Gains in Afghanistan “Fragile and Reversible”

Progress in Afghanistan can be undermined as long as safe havens exist for insurgents across the border in Pakistan.

The Obama Administration completed its most recent assessment of the war in Afghanistan this week. Although the full report remains classified, an executive summary was released to the press which, besides optimism about General David Petraeus’ counterinsurgency strategy, cautiously expresses concerns about the consolidation of recent gains.

David Petraeus, who masterminded the “surge” in Iraq 2007 that turned the tide of the war there, was appointed commander of American and NATO forces in Afghanistan this summer. With several tens of thousands of additional troops, he significantly expanded the war effort. American combat operations in Afghanistan have mounted in number and intensity in recent months. Night raids are up sixfold; airstrikes nearly doubled.

NATO commanders have been giddy about the results, pointing out that the Taliban are on the defensive. Civilian officials have been boasting about the implementation of new reconstruction projects and the building of new schools. NATO training teams are increasingly confident that the Afghan Army is growing in manpower and capability.

According to the administration, the insurgents’ momentum has indeed been “arrested in much of the country and reversed in some key areas,” particularly in the south, while the surge in both civilian and military resources, “along with an expanded special operations forces targeting campaign and expanded local security measures at the village level, has reduced overall Taliban influence.” These gains “remain fragile and reversible” however, especially if sanctuaries for the insurgents continue to exist across the border in Pakistan. Al Qaeda’s leadership in that country is supposed to be weaker “than at any other point since it fled Afghanistan in 2001” though.

The report recognizes Pakistan’s near hopeless predicament, noting that the country “has endured thousands of casualties in their military ranks and among their civilian population from terrorist attacks” which undermines the ability of its government to work with the United States.

As they know that America is preparing to leave Afghanistan, Pakistan’s leaders can no longer afford to do Washington’s bidding but have to prepare for the likelihood of Taliban victory and possibly the emergence of an autonomous “Pashtunistan” occupying the border region in the northwest.

At the same time, the report recommends greater cooperation between Pakistan and the United States to deny safe havens to terrorists. Unless it intends to deploy ground forces, drone strikes are currently America’s default option but military force alone can’t remove the sanctuaries, according to the report.

Although President Barack hailed Pakistan for its counterterrorism efforts during a press conference Thursday, “progress has not come fast enough,” he said. “We will work to deepen trust and cooperation,” he promised, and “speed up our investment in civilian institutions and projects that improve the lives of Pakistanis.” Next year the president is scheduled to visit the country.

The White House affirmed its commitment to start pulling out troops next year but the emphases is on the 2014 deadline which the NATO partners agreed to in Lisbon, Portugal last month. A major challenge during the transition period “will be demonstrating that the Afghan government has the capacity to consolidate gains in geographic areas that have been cleared by ISAF and Afghan Security Forces.”

Such consolidation remains difficult. A Defense Department report to Congress earlier this year pointed out that increased violence and persistent fraud and corruption among the Karzai regime remain the single greatest impediments to progress. Even if Western forces manage to defeat the Taliban militarily in a given area, the “inability of the government to provide essential services, and exploitative behavior” of both civilian authorities and Afghan Security Forces personnel “are contributing to the success of the insurgents’ campaign.”