Afghan Realities

Gilles Dor­ronsoro, a vis­it­ing schol­ar at the Carnegie Endow­ment for Inter­na­tion­al Peace, argued on these pages (the New York Times Opin­ion Pages) on Sept. 15 that the West­ern coali­tion will not defeat the insur­gency in Afghanistan, and “needs to start fac­ing real­i­ty and begin nego­ti­at­ing with the Tal­iban before it’s too late.” NATO’s com­man­der responds.

Gilles Dor­ronsoro pro­vides no fac­tu­al evi­dence to sub­stan­ti­ate his analy­sis of the secu­ri­ty sit­u­a­tion in Afghanistan and sig­nif­i­cant­ly over­states the Tal­iban suc­cess. After 15 months as the NATO com­man­der for oper­a­tions glob­al­ly, with a focus on Afghanistan, I’d say we have a good chance at suc­cess in the country. 

Suc­cess in build­ing up the Afghan secu­ri­ty forces is the key. It was the key in Iraq as well. There is sig­nif­i­cant progress in this area as we have field­ed 240,000 Afghan Nation­al Secu­ri­ty Forces. The recruit­ing and train­ing con­tin­ues on a path to reach 300,000 by next sum­mer, while oper­a­tional com­pe­tence con­tin­ues to grow. 

Indeed, the Afghan secu­ri­ty forces are suc­cess­ful­ly in charge of secu­ri­ty in Kab­ul, where the Tal­iban have been unable to con­duct a sig­nif­i­cant attack despite many attempts. Com­pared to many cities around the world, Kab­ul is very safe. 

Afghan secu­ri­ty forces are grow­ing in capa­bil­i­ty in oth­er areas that sup­port secu­ri­ty oper­a­tions. In the recent flood­ing in the east­ern Afghan bor­der provinces, the Afghan Air Force res­cued more than 2,000 cit­i­zens. It then sent four MI-17 air­craft to neigh­bor­ing Pak­istan to assist with res­cue-and-relief efforts there. The Afghan gov­ern­ment did this uni­lat­er­al­ly, not as part of the NATO or ISAF (Inter­na­tion­al Secu­ri­ty Assis­tance Force) effort. 

The Afghan Nation­al Mil­i­tary Acad­e­my is a four year degree-pro­duc­ing insti­tu­tion. The first class grad­u­at­ed 84 offi­cers in 2009, and the sec­ond class grad­u­at­ed 212 offi­cers in 2010. For next year’s fresh­man class, there are 3,000 qual­i­fied appli­cants for 600 seats. The Afghan Nation­al Army has opened schools in intel­li­gence, engi­neer­ing, law, mil­i­tary police, logis­tics, reli­gious and cul­tur­al affairs and finance to pro­vide sup­port ser­vices crit­i­cal to tran­si­tion­ing secu­ri­ty responsibilities. 

Our com­bined spe­cial oper­a­tions forces are elim­i­nat­ing insur­gent lead­ers at a rapid pace. One of the most dan­ger­ous jobs in Afghanistan today is to be a Tal­iban “shad­ow gov­er­nor” of a province. Mean­while, polls con­sis­tent­ly show that the Tal­iban pop­u­lar­i­ty is below 8 per­cent and that Afghans have “con­fi­dence in their country’s future” at a lev­el of 60 per­cent or more. 

The insur­gents are large­ly mil­i­tar­i­ly incom­pe­tent, beyond the use of impro­vised explo­sive devices. Their flag has come down over south­ern Afghanistan, where progress is steady. While vio­lence has increased in south­ern Afghanistan — because we are tak­ing the fight to the ene­my — it is clear that the increase is most­ly in Hel­mand and Kan­da­har provinces. 

The rest of the coun­try is becom­ing more eco­nom­i­cal­ly pro­duc­tive. In the south, more fight­ing indi­cates less Tal­iban con­trol — not more. When these areas are sta­bi­lized, Afghan secu­ri­ty forces will have secured the prin­ci­pal pop­u­la­tion cen­ters in the for­mer Tal­iban heart­land. Secu­ri­ty in Mar­ja in Hel­mand Province, for exam­ple, con­tin­ues to improve. Insur­gent fight­ers there suf­fer from low morale, food and weapons short­ages, and high casu­al­ties. In Mar­ja, cit­i­zens have reg­is­tered to vote, schools are reopen­ing, and the dis­trict police sta­tion has reopened. Bazaars are booming. 

We will not kill our way to suc­cess in Afghanistan. The Afghan Peace and Rec­on­cil­i­a­tion Pro­gram is an Afghan ini­tia­tive, owned and led by the Afghan gov­ern­ment, but with the full sup­port of the inter­na­tion­al com­mu­ni­ty and ISAF. A process like this takes time. The pres­i­den­tial decree was only signed in June, and the Afghan gov­ern­ment still has much work to do. 

I’d rather have the hand we hold in Afghanistan than the one the insur­gents have. We are part of a coali­tion of 49 troop-con­tribut­ing nations, with 70 coun­tries sup­port­ing Afghanistan finan­cial­ly, and a U.N. res­o­lu­tion in place. This is hard­ly an “empire” seek­ing to con­trol Afghanistan. We want to sta­bi­lize, tran­si­tion to Afghan secu­ri­ty, and turn over. And we will, start­ing next year. 

We need to sus­tain our resolve. Many ana­lysts, aca­d­e­mics and pun­dits decreed “the war is lost, get out now” at var­i­ous times dur­ing fights against insur­gen­cies in Colom­bia, the Balka­ns and Iraq. Yet we suc­ceed­ed there, and we can suc­ceed in Afghanistan as well. 

Admi­ral James G. Stavridis is NATO Supreme Allied Com­man­der for Europe.

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