By Tim Lister, CNN
The balance sheet for the first quarter of 2012 in Afghanistan does not make for cheerful reading. In fact, it is steeped in red.
Add to that slow progress in subduing the Taliban (especially in east Afghanistan), the glacial revival of the U.S. relationship with Pakistan and the growing impatience of NATO members, from Ottawa to Paris, to head for the exit and the outlook doesn’t seem bright.
On the credit side, some of the goals laid out by President Barack Obama in his 2009 speech at West Point, when he announced an increase of 30,000 in U.S. troop numbers, are within sight.
The president said then that the overarching goal in Afghanistan was to "disrupt, dismantle and defeat al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan."
Since then, Osama bin Laden has been killed, and other senior al Qaeda figures have been taken off the battlefield. Intensive nighttime raids in Afghanistan by U.S. Special Forces and the drone campaign in Pakistan’s tribal territories have degraded al Qaeda and associated jihadist groups – even if other al Qaeda franchises in places such as Yemen, Somalia and the Sahel are a growing challenge.
In his West Point speech, Obama also said the additional U.S. troops would "increase our ability to train competent Afghan security forces, and to partner with them so that more Afghans can get into the fight."
Standing up the Afghans
The training of local forces has accelerated, and in several provinces leadership has been handed over to Afghan security forces. Afghans are now responsible for securing areas where about half the population lives.
Paula Broadwell, author of “All In: The Education of General David Petraeus,” spent much of the past two years in Afghanistan. She said Afghan security forces have come a long way in a relatively short period of time.
But she cautioned: "We can’t expect to stand up more than a basic force in just two years of effort. The question is whether it will continue on a pace that is fast enough to ready them to assume the lead by 2014."
She said, "About 40% of the Afghan units I visited in 2010 and 2011 are capable of operating ‘effectively with advisers’ – but that means they’re still dependent on U.S. coalition partnership or support."
In remarks at the Brookings Institution this week, Gen. John Allen, commander of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan, described the quality of that military and police leadership as "mixed."
Complicating the transition is a spike in attacks on NATO forces this year by their supposed allies in Afghan uniforms – what are known as “green-on-blue” attacks. So far this year, 16 NATO soldiers have been killed by their Afghan allies – that’s almost one-fifth of all allied casualties. These attacks have led the U.S. military to reinforce protection measures such as a “guardian angel” program where sleeping coalition soldiers are guarded by fellow soldiers.
Such measures don’t exactly enhance mutual trust. Peter Bergen, CNN’s national security analyst, says, “NATO's withdrawal strategy requires a high degree of trust between small numbers of military advisers embedded with much larger units of Afghan troops in order to succeed. This trust has now been eroded to a dangerous degree.”
Taliban on the defensive
In southern Afghanistan especially, the surge has forced the Taliban to adopt new tactics, engaging NATO-led forces less frequently and increasingly relying on roadside bombs and suicide attacks. According to coalition figures, in the last year, insurgent attacks overall have decreased some 22% and in some parts of southern Afghanistan by much more. But thanks to the devastating effects of such attacks, civilian casualties rose to their highest level last year since 2001.
There has been progress in pushing the Taliban out of areas of Helmand and Kandahar in the south, with schools built and low-level Taliban fighters coaxed back into civilian life. But effective local government has been more difficult to stand up, according to observers in the southern provinces – and assassinations of local officials continue.
And there are still vast tracts of the country where neither government forces nor NATO-led forces hold sway. Reporting in the U.S. military newspaper Stars and Stripes this week from Ghrak district in Kandahar, Heath Druzin wrote that the struggle won’t be won in model villages but by "gaining control of lawless regions like this mountainous, rock-strewn corner of Kandahar province, where opium is the currency and the Taliban (are) the law." Despite huge efforts, "much of the Taliban’s spiritual homeland is still violent and largely out of reach of the Kabul government," he wrote.
And not just the Taliban's spiritual homeland. To the east, a forbidding collection of mountainous provinces along the Pakistani border represents if anything a more formidable challenge.
Allen told Brookings the focus this year would be on "consolidating our hold in the south while we'll continue to employ our combat power … to take care of the insurgency as it has continued to boil in the east."
Insurgent attacks increased some 20% in eastern Afghanistan over the last year, and NATO-led forces intend to boost combat power in the region this year, while pushing two corps of the Afghan National Army into the lead.
