War Stories

General Optimism

Gen. John Allen believes that America will prevail in Afghanistan. At least someone does.

President of Afghanistan Hamid Karzai speaks during a graduation ceremony.

President of Afghanistan Hamid Karzai speaks during a graduation ceremony at a military academy in Kabul on March 22, 2012

SHAH MARAI/AFP/Getty Images.

Gen. John Allen, commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, testified before Congress this week for the first time since his confirmation, and I haven’t seen such unbridled optimism about a war—any war—since Donald Rumsfeld’s heyday.

“To be sure, the last couple months have been trying,” Allen acknowledged, referring to the Koran burnings, the massacre of 16 Afghan citizens, the killing of U.S. advisers by their Afghan underlings, and other disasters. But, he added, “I am confident that we will prevail in this endeavor.”

Allen’s predecessor, Gen. David Petraeus, would always hedge his progress reports, labeling it as “fragile and reversible.” The difference between the two generals is, in part, a matter of personal style; but it stems more from their differing circumstances.

Petraeus took command during the early stages of a new strategy and a troop surge. His task, when he went to the Hill, was to urge forbearance: We’re headed in the right direction, but stick with me; this will take a while; we’re not over the hump just yet.

Allen came to the job as President Obama was pulling back from the strategy and starting to pull out the troops. His task is to persuade lawmakers that we’re leaving behind a stable situation—we’re not cutting and running—but that, at the same time, we shouldn’t move out more quickly than the president has planned.

Another, related difference is that the bar of success has been lowered considerably. Allen stated several times during two mornings of appearances before the armed services committees—Tuesday on the House side, Thursday on the Senate—that the measure of success, the “linchpin” of our strategy, is building and training an Afghan security force able to carry on the fight against the Taliban after NATO’s combat troops are gone.

This is a substantial departure from the counterinsurgency strategy pursued during Petraeus’ tenure (and Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s before that), which focused not just on training the Afghan army and police but also on protecting the population, providing the people with basic services, and improving the Afghan government by beefing up its resources and rooting out its corruption.

All those additional goals are still in place, but they’re now mainly the Afghans’ responsibility. They’re no longer on our checklist of priorities.

If the key measure of success is now the state of the Afghan security forces, then Allen is right: We have made progress; one could even say, as he did in the hearings, that the “campaign is on track.”

In January 2011, Afghan forces consisted of 151 battalion-sized units, 101 of which were competent as long as we gave them advice and assistance. One year later, the forces consist of 168 units, 138 of which are capable with outside advice and assistance, 11 of which can do well by themselves.

Allen also testified that Afghan forces are “in the lead,” with U.S. or NATO troops providing only support, in more than 40 percent of conventional military operations; that they’ve set up nine special-forces commands; and that the Afghan Local Police—armed neighborhood watch groups, formally authorized by the interior ministry—have expanded to 12,000 men in 99 sites. (This falls short of the goal of 30,000, but the program is growing.)

Still, in the broader scheme of things, these accomplishments, though impressive, are secondary at best.

The key in any effort to beat back an insurgency is to shore up the government’s legitimacy in the eyes of its people. This has nothing to do with idealism or with George W. Bush’s frothy dream of turning Afghanistan into a bastion of Western democracy. It’s much more elemental: It’s about providing the people with security, basic services, and a system of justice. It’s about doing the things that governments do.

The administration of services and justice is not going well, mainly because the Afghan government, from top to bottom, is riddled with corruption. President Hamid Karzai’s power base is essentially a vast patronage network, much of it criminal. As long as this is so, and perceived to be so, there will be a vacuum of authority and legitimacy that the Taliban can fill. In fact, in many parts of southern Afghanistan, Taliban courts and shadow structures of governance are seen as fairer and more efficient than the official institutions. (Part of this is ethnic as well; the Taliban are Pashtun, as are most southerners.)

Success in this sort of war requires not only fighting the insurgents militarily but also competing with them politically and thus drying up, or co-opting, their popular support.

The strictly military operations are going well, better than anyone might have predicted a couple of years ago—at least that part of the operations that General Allen is stressing: building up the Afghan army and police. But this assessment sidesteps the crucial question in a counterinsurgency campaign: Are the people being protected?

According to some unclassified charts that Allen gave the House committee, but which nobody brought up at the hearing, the verdict here is gloomy. Insurgents launched 350 successful attacks with homemade bombs just this past January—compared with fewer than 200 in December 2009, when Obama announced his new policy. Taliban suicide bombings also killed 80 percent more civilians in 2011 than in 2010. Yes, the Taliban are culpable, not the United States, NATO, or the Afghan government. But this is beside the point in a counterinsurgency campaign: The task is to protect the people, and we are seen as unsuccessful at doing that.

Then there’s the biggest security problem of all: the insurgents’ safe havens across the border in Pakistan. In the early phase of the Obama administration’s buildup, the U.S. military leaders—Petraeus, McChrystal, and former Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen among them—said success is extremely difficult if the Pakistanis don’t do more to shut the safe havens down.

In Thursday’s hearing, Sen. John McCain, the committee’s ranking Republican (and a leading supporter of the war), asked Allen if he agreed that “the two major remaining obstacles to success” were Pakistan’s sanctuaries and the Afghan government’s corruption. Allen said, “Yes.” McCain asked if anything had changed about the status of the sanctuaries. Allen replied, “No.”

The House hearing on Tuesday delved a bit more deeply into the issue of corruption. Allen was asked if any Afghan officials have been arrested for their illegal activities, most notably the Afghan army’s surgeon general, who stole millions of dollars’ worth of drugs from the country’s main military hospital. Allen replied that no corruption trials have taken place but that Karzai recently started an “official inquiry” into the charges against the surgeon general. He called this gesture “a great step forward.”

Allen’s characterization is breathtaking hyperbole. Major Gen. H.R. McMaster, who until recently directed the command charged with probing and minimizing Afghan corruption, unearthed a huge cache of documents more than a year ago, substantiating the case against the surgeon general. He showed them to Karzai, who did the same thing that he he’d done when presented with evidence that the head of the Kabul Bank had extorted money to build private villas in Dubai—nothing.

One reason that Gen. Allen is focused almost exclusively on building and training the Afghan security forces is that this is something we can do. More to the point, it’s probably all we can do. But that may not be enough to hold Afghanistan together.