyone recognizes the problem, no one has any solutions.  Nothing is ever done about it; if the U.S. government has a coherent strategy for enhancing governance in Afghanistan today, there is no sign of one, either in reportage or in actions on the ground.

Can we achieve “success” with the government in its current shape?  No one really knows, including those who work the policy.  It’s easier to sidetrack the question and push ahead, confident that we have an “imperative” to succeed, than to actually answer it.

It’s more difficult to ignore violent events on the ground—which raises the other main challenge to the strategy, the effect of the military campaign.  A slew of recent reporting—including another fine Times piece by C. J. Chivers—call into question the idea that the insurgents are “weakening,” that we are achieving “momentum” as former commander Gen. David Petraeus and others have said.

The key strategic question has always been, Will we achieve strategic effect from the tactical successes we’ll engineer?  So far, there’s no clear evidence once way or another.

There are public reports of intelligence that suggests that many Taliban commanders are hard-pressed and anxious for peace.  These reports are contradicted by just about every independent journalistic and ground-level report, which conclude that the insurgents remain committed to the fight.  The first six months of 2011 were the most violent since the war began, according to the United Nations.  Taliban tactics have evolved over the years, and may now be focused on an overall strategy of laying low, waiting out the “surge” while using high-profile attacks to create an impression of chaos without committing large forces to any one operation.

What effect are we actually having on enemy numbers, morale, combat operations—and most importantly, the perceptions of the public?  Do we even know?  Does it matter, when the transition component of the strategy overrides everything else?

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