Helping to keep that insurgency boiling in the east is the resilient Haqqani Network. A recent paper by the nonpartisan Institute for the Study of War described the group as "Afghanistan’s most capable and potent insurgent group, and they continue to maintain close operational and strategic ties with (al Qaeda) and their affiliates."
The report’s authors said the network had "expanded its reach toward the Quetta Shura Taliban’s historical strongholds in southern Afghanistan, the areas surrounding Kabul, (and) the Afghan north."
Pakistan: Spoiler or supporter?
Senior U.S. officials have persistently accused elements in Pakistan's military intelligence service of aiding the Haqqanis as a way of ensuring Pakistani influence in Afghanistan. (It's no coincidence that Indian interests in Afghanistan have frequently been the Haqqanis' targets.)
In the current edition of The New Yorker, author Steve Coll surveys what has happened to the aims of the much-heralded “strategic dialogue” between the United States and Pakistan, developed in 2009. "Three years later, those ambitions are in tatters," he writes, "undone by the Raymond Davis affair (the CIA contractor who shot dead two men in Lahore last year), the killing of Osama bin Laden, and continuing drone strikes."
Coll, author of “Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan and Bin Laden,” says that the senior Pakistani officers he met on a visit in February "were unyielding in their resentment of American unilateralism, and the violations of Pakistani sovereignty and dignity that drone strikes represent."
Pakistani-U.S. relations were also dealt a critical blow by NATO airstrikes that accidentally killed 24 Pakistani soldiers last fall. Only in the last week have high-level, military-to-military talks resumed, with the accent on improving border coordination.
If the United States is to bring the "good Taliban" to the negotiating table, it needs the goodwill of Pakistan, which according to many outside observers continues to provide sanctuary to the movement's senior leadership in Quetta and Karachi. Attempts to find interlocutors among the Taliban have made – at best – stuttering progress.
Tortuous negotiations are said to be continuing about the release of five senior Taliban figures held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, so that they can represent the movement in Qatar. But the Taliban said in a statement this month that the "atmosphere for negotiations" had been soured by the burning of the Qurans, the killings in Kandahar and video of U.S. Marines apparently urinating on the corpses of Afghans.
‘Good enough’ for Afghanistan
Above all, time is short. Some 23,000 U.S. troops are set to leave Afghanistan by the end of September. The intensive pace of operations by U.S. Special Forces will in part make up for the erosion in numbers, but the curtain call for combat operations may be just 18 months away.
There is also the psychological impact of growing hostility toward the war back home, fueled in part by the negative headlines of the last few months that author Broadwell calls "the near perfect storm." According to a CNN poll out Friday, support for the war in Afghanistan has fallen to an all-time low in the United States, with the majority of Americans saying the United States should withdraw all its troops from Afghanistan before the 2014 deadline set by the Obama administration. The CNN/ORC International survey released Friday indicated 25% of Americans favored the war in Afghanistan, with 37% saying things are going well for the U.S. in Afghanistan.
History suggests that the Western presence in Afghanistan may be a brief interlude before the remorseless logic of ethnicity and tribe, and the competing interests of neighboring states, reassert themselves. So it was with the British and Soviet occupations in centuries past. Lofty ambitions of reconstruction and democracy have faded. When he was NATO commander in Afghanistan a year ago, Gen. David Petraeus told a congressional hearing: "We are after what is, in a sense, good enough for Afghanistan."
Part of that “good enough” is a financial commitment that will not be popular in Congress or on Main Street.
"Afghanistan cannot sustain the training and equipping of its security forces – our ticket out and the ostensible guarantor of Afghanistan’s future security – with its own sources of revenue," Broadwell said.
It also means progress toward a strategic partnership with Afghanistan, one that faces hurdles over the leadership of nighttime raids and who controls detention policy. Successive U.S. administrations have found Afghan President Hamid Karzai to be a mercurial partner. After the Kandahar killings, he called for U.S. troops to leave Afghan villages, and, referring to the Taliban and the U.S. presence, said: “There are two demons in our country now.”
As combat winds down in Afghanistan over the next two years, and the accent shifts to a transition to Afghan leadership, there are faint echoes of what U.S. broadcaster Walter Cronkite said in February 1968 after a visit to Vietnam.
"It is increasingly clear to this reporter that the only rational way out will be to negotiate, not as victors, but as an honorable people who lived up to their pledge to defend democracy, and did the best they could."