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Passé pessimism on Afghanistan

Passé pessimism on Afghanistan

I have been following the war effort in Afghanistan since the beginning. Analysts and the media were irrationally exuberant about Afghanistan’s prospects in the early years, followed by an equally irrational cascade of pessimism that started around 2008, as soon as Iraq faded from the headlines. In the last few months, I have finally seen the beginnings of a sane, sober, and accurate assessment of progress in Afghanistan by credible, mainstream, nonpartisan sources. The emerging line is, "It’s not pretty, but we’re winning."

In their own words:

The New York Times reported in March that "the Taliban have been under stress since American forces doubled their presence in southern Afghanistan last year and greatly increased the number of special forces raids aimed at hunting down Taliban commanders." The story reports that "the Afghan Taliban are showing signs of increasing strain after a number of killings, arrests and internal disputes that have reached them even in their haven in Pakistan." The killings "have unnerved many in the Taliban and have spread a climate of paranoia and distrust within the insurgent movement." One result is that "Taliban commanders and fighters, who used to be a common sight in parts of Quetta, have now gone underground and are not moving around openly as before."

RAND analyst Seth Jones, the foremost American scholar of the Taliban insurgency and author of In the Graveyard of Empires, wrote in May that "after years of gains, the Taliban’s progress has stalled — and even reversed — in southern Afghanistan this year."

Afghanistan "is on course to becoming a markedly better place than it was, with the chance eventually of peace with the Taliban, steady relations with its neighbors and better treatment of its citizens," according to the Economist. "The improvement is partly thanks to the "surge" of 30,000 troops, which President Obama reluctantly endorsed in 2009. The extra forces, under General David Petraeus, the United States’ most successful serving commander, have helped to dampen the insurgency. It also reflects better governors and civil servants in some parts. And it is thanks to the Afghan army and police, who now number 285,000 and are better trained and educated than they were."

The United Nations Security Council, who has issued almost 40 quarterly reports on the situation in Afghanistan since 2001, most recently reported in March that "the number of districts under insurgent control has decreased.… As a result of the increased tempo of security operations in northern and western provinces, an increasing number of anti-Government elements are seeking to join local reintegration programs.… In Kabul, the increasingly effective Afghan national security forces continue to limit insurgent attacks."

How should Obama respond to the growing recognition of fragile success? In the Economist’s words, "stick to a decent plan."