Nearly two-thirds of Americans think the war in Afghanistan is not worth fighting, according to the latest Washington Post-ABC News poll.
The contemporary strategy of defeating the Taliban militarily is unrealistic. The coalition is on the defensive across much of Afghanistan and, with current troop levels, can at most only contain the insurgency. On present course, the coalition is swiftly heading toward a bottleneck. Just to retain the areas currently controlled by the coalition would require significant additional troops next year. Many more than that would be required for the coalition, with heavy losses, to adopt an offensive stance and win back territory. Such an escalation, though, is politically shaky given the impending departure of European forces and dwindling public support for the war. A new strategy is required.
Nearly two-thirds of Americans think the war in Afghanistan is not worth fighting, according to the latest Washington Post-ABC News poll. Behind this figure is a prevalent pessimism that the war is unwinnable. Curiously, most Afghans have a very different view. In fact, Afghans in general are much more optimistic about their future than the Americans. Majority of the Afghans, 59 per cent, thinks that their country is moving in the right direction, the most recent published poll found in November, vs. 28 per cent of Americans who feel that way now about the United States. Asked a version of Ronald Reagan’s classic question ‘ Are you better off today than five years ago? ’63 per cent of Afghans say yes. In America, consumer confidence has edged up in recent months but is still down 40 points since 2007.
Americans picture Afghan President Hamid Karzai as illegitimate, inept and corrupt; believe that the surge of U.S. and NATO troops is failing; and see Afghan forces as graft-ridden incompetents. Yet Karzai’s government enjoys a 62 per cent approval rating in his country, while he personally was viewed positively by 82 per cent of his compatriots in November. Afghan support for American forces had fallen a bit over the past year but was still at 62 per cent, much better than the 31 per cent of Americans who support troop commitment. The Taliban, by contrast, was viewed unfavorably by nine in 10 Afghans ‘while eight of 10 Af ghans expressed confidence in the Afghan National Army. How to explain this surprising (to Americans) optimism on the part of the Afghan population? One merely has to look at some of the underlying realities.
Since 2001, when U.S. troops overthrew the Taliban, Afghanistan’s gross domestic product was trebled. This puts Afghanistan on a par with China in its double-digit economic growth rate, though from a much lower base. In 2001 there were 1 million Afghan children in school ‘almost all boys. This year more than 8 million children will attend school’ a third of them girls. Afghanistan’s dismal literacy rate will triple over the next decade as these children complete their education. Now, 80 per cent of Afghans have access to basic health-care facilities, almost twice as many as in 2005. Infant mortality has dropped by a third, and adult longevity is rising.
Perhaps most remarkable, half of Afghan families now have telephones, thanks to the cell phone explosion since 2001. Almost no one had a phone a decade ago. Polling confirms that Afghans are very troubled by official corruption, but they don’t compare their government to Switzerland’s. If they look abroad, they look at their neighbors’ Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Uzbeki-stan, China, Pakistan and Iran’ and see systems generally far less accountable than their own. Mostly, however, they look to their own past and realize that this is the best they have had it for decades and that life continues to improve.
This outlook is also evident in the areas where NATO and Afghan forces have been most active. In Helmand Province, the surge’s epicenter, killings attributed to the Taliban dropped by half between January 2009 and November 2010. As violence declined in Helmand, normalcy began returning and markets were reopened. Three in five residents reported good economic opportunities in November. Only one in five died before the surge.
Afghans are also very concerned about still-rising violence, but they put that in context. In March, the United Nations announced that 2,700 Afghan civilians were killed last year, most by insurgents. That annual figure would have been a bad week in Iraq back in 2006. It would be a bad month in Mexico today. Recent levels of violence do not compare to the levels that Afghans experienced in the 1980s and ’90s. War with the Russians and then among Afghans drove vast numbers of citizens out of the country. The Afghan refugee flow is still on balance back into the country.
The current debate on the success of operations in the south fails to address the nub of the problem in Afghanistan. Even in the event of success, the insurgency has made such advances that a coalition victory is incongruous. Waiting several months to learn the outcome of operations in the various districts before deciding on the conduct of the war is a mistake. The successes will probably be debatable, and those who are the most optimistic will always believe some limited and local progress offers promise for the future.
However, the evolution of the conflict depends only marginally on these operations. For this reason, the current military option can lead only to military escalation. If the U.S. command maintains its objective of military victory, it must plan immediately to bolster the force in 2011 in order to face the insurgency’s push forward.
The U.S. political leadership must decide without delay to open negotiations with the insurgency. Every passing month strengthens the position of the Taliban and weakens the Afghan government, which now controls only a few cities. With Karzai in decline and the Taliban gaining strength, there is no good reason for Washington to further delay negotiations. In doing so, the Obama administration risks encouraging the insurgents to hold out for a unilateral coalition withdrawal, resulting in major humiliation for Washington, and possibly even another civil war with unpredictable results.