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Petraeus’s Testimony: A Clear and Sober Assessment on Afghanistan

Gen. David Petraeus’s testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee today contains a clear-eyed assessment of what has already been accomplished in Afghanistan — and what more needs to be done. He noted that “the momentum achieved by the Taliban in Afghanistan since 2005 has been arrested in much of the country and reversed in a number of important areas.” However, he also pointed out that progress so far is “fragile and reversible” and that “much difficult work lies ahead.”

That is a more sober, and more accurate, assessment than some of the happy talk we once heard on Afghanistan — or the overly gloom talk we hear too often today. And it certainly tallies with my own observations during my most recent trip to Afghanistan last week.

In December, I visited Arghandab district north of Kandahar, once a hotbed of the Taliban, which has now been occupied by U.S. and Afghan troops. Last week I visited Zharay, west of Kandahar, another district where the Taliban once held sway but no longer do so. There are other such examples across Helmand and Kandahar provinces, where the coalition is putting the bulk of its efforts. As Petraeus told the Senate committee, “Marjah, the one-time hub of the Taliban and the illegal narcotics industry in central Helmand Province, held an election for a community council  on March 1st during which 75 percent of registered voters cast a ballot. And as a result of improvements in the security situation there, the markets, which once sold weapons, explosives, and illegal narcotics, now feature over 1,500 shops selling food, clothes, and household goods.”

Such progress is in part the result of the coalition’s success in carrying out what Petraeus described as “precise, intelligence-driven operations to capture or kill insurgent leaders.” Most impressive of all, as Petraeus noted, “a recently released UN study observed that civilian casualties due to ISAF [NATO] and Afghan force operations decreased by just over 20% in 2010, even as our total forces increased by over 100,000 and significant offensive operations were launched.” The coalition’s ability to increase kinetic operations while decreasing civilian casualties is an impressive feat that makes it easier to win over skeptical Afghans.

Another positive development is the growth in size and effectiveness of the Afghan National Security Forces, especially the army. As Petraeus noted, “[T]he past year alone has seen Afghan forces grow by over one-third, adding some 70,000 soldiers and police.” That’s due to the hard work of Lt. Gen. Bill Caldwell and his staff at the NATO Training Mission-Afghanistan, notwithstanding the contemptible efforts to undermine Caldwell by an antiwar Rolling Stone reporter.

But big challenges still remain, even if Petraeus had to be circumspect about them in the context of an open hearing. He referred to “insurgent sanctuaries in Pakistan” and said “we are coordinating closely with the Pakistani army to … provide the ‘anvil’ on the Afghan side of the Duran Line against which Pakistani Taliban elements can be driven by Pakistani operations in the border areas.”  It’s true that Pakistan does cooperate with some coalition operations — but it also turns a blind eye to much Taliban activity and actively sponsors many elements of the insurgency. During my trip, I heard about ammonium nitrate factories in Pakistan that churn out much of the explosives that are killing and maiming our troops every day. Pakistan could easily close such factories but refuses to do so, leading to legitimate questions about where its allegiances lie. Actually, it may not be possible to speak about Pakistan’s having any coherent policy at all, since its military intelligence service, the ISI, remains a power onto itself.

The other issue that could still cripple our efforts is the prevalence of corruption in Afghanistan. This is a problem that Petraeus has begun to address by setting up an anti-corruption task force under the formidable Brig. Gen. H.R. McMaster. Already McMaster has scored some small but significant victories in the fight against corrupt patronage networks whose reach extends all the way to the top of Afghan politics. But much  more needs to be done, and it would help if McMaster got more support than he has received to date from the U.S. Embassy and the State Department.

The real test of how far we have come in Afghanistan is how the coalition weathers the expected spring-summer Taliban offensive. If Petraeus is able to prevent any reductions in combat forces in the south, the Taliban should find themselves unable to fight their way back into their old strongholds. They are already adjusting to this difficulty by placing increasing emphasis on high-profile terrorist attacks such as the suicide bombing of an army-recruiting center in northern Afghanistan that killed 35 people yesterday. But such attacks may actually undermine the Taliban’s cause by inflicting so many civilian casualties that they could make it harder for the insurgency to win the people’s “hearts and minds.”

Overall, despite inevitable setbacks and continuing challenges, I’d say that the counterinsurgency campaign — which began in earnest only in the fall of 2010 — is going about as well as can be expected right now.