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All Is Not Lost in Afghanistan

Combat operations are over, but that doesn’t necessarily mean a retreat from the gains of the past 13 years of war.

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In 1842, the British Army suffered perhaps its most devastating defeat in history, when Maj. Gen. Sir William Elphinstone disastrously retreated from Kabul through the guts of winter, leading nearly 20,000 British soldiers, their families, and assorted camp followers out of Afghanistan through the mountains to Jalalabad, India. Promised safe passage after an uprising in Kabul, they were massacred along the way: famously, only one survivor, Dr. William Brydon, staggered into Jalalabad to tell the tale. That was what defeat in Afghanistan looked like a century or so ago.

Today is a different story, despite all the Sturm und Drang of the past couple of weeks as the long NATO mission completed its combat role and closed its warfighting headquarters. While there has been an upsurge in attacks both in the capital and around the country, it still seems likely — better than even odds — that the Afghan Security Forces, backed up by a planned training force of about 15,000 coalition troops from 42 nations (and perhaps more as time goes by), will be able to contain the Taliban insurgency.

The oft-repeated idea that the Taliban are going to get in their Toyota trucks and simply roll into Kabul is not likely; this Afghan war — while likely to stagger along for some time — will hopefully end far differently than the British or Soviet excursions of the past century.

The key to attaining a reasonably successful outcome will depend on three things: the determination of the Afghan people to continue the gains in education, health, women’s rights, and prosperity they have achieved in the last decade, free of the Taliban theocracy; the financing provided by the international community, notably to support the Afghan National Security Forces; and the political leadership of President Ashraf Ghani and Chief Executive (essentially prime minister) Abdullah Abdullah. Let’s take a good look at all three for a more realistic assessment than you’ll find in the daily headlines.

First, the gains in Afghan standards of living are real and remarkable. Life expectancy has gone up from 47 years to 62, the highest gain in a decade ever recorded by the United Nations. Infant and maternal mortality have plummeted, and access to health care has climbed from 10 percent under the Taliban to 65 percent today. Before the U.S. invasion, there were fewer than 1 million boys in school; today there are close to 7 million children in school — and 40 percent of them are girls. Literacy rates are rising rapidly as a result, and today young Afghans are studying abroad in universities and graduate schools as well as in their own country. A recent Asia Foundation poll (conducted for 10 years and exhaustively executed across the country) finds over 50 percent of Afghans now believe things are going in the right direction in their country, that the recent election was free and fair, and that things will improve under the new Ghani-Abdullah team.* And nearly 90 percent of the population respects the army and over 70 percent respect the police.

These are real and tangible gains and will not be easily reversed. Oh, and the people of Afghanistan are not thrilled about the Taliban, either: their “popularity” rarely tops 10 percent in any poll, as opposed to over 60 percent for the government, generally.

Second, the security situation and performance of the Afghan security forces is not as bad as reports make them out to be. While attacks are up, and there are some regions of the south and east where Taliban influence is growing, there has not been the kind of whole-scale collapse of the security forces which occurred in Iraq. The difference is the steadying presence of the coalition advisors and trainers; the higher degree of competence of the Afghan senior leadership; the lower ability of the Taliban insurgents, generally; and the logistic and financial support of the coalition. With 48 troop-contributing nations and roughly 15,000 troops in the ISAF mission, many will shift over to Operation Resolute Support the follow-on training effort. With over 350,000 Afghan army and police members and the continuing flow of recruits, the overall advantage accrues to the government forces — with the important caveat of the presence of advisors, trainers, and financial assistance.

Third, and perhaps most problematically, is the political situation. After a long and tumultuous campaign, Ashraf Ghani was narrowly placed in power after major allegations of fraud marred the run-off between him and Dr. Abdullah Abdullah. While challenges and problems continue between the two bitter rivals — who have been very slow to appoint key ministers — the very fact that there has been a peaceful passage of power from the tired Hamid Karzai administration is a powerful sign of hope. The new administration immediately and enthusiastically signed the agreement for long-term troop presence with NATO, which is hopefully a harbinger of further good cooperation. And President Ghani is conducting a very effective campaign of outreach to Pakistan given the common enemy they share in the Taliban.

Are there enormous challenges and problems? Of course. Notable is the corrosive effect of ongoing corruption, the huge presence of narcotics in the economy, and the instability across the border in Pakistan. Any of those would individually challenge any nation on the planet, and taken as a trio they present huge barriers to growth and stability. Yet the alternative presented by the Taliban would not solve any of them, and Afghans and their international supporters know that; thus, on balance, the situation slightly favors the government for an outcome.

So what should we do? How do we avoid another Lord Elphinstone’s retreat, this time conducted with helicopters and C-17 transport aircraft? Here are four quick areas that require focus.

1. Maintain the international support, and recognize that the coalition itself is a key center of gravity. The creation of the follow-on mission, Resolute Support, is crucial. Setting an arbitrary deadline to pull remaining U.S. and NATO troops out of Afghanistan is counter-productive and unnecessary. Casualty rates have fallen to extremely low levels for the coalition, publics back home are quiescent, and the load imposed by 15,000 troops is vastly less than the 142,000 that were in Afghanistan at the peak of the conflict. As we saw in Iraq, their presence is vital, and they should remain until both we and the Afghans fully agree it is time to withdraw them.

2. Work with the Afghan government to reduce corruption, which is a key sore point for the country’s people. The Asia Foundation poll clearly shows how detrimental this problem can be, but by providing coaching, arbitrators, judicial advisors, and investigators, endemic corruption can be gradually addressed and reduced — although this is the work of decades.

3. Support the economy, notably by providing alternative crop schemes to grow apples, wheat, and pomegranates instead of poppy. But gradually building the infrastructure to tap into the $2-3 trillion motherload of copper, cobalt, nickel, gold, rare earths, and lithium that is the ultimate patrimony of Afghanistan is the key to a robust future.

4. Create a strategic communications narrative both in Afghanistan and throughout the coalition that seeks to portray what is actually happening in country. This is not 1842; unspeakable disaster is not just around the corner. Could it all fall apart? Of course. But if we keep our nerve and carry on supporting the Afghans through the international coalition, there is a better than even chance of success. And we must not lightly throw that away by taking counsel of our worst fears.

*Corrections, Jan. 6, 2015: The poll of Afghans was conducted by the Asia Foundation. An earlier version of this article mistakenly said in two places that the poll was conducted by Asia Society, a different organization. Also, the poll has been conducted for 10 years, not 12 years, and the percentage of Afghans surveyed who said their country is moving in the right direction is more than 50 percent, not more than 60 percent.

Photo by WAKIL KOHSAR/AFP/Getty Images

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