Mission Incomplete

The United States needs to stay in Afghanistan until the job is done.

JANGIR/AFP/Getty Images
JANGIR/AFP/Getty Images

Afghanistan policy is in crisis, at least in the United States. With Osama bin Laden now dead, some are wondering whether it’s time to declare this mission accomplished — or with Afghanistan so troubled, perhaps it’s mission impossible? In fact, it is mission incomplete: The Afghanistan mission is going worse than we had all hoped, but better than many understand. With patience and perseverance, we can still struggle to a tolerable outcome.

There is no denying that the past weeks have represented a setback for NATO efforts. Afghans, angered by the desecration of Qurans at a U.S. base, recently demonstrated violently against the NATO forces in their country, and the March 11 massacre of 16 Afghans by an apparently deranged U.S. soldier will only increase popular anger. These resentments have been further fueled by Iran and Pakistan and have rightly raised doubts that international forces have sufficient support in Afghanistan to complete the mission they have embarked upon.

But beneath the headlines, international forces are actually making substantial progress. This has been particularly evident in Afghanistan’s south, reflecting Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s 2009 concept that the provinces of Kandahar and Helmand represented the heartland of the Taliban movement and that securing the main population and transportation corridors in those provinces would deprive insurgents of their chief support bases. This part of the plan, at least in military terms, has worked reasonably well. Most of the populated south has been cleared of important insurgent sanctuaries, weapons caches, and improvised-explosive-device fields. Violence was down about one-third in 2011, relative to 2010. There has been at least some progress in the quality of governance, too — for example under Gov. Mohammad Gulab Mangal in Helmand, where far more provincial and district offices are now staffed and where citizens now line up at government buildings to request officials’ help with their problems and needs.

Meanwhile, the deterioration that had occurred in Afghanistan’s north and west in recent years has been arrested and partially reversed. Kabul has worsened slightly in statistical terms over the last year, but only modestly: The capital still accounts for less than 1 percent of insurgent attacks nationally, despite containing about 15 percent of the country’s population. Overall, enemy-initiated attacks in Afghanistan are down almost 25 percent over the last few months, relative to the comparable period last year.

Despite the recent rash of tragedies involving Afghan attacks on NATO troops, there are important indicators that Afghan security forces are improving too — not enough to quell the insurgency, but enough to prevent Taliban reconquest of the country’s major cities and transportation routes even after 2014, when U.S. President Barack Obama has announced that the current NATO mission in Afghanistan will end. Afghan security forces are securing Kabul largely on their own. They provided at least half of combined forces on major operations in the south in 2010 and 2011 and are increasingly in the driver’s seat in parts of that region now. And Afghans from the south are also starting to join police forces in substantial numbers.

All is not well, of course. Afghanistan’s east was 20 percent more violent statistically in 2011 than in 2010, as insurgents belonging to the infamous Haqqani network and others wreaked havoc, and international forces remain underresourced there. Obama’s decision to accelerate the drawdown of U.S. forces in Afghanistan from 100,000 to 68,000 by this September will impede the previously planned reinforcement of foreign troops there. If, as recently announced, France withdraws its troops more quickly than previously expected, that also will hurt stability in the east. And U.N. statistics suggest that, if insurgent attacks are somewhat lower, crime is somewhat higher.

So there are reasons for observers to have doubts about the future of the Afghanistan mission. But this is far from a quagmire: Even without further accelerations of the U.S. troop drawdown, there is a clear campaign plan for reducing the U.S. role and presence over the next 30 months. This will happen, for better or worse — nobody should fear an unending military commitment in Afghanistan.

The plan for 2012 and 2013 focuses on several key priorities. First, international forces will work to secure areas south of Kabul, so the country’s ring road connecting it to Kandahar can be safely traveled and so the capital can be better protected from insurgents by a layered defense. Most of the ring road is already reasonably secure, or at least usable; international forces now need to work with Afghans to complete the job.

Second, the International Security Assistance Force will deepen its hold over the south, while gradually handing off more responsibility there and elsewhere to Afghan forces. Major developments are in the works already on this front, and in the course of 2012 we will see major U.S. and other NATO troop reductions in Helmand and Kandahar.

Third, international forces will continue their efforts to strengthen Afghan security forces to their requisite size and capability — a process that will remain intensive for about two more years, before reaching the goal of at least 350,000 trained and equipped Afghan army and police members who have not only gone through basic training, but spent at least a year in the field in a form of apprenticeship with NATO forces. It is important that the U.S. administration stay committed to this goal, which will be reached by late 2013 or early 2014 based on current trends.

A number of these tasks cannot be accomplished without the presence of a substantial number of foreign troops. That is why the United States cannot rush out of Afghanistan — a fact the White House needs to bear in mind as it contemplates future policy options. While handing over primary responsibility for security nationwide to Afghan forces may be accelerated to 2013, it cannot be moved up to 2012 — the Afghans are not yet strong enough, and the east remains too troubled for them to handle the job on their own.

Even after 2014, the Afghan government will still need international support. Perhaps 10,000 to 15,000 foreign troops will be needed in Afghanistan to help with training, mentoring, air support, special operations, and logistics. If the United States cannot work out a deal on this matter now with Kabul, it should simply keep trying next year, after the U.S. presidential race.

As for peace talks with the Taliban, they are only in their earliest days, and international expectations for success should be limited. But it is an avenue worth exploring, especially given the increasing evidence of tension between the Taliban and their Pakistani patrons. The U.S. relationship with Afghan President Hamid Karzai — dysfunctional as it often looks — is actually more harmonious than the partnership between the Taliban and Inter-Services Intelligence, Pakistan’s premier spy agency, on the other side of the hill. Premature withdrawal will sabotage any reconciliation process by suggesting time is on the Taliban’s side.

There is also the issue of Karzai’s successor. The Afghan Constitution requires him to step down in 2014, and the United States must insist that this happens. It is crucial to the development of an institution-based Afghan democracy: Only when citizens experience peaceful transfers of power can they truly begin to place more faith in institutions and offices rather than individuals. Despite some recent reports to the contrary, Karzai may be happy to secure a much-deserved retirement, but many of his supporters will likely seek to persuade him to stay on, given their uncertainty about what would come next.

Rather than being blindsided by such dynamics, the international community should expect them as the natural outgrowth of Afghanistan’s current lack of robust political movements, which heighten the importance of strong personalities. One helpful idea may be to look inside the U.N. system for a post-presidential position for Karzai that plays to his strengths (which are real), such as serving as special representative for relations between the Islamic world and the West. Long ago, the international community squandered the chance for a clean victory in Afghanistan. Catastrophic defeat can likely be avoided, however, as long as we are patient and persistent in attaining the U.S. administration’s goals over the next two-and-a-half years. For the United States, this part of the world offers a choice of generally mediocre options. But some options are far less bad than others and offer a reasonable chance of success. American policymakers should keep their eye on the ball: It’s the big-picture trends, not a spate of admittedly dismal headlines, that hold the key to sound policymaking for Afghanistan.

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