Egypt has dominated the news for the last few weeks — understandably so. The events taking place there are of great importance not only for Egypt but for the United States as well. But amid the focus on the continuing Egyptian revolution, one of the subjects that has gotten lost is Afghanistan. That’s not a bad thing, because when Afghanistan makes news, it usually tends to mean that something bad has occurred; counterinsurgency is a time-intensive, difficult task that is easier to carry out without the kind of white-hot media glare that Iraq, for example, received. But there have been several important articles in recent days that highlight some of the progress that U.S. forces are making in Afghanistan, as well as the obstacles that remain:
• Hamid Karzai, speaking at the Munich Security Conference, complained “that the teams led by the United States and its allies that work to bolster local governments were undermining his government in Kabul.” That’s actually a backhanded endorsement of the work that Provincial Reconstruction Teams are doing. It means that they are bolstering local power centers that are outside the control of Karzai and his cronies. That’s exactly what they should be doing.
• A new report from two-Afghanistan based authors, Alex Strick van Linschoten and Felix Kuehn, claims that the “Afghan Taliban have been wrongly perceived as close ideological allies of Al Qaeda, and they could be persuaded to renounce the global terrorist group.” Count me as unconvinced. It is worth noting that the authors have collaborated with a leading Taliban figure on his autobiography and have publicly opposed the American-led war effort in Afghanistan. Their “report” reads suspiciously like the Taliban propaganda line. There is no doubt that the Taliban and al-Qaeda are distinct organizations. But there is also no doubt that they are closely linked — even more so now than they were in 2001, when the Taliban could have remained in power if they had simply handed over Osama bin Laden to the United States. Mullah Omar refused to do that, and he has steadfastly refused to renounce al-Qaeda in the years since, when it would be very much to his advantage to do so. Why would Mullah Omar & Co. suddenly turn on al-Qaeda if they were back in power? Talk about wishful thinking.
• The Washington Post‘s Joshua Partlow reports on an outpost of the Afghan Local Police, a new initiative led by U.S. Special Forces to set up armed neighborhood-watch organizations across Afghanistan to bolster the Afghan Security Forces. U.S. commanders place great stock in this initiative which is projected to grow from 3,000 participants to as many as 20,000 by the end of the year. Partlow’s report highlights the gains that can come from this work as well as the risks. He writes of one ALP leader: “By empowering Haq and his allies, the U.S. Special Forces have essentially chosen sides in a complex web of long-standing feuds and rivalries. These Pashtuns have enemies in their villages and the government, particularly among other ethnic groups, and their growing power risks provoking as much hostility as it alleviates.” If not handled carefully, such American interventions into tribal dynamics have the potential to exacerbate, not improve, the situation. But if done right, the ALP could significantly swing the odds in favor of the Afghan government and its allies. The key is to make this part of a larger tribal engagement, to avoid the risk of setting loose unaccountable militia.
• The New York Times‘s Chris Chivers reports from Ghazni province on the structure of the Taliban’s shadow government. The whole article is interesting, but I found one point in particular to be important: the fact that “the Taliban fighters of eastern Ghazni appear to be entirely local men.” There has been much focus on the importance of Pakistan sanctuaries for the Taliban, and rightly so. But Chivers’s report squares with everything else I have heard and read: namely that the Taliban fighters tend to operate in their own neighborhoods. That suggests that the Pakistan sanctuaries, important as they are, are not an insuperable obstacle to defeating the insurgency, which is fueled primarily by local grievances. The key is to improve Afghan governance and make it more accountable. Of vital importance is to avoid further warping the governance dynamics as the Afghan Local Police program could do if not skillfully handled.
• Saving the best for last, Carlotta Gall of the New York Times has a report from the Taliban heartland — Zhare district in Kandahar Province. She writes: “Three months ago the area was an uninhabited war zone where Taliban fighters roamed freely. A Taliban flag flew over the village. But since mid-November the Taliban have retreated, punched hard by the influx of thousands of American and Afghan forces into the area, and Zhare has enjoyed more than two months of calm. American and Afghan forces are setting up joint bases across the district, in a strategic and deeply symbolic victory that they hope is part of a turning point in the war. … Villagers say the insurgents were so convincingly routed in the fall that while American troops remain in the area, the Taliban will not venture back. The fear many villagers had of the Taliban has melted away, at least here close to the military outpost.”
That is very heartening news. The real test of these gains will come in the spring and summer, when the Taliban traditionally attack — but there is little doubt that U.S. and allied forces are making significant gains in ejecting the Taliban from their strongholds.