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Afghanistan success is in eye of beholder

As NATO insists that violence is declining while many Afghans say daily life has grown more perilous, tension has grown over so-called metrics that can be used to chart progress or deterioration.

November 12, 2011|By Laura King, Los Angeles Times
  • Polish and U.S. members of the NATO International Security Assistance Force patrol in the Zana Khan district of Ghazni, Afghanistan.
Polish and U.S. members of the NATO International Security Assistance… (Naweed Haqjoo, European…)

Reporting from Forward Operating Base Ghazni, — The young U.S. Army sergeant had lost nearly all the blood in his body by the time he was rushed into a military field clinic at this dusty base in eastern Afghanistan.

As his distraught unit mates converged on the surgical suite, some of them weeping, the entire camp pitched in for an emergency blood drive. But military doctors' frantic efforts were futile, and Sgt. John A. Lyons, a 26-year-old from New Jersey who had studied Latin in college, died of the wounds he had suffered in a Taliban ambush.

As the U.S.-led war against the Taliban grinds into its second decade, the life-and-death struggle taking place daily across Afghanistan has gotten entangled in increasingly divergent narratives of the Western war effort. In this high-stakes phase of a waning conflict, perceptions of success have become crucial, perhaps more so than reality.

PHOTOS: A decade of war in Afghanistan

Yet even as the question of what constitutes success has become more urgent, it has become more difficult to pin down.

With an American troop drawdown underway and expected to accelerate in the coming year, the NATO force insists that violence is declining, that the insurgency's strength is flagging and that Afghan forces are demonstrating a growing ability to take the lead in safeguarding the country.

Many Afghans, however, subscribe to a darker view: that daily life has grown more perilous, that national and local governance has become even shakier, that the country's police and army are chronically unable protect its citizens, and that the Taliban movement is hunkering down to wait out the Western presence.

Recent months have seen escalating tension over so-called metrics that can be used to chart either progress or deterioration.

In an unusually public instance of clashing statistical analysis, NATO's International Security Assistance Force declared last month that enemy attacks had dropped by nearly 10% in the first nine months of the year. But the United Nations, citing its own figures for an overlapping period, reported that violent incidents had jumped by almost 40% in the first eight months of 2011.

Ghazni, the rundown capital of the province of the same name where Lyons was killed Oct. 26, is on a provisional list of areas to be next handed over to the control of the Afghan police and army. That follows the summer's security transfer of an initial group of seven cities and provinces. Nationwide, the process is to be completed within the next three years.

But this arid swath of terrain south of Kabul, the national capital, contains some of the country's most "kinetic" areas, military-speak for the level of violent incidents and confrontations with insurgents. Many in Ghazni fear that Afghan security forces cannot begin to cope with the threat posed by the Taliban and other militant groups.

In at least four districts of the province, the Taliban movement has set up shadow governments, complete with courts, tax collection and its own harsh brand of law enforcement, said Mohammed Arif Rahmani, one of Ghazni's representatives in the national parliament. Even in the provincial capital, Taliban commanders have sufficient sway to order a ban on music, in an echo of the harsh edicts in place when the movement ruled Afghanistan.

"Generally, people don't really incline toward the Taliban," Rahmani said. "But the levels of corruption and insecurity make them prefer the Taliban over the government."

As an example, he cited inaction after local people complained to officials that they were being robbed and menaced on a particular stretch of road.

"Then we complained to the Taliban," he said. "And they arrested the robbers, took what had been stolen, returned everything to the owners, and told the people, 'Any time you face trouble because of thieves, you come to us, and we'll take care of it.'"

He and other officials said local qualms about Afghan forces' will and readiness to step up had been brushed aside. "The foreigners have decided to hand over security responsibility," Rahmani said. "So there is really no choice."

In Afghanistan, the Obama administration has shied away from setting specific "benchmarks" to be achieved before the American combat mission ends. The U.S. ambassador, Ryan Crocker, who served in Baghdad before taking up his post in Kabul, said he did not believe such measurements provided a true picture of progress.

"You can achieve every benchmark and still fail. Or you can meet none of them and be successful," he said. "You have to view the situation through a wider aperture."

Success in Afghanistan, he and other senior Western officials say, could be defined on some level by basic security that can be maintained by Afghan security forces, and the existence of a government that can provide essential services such as healthcare and education.

But there are intangibles as well.

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