U.S. intelligence is too pessimistic about Afghanistan

January 2

Michael O’Hanlon is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and author of “Healing the Wounded Giant: Maintaining Military Preeminence While Cutting the Defense Budget,” among other books.

According to The Post, U.S. intelligence recently predicted a bleak future for Afghanistanafter most international troops leave by the end of 2014. The situation would be worse, of course, if no bilateral security agreement is signed between Washington and Kabul and thus, in a year, no international troops at all remained in Afghanistan. But the tenor of the national intelligence estimate is reportedly pessimistic regardless of such specifics.

From my trips to the region and my former role as a member of the CIA’s external advisory board, I know many U.S. intelligence analysts who focus on Afghanistan. In my experience, they are, without exception, diligent, hardworking, brave and thoughtful. In this case, they also are wrong. Or, to be fairer, a bumper-sticker interpretation of their report that confidently makes fatalistic prognostications about Afghanistan’s future cannot be substantiated.

To be sure, there are numerous scenarios under which Afghanistan could falter or even fail in the years ahead. That could mean a possible return to power of the Taliban and its allies, as well as future sanctuaries on Afghan soil for al-Qaeda, Lashkar-e-Taiba (the terror organization that carried out the 2008 Mumbai attacks) and other extremists. But there is little reason to consider this the most likely outcome and no basis for confidently predicting it.

Given the U.S. national mood of fatigue, doom and gloom toward Afghanistan, this kind of report, however well-intentioned and well-informed, requires rebuttal. It is also worth remembering that, as a breed, intelligence analysts tend toward pessimism because it is far less professionally embarrassing to be pleasantly surprised by developments in a given country than to appear complacent as troubles brew. But premature predictions of failure in some places can be as harmful to the national interest as blind optimism. The case for hopefulness on Afghanistan is built largely on what were probably its three most notable developments of 2013:

●The Afghan army and police held their ground. The number of U.S. troops declined steadily in 2013 and will soon total 34,000, down two-thirds from the peak in 2011. NATO and other international forces have been reduced by a comparable percentage. Last year was the first that Afghan security forces have been in the lead in most operations throughout the country at all times. NATO’s fatality figures, down nearly 75 percent from the peaks of recent years, prove the point. The Taliban made few inroads into major cities and put few major transportation arteries at risk, the occasional spectacular attack notwithstanding. Cities such as Kabul, Kandahar, Mazar-e Sharif, Herat, Jalalabad and Khost are safer today than many Latin American and African cities. No one knows whether Afghan forces, which sustained large losses, can continue to absorb punishment at the same pace. But in broad terms the record has been good so far.

●The Afghan presidential race is shaping up reasonably well. Most major candidates who are polling well are ones the United States, Pakistan and others in the region can live with, including Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah. They favor strong, sustained ties with the United States and other nations. None is threatening to try President Hamid Karzai or his cronies for corruption or treason — threats often seen in countries at comparable levels of political development and transition but which, in Afghanistan, would reduce the chances of a clean election and peaceful transfer of power. On balance, the odds look fairly good for at least a passable outcome in April.

●Karzai, for all his flaws and his frustrating unwillingness to sign a bilateral security agreement, almost surely wants such an accord, which has now been negotiated. He knows that his family will not be physically safe and that his legacy will not be assured if Afghanistan crumbles because of a premature and complete NATO departure. He is most likely seeking, in his own annoying and inimitable way, to preserve bargaining leverage with Washington as long as he can. He believes, much more than is the case, that the United States is desperate for enduring bases on Afghan soil. But either he or his successor is likely to sign the accord that has been approved by, among others, an Afghan loya jirga.

At an annual cost of perhaps 10 percent of recent expenses over the past half-decade, and with far lower loss of life, the United States, working with the international community and many Afghan reformers and patriots, has a decent chance of holding on to most of the gains made over the past dozen years — and, crucially, preventing the Taliban from resuming political control of Afghanistan. There is still a powerful case for interpreting the facts in a hopeful vein.

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