The Obama administration's Afghanistan assessment, due out Thursday, reportedly indicates uneven but real progress. Fed a steady diet of gloom and doom, including Wednesday's headlines about negative intelligence assessments, many Americans will be surprised at this finding.
But in any far-off guerrilla war, perception back home often lags battlefield reality by several months. It certainly did in Iraq during the "surge" in 2007. So too in Afghanistan, where the buildup of U.S. forces, completed only this fall, is already having a considerable impact, although public opinion hasn't caught on yet.
Even with the recent increase in U.S. troops, bringing the NATO force to 140,000, there are not enough forces to conduct a comprehensive campaign across the entire country. Heavy-lift helicopters to ferry soldiers into the high mountains are in especially short supply. Therefore Army Gen. David H. Petraeus has focused efforts on two southern provinces, Helmand and Kandahar, where the Taliban has been strongest.
During a recent 10-day visit at his invitation, we found a classic, and successful, counterinsurgency campaign being conducted in the south. We drove around Kandahar city and saw markets flourishing. Children who once threw stones at American vehicles now wave at our soldiers. As we went north into the Arghandab River Valley — a Taliban stronghold until a few months ago — we found numerous American and Afghan outposts and soldiers patrolling on foot between them.
We spoke with one company commander who had just returned from a nighttime air assault to secure a village. But Arghandab is growing more secure, and officers are spending more time on governance. Everywhere we went, the message was the same: The Taliban was surprised by the capabilities and ferocity of U.S. forces, and it has largely retreated to regroup.
To be sure, fighting normally slackens in the winter; the extent of recent gains won't be clear until the spring. But when the Taliban returns, it will find many of its old stomping grounds fortified to resist incursions.
Coalition operations have cleared most insurgents not only from Arghandab but also from the nearby districts of Panjwai and Zheray. Similar progress is evident in the central Helmand River Valley in districts such as Nawa, Garmsir and Marja. They are now entering the "hold and build" phase of Petraeus' plan. Next year, the intention is to join the cleared "oil spots" — territory taken from insurgents — in Kandahar and Helmand, creating a broad swath of liberated territory in the Taliban heartland.
In these operations, U.S. troops are increasingly supported by Afghan forces. The Afghan army is fighting hard and earning the respect of the people. The Afghan police force isn't as far along. Many officers are still corrupt and ineffectual; others are on the right track, with the help of coalition mentors. One of the most promising developments is the Afghan Local Police — armed neighborhood watch organizations that are monitored by Afghan officials and mentored by U.S. troops. This program has the potential to significantly accelerate the growth of the security forces and to spread them to areas where coalition forces are thin.
All of these efforts have been helped by the decision at NATO's Lisbon summit last month to set the end of 2014 as the deadline for the transition of security responsibility to Afghan control. Afghan officials who only a few months ago were fretting that President Obama would pull out in 2011 are now optimistic that we'll stick around. The new timeline has even made President Hamid Karzai more accommodating, as evidenced by his restraint over the WikiLeaks revelations.
Two Achilles' heels could still hamper coalition attempts to translate tactical accomplishments into lasting strategic success: lack of good governance in Afghanistan and the presence of Taliban sanctuaries in Pakistan.
To address the former problem, Petraeus has created a task force, Shafafiat ("Transparency")under the capable leadership of Army Brig. Gen. H.R. McMaster to ferret out corruption. The recent decision to bar a trucking firm partly owned by Ahmad Wali Karzai, the president's allegedly corrupt brother, from bidding on coalition contracts signals the seriousness of this effort.
Even greater strides are being made at the local level. We found that wherever a strong governor, police chief and intelligence chief are present in a district, progress is being made. In Kabul, two state organizations, the Independent Directorate of Local Governance and the Civil Service Institute, are working to seed more competent officials across the country.