One year, and tens of thousands of additional American soldiers later, the Obama Administration has disclosed its latest assessment of the war to the public.
The results, which were distributed to the press in summary format after the reports completion, are not that surprising at first glance. US and NATO troops are making steady progress in the south of Afghanistan, killing an unprecedented amount of Taliban commanders (The Washington Post puts the number at 386) and killing thousands of Taliban foot soldiers in Helmand and Kandahar Provinces. Special Forces raids from both American and Afghan battalions are having a remarkable impact on the command and control of the insurgency, as evident in the optimistic tone of the final report.
In a surprising turn, the military assessment also goes out of its way to compliment the Pakistani government for its cooperation in the realm of counterterrorism, including Islamabad’s help in providing American forces with intelligence on militant hideouts.
But what’s most significant overall is what isn’t happening, or what isn’t happening fast enough. President Hamid Karzai’s government in Kabul is still heavily corrupt, and his rash statements about foreign occupation over the past six months are starting to concern officials in Washington who are trying to make the best of a bad situation. After nine years caught in the middle of combat, the Afghan people remain enormously frightened about their personal safety. A majority of Afghans (55 percent) want foreign soldiers to leave as soon as possible. If winning the hearts and minds of Afghan civilians is an overarching priority of the mission, this number suggests that the United States and NATO are slowly dragging along without any positive numbers to back them up.
In general, this latest military assessment needs to be taken with a grain of salt. Although the White House doesn’t admit it publicly, the report is as much a political document to the president’s critics as an “objective” military evaluation. July 2011, the time given by the president to start a gradual withdrawal of forces, is fast approaching, so the need to show progress is becoming more important by the day. Providing an optimistic and well presented document to the American people and to the presidents own party is part of the strategy. In a time of war, PR is just as vital to the effort as tactical successes on the battlefield.
Expect bloggers and reporters to provide their own critiques of the assessment in the coming days. But in the long run, all of these critiques are meaningless. What counts is whether Americans give Barack Obama more time to implement his strategy.