Afghanistan and the December Review
November 2, 2010
One should never judge whether the glass is half empty or half full while it is still being poured. The review of progress in Afghanistan due in December 2010 is definitely a case of prematurely assessing the situation and can provide only a limited picture of whether the new strategy will work.
There will be positive indicators. It would be amazing if a massive increase in the US troop presence and in US spending did not have such effects at the local level. There has been obvious progress in some districts in Helmand and RC East, and in shaping the campaign to take control of Kandahar. The number of trainers and facilities for Afghan forces has been sharply increased, and increases in Special Forces, intelligence assets, and weapons like UCAVs and smart MRL rounds have done serious damage to the Taliban and Haqqani networks even at senior levels. Civil-military coordination is finally becoming more of a reality, and real efforts are underway to reform the contracting processes that have created massive Afghan corruption and waste.
Such indicators provided important preliminary signs of progress during a similar crisis in the Iraq War. They cannot be disregarded even if they so far reflect only limited and potentially ephemeral progress.
At the same time, other insurgencies have shown that short term gains and largely tactical victories are meaningless unless they can be scaled up to win an entire conflict, sustained over time, and then provide a lasting transition to a reasonable degree of security and stability. It is one of the ironies of Vietnam that it achieved every goal the US is now seeking to achieve in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. When the US left, it had the equivalent of "Vietnam good enough”: a defeated insurgency, an outside enemy forced to the conference table and a formal agreement to political accommodation, a “strong” set of Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) security forces, a democratic government, a reasonable level of human rights, and not one but two Nobel peace prizes.
None of this mattered when a combination of internal weaknesses and a cut off of US funding eventually crippled the South Vietnamese government and the ARVN. Moreover, the North Vietnamese and remnants of the Viet Cong proved far more adaptive and resilient over time than the US calculated. As a result, the US “victory” in Vietnam proved as hollow as Batista's defeats of Castro, or the long series of Chinese Nationalist and Japanese defeats of the Chinese communists. As may still be the case in Iraq, the US lacked the strategic patience and domestic political support to turn an apparent victory into lasting gains.
This Burke Chair commentary examines the upcoming December Review of Afghanistan, and what ISAF and the Obama administrations need to do in order to avoid the mistakes of the past. The full report can be downloaded here: