War Stories

How Are Things Going in Afghanistan?

A Pentagon report says: not well.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates

Hamid Karzai has gone back to Afghanistan, and so the denizens of the Pentagon’s E Ring and Foggy Bottom’s seventh floor can drop their strained smiles and resume biting away at their fingernails.

Things in that unhappy country are going badly—much worse, of course, than Team Obama had to pretend this week but quite a bit worse than even a sensible skeptic might think. And unless Karzai takes to heart the lectures he heard (someone must have given him a stern talking-to amid all the bonhomie), things are only going to get worse still.

The evidence for this comes from an unclassified, 150-page Defense Department document called “Report on Progress Toward Security and Stability in Afghanistan.” Released in late April, it’s the fifth in a series of semi-annual reports mandated by Congress. A few disheartening lines from its executive summary were duly recited by the media. But the full report is a hair-raiser. The news is almost all bad; and the few bits of good news turn out, on close inspection, to be extremely misleading.

Let’s take a look at one of those bits of pseudo-good news. The executive summary proclaims, “Polls consistently illustrate that Afghans see security as improved from a year ago.” The report, on Page 7, quantifies this claim as “a 50 % increase in the proportion of Afghans that saw security improve.”

That sounds very positive. But wait: “a 50 percent increase” compared with what? The answer comes in a footnote on Page 27: When Afghans were asked in July 2009 how security had changed in their area in the previous six months, 22 percent said it had improved; in November, the figure rose to 33 percent. Yes, 33 percent represents “a 50 % increase” over 22 percent, but it’s still a pretty paltry share of the population.

It gets worse. A footnote on Page 28 reveals that, in both surveys, 25 percent of Afghans said security had worsened in the previous six months. And, for some reason, the report does not reveal the findings of the most recent survey in April 2010.

Another set of polls, cited in the report, suggests the numbers got worse. In December 2009, and again in March 2010, Afghans in 121 “key” districts were asked to describe the state of local security. In December, a majority in 33 districts said the area was “secure” or marked only by “occasional threats”; in March, this number rose to 42.

Yet in the same polls, the number of those describing their districts as “frequently threatened,” “dangerous,” or “unsecure” rose from 58 to 72.

Here’s how the report summarizes the situation in straight prose: “Some individual islands of security exist in the sea of instability or insecurity.” The authors muster only two islands: the town of Mazur-i-Sharif in the north and “small contiguous areas” near the Ring Road in the south. The level of security, they add, is “significantly related to the presence of well-led and non-corrupt” units of Afghan soldiers or police.

The problem is that “well-led and non-corrupt” Afghan security forces are, as yet, rare commodities. The Afghan army and national police force are making “slow progress” toward its manpower targets because of “high attrition and low retention.” Between 60 percent and 70 percent of uniformed police are “hired and deployed with no formal training.” By this August, NATO troops will be mentoring Afghan police in 45 of the 80 most important districts. Yet the report notes that even well-trained police units “have regressed” after a mentoring team is reassigned elsewhere.

Meanwhile, the training of the Afghan security forces is going slowly as well. Of the 5,111 Western personnel authorized for NATO Training Mission Afghanistan, as the command is called, just 2,673—barely half—have been assigned to an Afghan security unit. The United States is contributing its share of trainers, but the NATO allies are falling short. And since some of those allies have announced they’re pulling out of Afghanistan altogether, these “credibility gaps,” (the report’s words) in training will only widen. The U.S. armed forces have to fill the gap, and they’re having a hard enough time meeting the schedule to deploy troops for combat.

By the way, the Afghan people aren’t so thrilled with our armed forces, either. In a poll taken in March, 29 percent of Afghans said they have a “good” or “very good” impression of U.S. and NATO troops, while 38 percent have a “bad” or “very bad” impression—the worst score since polling began on this question in September 2008. (NATO is so sensitive on this matter—our strategy, after all, is to win over the hearts and minds of the Afghan people—that this survey is taken each quarter.)

The report’s authors figure, reasonably, that the decline in popularity is due to the increased fighting—and, with it, the unavoidable rise in civilian casualties. They note that 80 percent of these casualties are still caused by the insurgents and that the number caused by U.S. and NATO troops has gone down “in relation to the size of the force and despite an increase in [operational tempo].” But nobody is likely to be assuaged by an argument that we’re killing fewer civilians per Western soldier on the ground. That only suggests that as the ranks of these Westerners swells, civilian casualties will rise along with them.

And finally the big question: How’s Karzai doing? As every U.S. military commander has emphasized, a counterinsurgency campaign can succeed only if the host government is regarded as legitimate. Outside military allies can kill insurgents and protect the civilian population, but the Afghan government has to follow through with basic services and good governance.

Basic services? Just 47 percent of Afghans polled are satisfied with the electricity in their area, 28 percent are satisfied with the level of clean water, and 27 percent are satisfied with the roads.

The report notes that U.S. forces achieved “some success” in clearing Helmand Province of insurgents. But, it adds, “progress in introducing governance and development” to that area “has been slow” because the “national infrastructure” is unable to “provide tangible benefits for the populace”—a weakness that “has been exploited by the insurgents.”

For this reason, the report states, “The insurgents perceive 2009 as their most successful year.”

Good governance? In the same poll, 83 percent of Afghans say corruption affects their daily lives, and 43 percent have confidence in their national government. This latter number represents a 6 percent increase since last September. And 59 percent of Afghans think the government is headed in the right direction—progress, but, still. The report boasts that 30 percent of Afghans see their government as less corrupt than it was six months ago; however, 24 percent see it as more corrupt.

But here is the most gulp-worthy sign of all. In how many of Afghanistan’s 121 key districts do majorities of the people say they “support” the Afghan government? Zero! In only 29 districts do they express “sympathy with” the government. By contrast, eight districts support—and another 40 are sympathetic with—the insurgents. (In the other 44 districts, people see themselves as “neutral.”)

This is why President Barack Obama and everyone around him is nervous about Karzai. Looking at figures like this, they must be asking themselves, “What have we gotten ourselves into?” And some must be wondering, more quietly, “How can we get out?”

The report notes some unequivocally hopeful signs. The insurgents are under growing pressure due to NATO’s stepped-up offensives, the arrest and killing of key Taliban leaders in Pakistan, and the Pakistani military’s growing involvement in the fight. More than 100,000 Pakistani troops have been moved from the Indian border in the east to the western areas where Taliban militants have concentrated—reflecting a belated realization of where the true threat lies.

It is worth noting that Obama’s “surge” is still in an early phase. Fewer than half of the 30,000 extra troops he ordered into battle last December are now in place. It’s also at least intriguing that, during his trip to Washington this week, Karzai was joined by a few dozen officials and deputies from his government’s ministries—on agriculture, internal security, the treasury, and so forth—to hold talks with their American counterparts. If the idea is to cultivate relations with Afghanistan’s emerging technocrats—so they can provide services, even if Karzai continues to falter—these sessions might bear fruit.

Still, the numbers are bad; the trends, even those tilting slightly upward, are worrisome. The next report is due in October. Two months after that, the U.S. military leaders will conduct their “assessment of progress toward meeting our strategic objectives.” At that point, President Obama will decide whether to keep it up, escalate, or withdraw. If the numbers haven’t markedly improved by then, he will be in a very tough spot.

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