It’s time to change the headline on Afghanistan

It’s time to change the headline on Afghanistan

We had a running joke in the intelligence community that started way back in 2003 or so and went on for years that the headline for anything we wrote on Afghanistan was some variant of the same thing: "Progress Made, Challenges Remain." Last week President Obama essentially repeated the headline when he announced the results of his review of progress in Afghanistan and Pakistan. He said in a press conference that "this continues to be a very difficult endeavor," but that "we are on track to achieve our goals" in Afghanistan. The administration’s review, including the unclassified white paper, was a predictable, uncontroversial, middle-of-the-road reflection of establishment wisdom.

The headline isn’t wrong, and the president’s policy has much to commend it. We are making progress. He was right to deploy more troops last year (though he did not deploy enough to maximize our chance of success), and rightly has called for more time. I disagree in principle with a deadline for withdrawal, but if there has to be a deadline, 2014 is far better than July 2011. The president rightly claimed that "for the first time in years, we’ve put in place the strategy and the resources that our efforts in Afghanistan demand." (Though, as usual, Obama does not give his predecessor the credit he deserves for beginning the shift in strategy and resources in late 2006).

But I also agree with my colleague, Peter Fever, that the president has done a poor job selling his policy. The administration’s strategic messaging on the war is a half-baked compromise between touting a success and ignoring a war their political base dislikes. As a result, the administration is content to pop up once a year, groundhog-like, utter establishment platitudes like "Progress Made, Challenges Remain" about Afghanistan, and go back into hiding until the next event forces them to acknowledge we’re still there. If I were a newspaper editor, I’d send the headline back for rewrites. "Progress Made, Challenges Remain" does not capture the new dynamic that is emerging in Afghanistan and between the Afghans and the international community. And it does not serve Americans struggling to understand the purpose and direction of the war.

Here is a new headline: "Victory in Sight: Why We Need More Time, Money, and Civilians." As I argue in the new issue of Foreign Affairs, the war in Afghanistan has actually gone better than critics and the media portray it. The economy has grown beyond all expectations. The process of political reconstruction has succeeded better than in many post-conflict states over the past two decades. And the quadrupling of military forces since early 2009 will almost certainly have a demonstrable effect on the battlefield.

The missing ingredient is more civilian aid. Secretary Clinton touted that the U.S. mission in Kabul now comprises some 1,100 diplomats and civilian experts, which roughly doubles or triples the presence we had prior to 2009. Add together all the soldiers serving on Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs) and you have several thousand more. This is still not enough. At its peak, the Allies deployed something like 63,000 people who were directly engaged with rebuilding the government and economy of West Germany after World War II. I know the cases are hardly comparable for a thousand reasons — but most points of difference say that rebuilding Afghanistan is harder than West Germany, and so it likely needs more help, not less. All the biggest remaining challenges in Afghanistan that we have not moved to address in the last year or so — corruption, institutional weakness, poor governance — are civilian, not military in nature. More civilians would be the gamechanger that could change Afghanistan from a half-baked muddle-through to an outright success.

Afghanistan is winnable. We’re almost there. The president’s policy has many decent elements to it. But it is being sold under a stale, worn, and out-of-date headline and a poor strategic communications strategy. And it does not recognize the depth of Afghanistan’s need for civilian assistance. Change that, and we will be able to look back with pride on what the United States and our allies helped achieve in Afghanistan.