Steady in Afghanistan
THE SALIENT conclusion of the Obama administration's review of the Afghan war is that it is too early to tell whether the strategy that the president announced a year ago is working. President Obama was appropriately cautious in his summary Thursday, saying that while "we are on track to meet our goals . . . this continues to be a very difficult endeavor." But the encouraging news is that, in areas where the surge of troops, aid workers and money should have shown results by now, progress has been undeniable.
Before a military offensive in and around the crucial southern city of Kandahar was launched several months ago, some experts doubted whether U.S. forces could succeed in securing an area that the Taliban regards as its heartland. What followed has been something approaching a rout in which enemy forces have been driven out of key districts outside the city for the first time in four years. Last week, the New York Times quoted a veteran Taliban commander as saying that the operation had left its forces demoralized and that "the government has the upper hand now."
That success has been matched with continuing gains in the neighboring province of Helmand, while special forces operations have killed or captured hundreds of Taliban commanders around the country. Skeptics point out that enemy attacks have increased in once-tranquil areas of the north and west, away from the concentration of American forces. But Taliban influence is likely to be limited in these areas because most of the population is not from the Pashtun ethnic group. The real military contest is in the Pashtun belt across the south and east - and there, for now, the United States and its allies are winning.
Critics of Mr. Obama's policy tend to focus on the fact that it has not succeeded in two key areas: inducing Pakistan to attack Taliban safe havens on its territory and fostering local and national Afghan authorities who can fill the space left by the Taliban's retreat. (On a third key task, the training of the Afghan army and police forces, the results are mixed.) The doubters are right that without progress in those areas, the military gains of recent months may not be sustainable. But improvements in governance are not like military campaigns; results come over years, not months. As for Pakistan, administration officials believe it may finally move against the Taliban in the coming year - if its military and intelligence commanders perceive that the United States is defeating the Taliban and will stay long enough to ensure that it cannot quickly revive.
Mr. Obama has raised the odds for success by committing U.S. forces to Afghanistan for four more years and by promising to negotiate a strategic partnership with the government of Hamid Karzai in 2011. Political considerations may make this steadiness more difficult as the 2012 presidential election approaches; some in the administration and Congress will surely press for U.S. troop withdrawals beginning next summer that are larger than conditions warrant. So far, however, the president has stayed focused in defending what are critical national interests in Afghanistan. If he continues, his strategy will have a real chance to succeed.