Last week I reported on a briefing I attended on Pakistan and Afghanistan. It was largely gloom and doom. But that is by no means the accepted view within the administration or among advisers and knowledgeable analysts. In January Fred and Kim Kagan put out a report based on their exhaustive study and travels in Afghanistan. Their key finding:
Success in Afghanistan is the establishment of a political order, security situation, and indigenous security force that is stable, viable, enduring, and able — with greatly reduced international support — to prevent Afghanistan from being a safe haven for international terrorists. The current American and Coalition strategy is making progress and should be continued. Since President Obama, NATO allies, and the Afghans have agreed that troops will be present in Afghanistan through 2014, the policy does not require substantial modifications at this point.
In particular, where the U.S. troops have surged, the Kagans found considerable success, observing, that the “Taliban has lost almost all of its principal safe havens in this area. Its ability to acquire, transport, and use IED materials and other weapons and equipment has been disrupted. Local populations have stepped forward to fight the Taliban with ISAF support for the first time in some important areas. The momentum of the insurgency in the south has unquestionably been arrested and probably reversed.”
The Kagans acknowledged, “The corruption and illegitimacy of the Afghan government and the persistence of sanctuaries for insurgent groups in Pakistan are the two main concerns generally raised about the feasibility of success.”
I spoke with Fred Kagan by phone Monday. He is on his way back to Afghanistan. He dismissed the claims that we are failing in Afghanistan. He said simply, “The military gains are very significant in Kandahar and Helmand.” He explained that U.S. forces have driven much of the enemy out of havens in Kandahar and Helmand and will be able to hold the area. Even in Oruzgan province, a key passageway between Kandahar and Helmand, we have made gains despite a pullout of Dutch troops. In that area we have been able to successfully transfer security to Afghan forces.
Kagan also told me that, while less reported, there have also been gains in the eastern part of Afghanistan. In the Konar River Valley that borders Pakistan, the population centers are more secure than they were before the surge.
As for complaints that conditions in the north have deteriorated, Kagan said with a hint of frustration, “I’m sorry, it isn’t true.” He noted that just as in Iraq, the Afghanistan operation is a “phased undertaking” that can build on successes in one area to progress through the rest of the country.
Kagan is nevertheless far from Pollyannaish. He said candidly, “It is winter. Obviously we will see [if success is permanent] during the spring fighting season.” Do we have enough time to turn the tide permanently before the Obama administration’s July deadline to begin withdrawing troops or its 2014 deadline to end operations there? Kagan said, “If the July withdrawal is modest, then there is time.” He explained that as long as we are “close to the same level of forces” after July, we will not harm our prospects for success.
As for Pakistan, Kagan is realistic. He recalled that Pakistan has supported the Taliban from the get-go. He sees “no intention” by the Pakistan government to act against Taliban fighters. But Kagan told me that “we do the most we can to degrade and destroy the Taliban forces. They’ve had a bad year. And Pakistan has noticed.” As we continue to degrade the Taliban, he continued, the Pakistan government “will realize this is not the horse to back.” More cooperation may therefore be forthcoming.
Unlike the armchair analysts sitting in American think tanks who declare the war lost (just as they did for Iraq), Kagan provides a convincing case, supported by detailed observation in Afghanistan, that our strategy is bearing fruit. Provided we don’t lose our political will, a positive outcome is still obtainable. But with this administration that is a big “if.”