OPINION: Where we are in Afghanistan, and where we’re going

Limited real progress in Afghan security and major issues still to be tested are obscured in a U.S. debate where the deficit and hyperbole outshout sober consideration.

Returning to Afghanistan in March, I found perceptible increases in security in areas that saw heavy fighting last year. Afghan friends reported increased confidence in many areas of the country. Yet all expected the current heavy fighting as the Taliban seeks to regain momentum. The downward spiral of a losing war two years ago has been reversed but claims of progress are still fragile, and the political situation is clouded by uncertainty over U.S. intentions.

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The Obama strategy is showing results but more slowly than many unrealistically hoped. Our current judgments need to understand time lags between decisions and actions. Reinforcements ordered in 2009 were not fully operational until late 2010. Increased funding has arrived slowly, because of congressional consideration, voting and transferring money — delays built into our constitutional system. Trainers and equipment for an expanded Afghan army took time to arrive, as did the construction of expanded facilities. Progress is frequently unreported.

When the Marines went into Marja the lack of Afghan forces was widely reported; that 60 percent of the forces involved now in Kandahar are Afghan has not received attention. Nor have the successes of increased recruitment, reduction in desertion rates or the fielding of more professional junior officers from the Afghan military academy. However, none of the progress proves that the strategy will succeed. Much that should receive attention is being swept aside in excessive focus on troop withdrawals.

The first real test of the strategy is whether difficult areas can be largely handed over to Afghan forces in the next six to 12 months and whether the Afghans can hold what we have won. If the answer is yes, the strategy of transition will start to have real credibility. If not, the strategy will lose all credibility.

This difficult handover will take place in pieces, more a process of thinning out Western forces over time than a sudden shift. It must begin but should not be rushed by politically driven timetables. It deserves far more public focus than the artificial debate over withdrawal numbers. Even if the strategy works, it is possible that many of the troops out should be moved to other vulnerable area — rather than being precipitously withdrawn — so that the building of Afghan forces can keep pace with our withdrawal.

Military issues aside, there is a desperate need to clarify U.S. intentions. From President Hamid Karzai to his opponents to non-political Afghans, I found everyone asking what our long-term goals are. Afghanistan is a traumatized nation after 30 years of conflict. Doubts about American intentions lead to conspiracy theories, hedging strategies and even talk of civil war if too much haste to reach a political settlement means the Taliban could be returned to power — something that many Afghans who suffered under the Taliban’s savage rule are determined to resist at all costs. 

A strategy aimed at leaving a limited U.S. ground force to train and support a competent Afghan force supported by U.S. economic aid would be understood by Afghans, giving them time to rebuild the a state shattered by three decades of war. Such a strategy would bring down the costs of the war to a level we can afford and avoid the re-growth of Taliban and al Qaeda control of areas inside Afghanistan. It would leverage a Pakistani re-evaluation of its strategy that still seems largely based on the assumption that the U.S. will soon depart, leaving Pakistan to attempt, yet again, to forestall Indian influence by controlling the Afghan government — a stale policy encouraged by Pakistani fears that leads them to maintain ties to the insurgents.

Changing these calculations and seriously testing the results of the current strategy requires both time and clarity about our intentions. Both require more serious discussion than the current effort to race for inadequate bottom-line judgments and a quick exit.

Neumann was U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan 2005-2007. He is president of the American Academy of Diplomacy. His views do not represent the Academy.