Sanctuaries Hamper Progress in Afghanistan

Experts respond to the administration’s war review. Vice President Joe Biden promises withdrawal no matter what.

Progress in Afghanistan is improving, according to the administration, but recent gains are still “fragile and reversible.” The most recent assessment of the war expressed cautious optimism about General David Petraeus’ counterinsurgency strategy but warned that security consolidation remains problematic.

According to the administration’s study, the insurgents’ momentum has 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.” As long as sanctuaries for the extremists continue to exist across the border in Pakistan however, it is impossible to root out the insurgency.

Consolidation of security gains is difficult to begin with. 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.”

CNN’s Candy Crowley asked about this problem on State of the Union. On the program, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Richard Myers conveyed the optimism of commanders on the ground. Progress has been “uneven” he said but in large parts of Helmand and Kandahar provinces where NATO troops have mounted offensives in recent months, “government down there is solid, the people are being protected, Taliban influence has waned considerably but if you go closer to Pakistan,” he said, “and other provinces, it’s a little more problematic.”

Fareed Zakaria was rather more explicit. On GPS, he warned that as long as the sanctuaries remain and the insurgents are able to gather support there, “progress in Afghanistan will be temporary. When we leave,” he predicted, “the terror groups will come across from the border and undo years of American effort and trillions of dollars of investment.”

The key challenge, according to Zakaria, is sufficient training Afghan Security Forces to take over between 2011 and 2014. He praised General Petraeus for making the Afghan Army “more competent and coordinated than ever before” but pointed out that the reason for being in Afghanistan was supposed to be battering Al Qaeda and similar terrorist organizations.

On NBC’s Meet the Press, Vice President Joe Biden, who is reported to have been critical of the surge, affirmed that overarching goal and added preventing extremists from taking over the Pakistani government. “With regard to our effort to degrade Al Qaeda, we’re making great progress,” he said. But counterinsurgency has been less successful.

Even if progress has been slow, Biden promised that the United States would start withdrawing troops in the summer of next year. “We’re gonna be totally out of there, come hell or high water, by 2014,” he added.