Deck Chairs on the Titanic

Not that anyone's been watching, but Afghanistan's not getting any better. You'd be forgiven for thinking otherwise, though, if you listened to what Obama and Petraeus are saying.

Getty Images
Getty Images

Over the past two weeks, as the world’s attention has been focused on pro-democracy demonstrations in Egypt, the tale of woe emanating from Afghanistan has only grown worse. As if right on cue, President Hamid Karzai announced at the recent security conference in Munich that provincial reconstruction teams — a key element of the U.S. military’s counterinsurgency strategy — are undermining his governing authority and should be winded down by 2014.

But this latest Karzai salvo is the mere tip of the iceberg. Although Gen. David Petraeus and other administration officials have tried to spin recent military gains as a reason for optimism, by President Barack Obama’s own criteria for success, the United States is failing badly in Afghanistan.

Back in December 2009, when Obama announced his plans for escalation in Afghanistan, he identified three key elements of the mission: militarily breaking the Taliban’s momentum and increasing Afghanistan’s capacity to secure itself independently; helping the Afghan government take advantage of improved security to improve governance; and finally, forging a strong partnership between the United States and Pakistan.

On nearly all these fronts the U.S. mission is showing very little progress. The military repeatedly claims it is regaining the momentum from Taliban insurgents. And though it appears the Taliban have been weakened by an uptick in U.S. military engagement, the facts also suggest a more complicated reality. According to the well-respected Afghan NGO Safety Office (ANSO), 2010 was the most violent year of the war. The organization claims the evidence is “indisputable” that security conditions in the country are worsening. Only four provinces, according to ANSO are considered to have “low insecurity,” and across Afghanistan civilian casualties are up — as is U.S. and NATO loss of life. Indeed, there were more than 1,430 insurgent incidents in January 2011, an 80 percent increase over the same period last year.

But even if one accepts Petraeus’s claims that America has “got our teeth in the enemy’s jugular now,” the rest of the story is more uniformly negative. Improvements in Afghanistan’s security forces are sketchy at best. A new report from the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction describes a devastating tale of “poor planning” and weak management that is undermining ambitious U.S. training goals for Afghan security forces. Training of the Afghan police isn’t much better. A recent survey of police mentoring in Afghanistan concluded that “corruption among the Afghan police was effectively universal,” and even by NATO’s own data, attrition rates for the Afghan police, though improved, are still above 50 percent.

How about the aforementioned Hamid Karzai? Here again the story is not good. Karzai finally begrudgingly agreed last month to seat the newly elected Afghan parliamentfour months after a fraud-scarred election. But he did so only after “intense pressure” from the international community. Hopes that Karzai would move “in a new direction,” as Obama said at West Point, have not materialized — and economic and political corruption, as well as poor governance, remains a fundamental part of life in Afghanistan. With Karzai’s government showing such little improvement, relations between Kabul and the U.S. government have become increasingly frayed.

Across the border in Pakistan, things aren’t much better. The United States has just this week suspended all high-level dialogue with Pakistan over the continued detainment of an U.S. diplomat, Raymond Davis, who is being held in violation of his diplomatic immunity by Pakistani authorities. It’s indicative of the cloud of suspicion that continues to darken U.S.-Pakistan relations.

Indeed, last month there were reports that Washington plans to offer Islamabad a new set of inducements to remove the Afghan Taliban safe havens in Pakistan. But nine years of enticements from the Obama and Bush administrations have failed to convince Islamabad to abandon the Taliban as a strategic ally — and there is little reason to believe that a new offering of American baubles and assurances will soften Pakistani intransigence.

These tales of unmet strategic objectives represent a fundamental failure of the U.S. mission in Afghanistan. Yet this has not stopped U.S. policymakers from continuing to make grandiose claims of progress.

In Obama’s recent State of the Union address, he said that the fight is being “taken” to the enemy, words that dovetailed with those of his commanding general in Afghanistan, whose recent assessment to troops claimed the mission in Afghanistan is making “impressive progress” and has inflicted “enormous losses” on Taliban fighters.

The statements by Obama and Petraeus are now typical fare from the U.S. government: They offer glowing optimism about recent military gains, but make no mention of the larger strategic obstacles that imperil success in Afghanistan.

However, without tangible improvement in creating a capable and effective Afghan security force; without a competent and legitimate central government able to provide good governance to its people; without a choking-off of the supply of arms and fighters from across the border in Pakistan, the tactical gains being made by U.S. troops cannot be sustained and, quite simply, the war in Afghanistan cannot be won.

All the elements of the U.S. strategy in Afghanistan — political, diplomatic, and military — must be working if the effort is to be successful, not just the latter. But instead of recognizing these failures and shifting course, there is abiding resistance to any change among policymakers. Proposals to begin the process of political reconciliation with the Taliban are pushed aside because on the ground, after all, the insurgents are back on their heels. So why negotiate?

But this mindset creates a misleading sense of optimism that precludes any serious examination of the current strategy. That myopia was evident in the strategic review released last December by the White House — a document that, at best, deserves to be called a whitewash.

Long overdue in Afghanistan is a sobering recognition by political and military leaders that the current U.S. and NATO strategy is failing, has little chance of success, and must be reformulated immediately. That is the public discussion that needs to be taking place. But none of that will happen so long as the U.S. president and his military commanders ignore the many signs that America is losing the war in Afghanistan — choosing instead to focus their public rhetoric solely on rosy assessments of military progress.

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