By Michèle Flournoy and Michael O’Hanlon
Kandahar. Ancient crossroads of Central Asia. Home province of Taliban leader Mullah Omar, and the site from which Osama bin Laden began to prepare the Sept. 11 attacks. Epicenter of the fight pitting Afghan and NATO forces against the Taliban over the past dozen years. Region where patronage networks led by the likes of the late Ahmed Wali Karzai, together with centuries-old tribal rivalries, have greatly complicated our counterinsurgency campaign and efforts to help Afghans establish good, or at least better, governance.
Now, Kandahar gives hope to the war effort. The struggle is far from won. But it is much closer to a success than a failure at present, as we saw on a recent trip sponsored by NATO’s International Security Assistance Force.
This is not meant to be happy talk. Kandahar was the sixth day of our trip and the first five days included plenty of discouraging news in Kabul. The tensions between Afghan President Hamid Karzai and the United States have intensified to one of their worst levels ever, the corruption problems in the Afghan government remain serious, Pakistan is still playing a largely unhelpful role in the conflict, and uncertainty about America’s and NATO’s future presence in Afghanistan after the end of the current mission in 2014 looms large in every conversation.
But for all that, it is still remarkable, and genuinely encouraging, to see what has happened down south. This area of the country has long been viewed as the heart of the war effort. Prevent Afghanistan from returning to a safe haven for Al Qaeda by denying the Taliban any real hope of restoring an Islamic caliphate, keep Kabul and other population centers relatively safe and secure, protect the road networks, and nurse the young Afghan democracy toward greater functionality — this remains the prescription for at least a partial success in Afghanistan. And developments in Kandahar in recent years, which have further accelerated in recent months, suggest that these objectives may still be achievable.
Violence in Kandahar province is down by two-thirds over the past two years. Kandahar city is thriving, with markets and schools full of life. Surveys of the population report some 60 percent of locals generally satisfied with their personal security and their economic circumstances even as they remain less positive on the quality of local government. The Arghandab Valley just to the city’s north and west, the site of bloody military campaigns in recent years, is now largely calm. In Zhary and Panjway, longtime Taliban strongholds, a number of villages have recently risen up against the Taliban and asked the Afghan government to establish Afghan Local Police units to protect them. The patronage network dominated by Ahmed Wali Karzai until his death two years ago has splintered — meaning that, while corruption is still a major problem (exacerbated alas by much of the money NATO has poured into the area), spoils are spread more equally among different political leaders and tribes. That development may reduce the ability of the Taliban to recruit disaffected followers from disenfranchised communities.
A skeptical reader might say, fine, things are better, but only because of an incredible effort by NATO in general and the United States in particular since we surged forces into the area some three years ago. With NATO forces already down by one-third locally this year from their earlier peak, and slated to decline another third by fall, one might reasonably ask how this will all hold up as we draw down our forces — even as the enemy remains resilient.
It is a fair question — and a good reason why we should not leave with all our forces. A clear message from our trip is the importance of a U.S.-Afghan accord that allows American and other NATO forces to remain in Afghanistan to continue advising and assisting the Afghan National Security Force, albeit in much smaller numbers, after 2014.
But in fact, there is an even better reason to stay hopeful — the enormous and ongoing improvement of the Afghan security forces. Consider:
— Afghan forces in the five provinces of the southeast including Kandahar now exceed 50,000, in contrast to NATO’s current total of under 20,000. Afghan forces are taking some 75 percent of all coalition casualties, and are leading more than 85 percent of all operations. The preponderance of ISAF forces are now in an advise-and-assist role, supporting the ANSF.
— Afghan forces are finding the predominant share of roadside bombs in the area now, and often do so through human intelligence and vigilance rather than high technology, boding well for their ability to keep doing so on their own.
— In the words of more than one U.S. officer we spoke with, these Afghan forces “fight a lot better than Iraqis.” The special forces are widely seen as very good.
— Regular army forces have further to go but are getting much better. For example, when a battalion in the Zhary/Panjway/Maiwand region in the western part of Kandahar province was under attack recently, the local Afghan corps commander quickly sent reinforcements from another battalion, in a sign of growing operational responsiveness, flexibility and savvy. And when a group of Afghan Local Police — sort of an armed neighborhood watch program now thriving in the area — came under attack by a large group of Taliban a few weeks ago, the Afghan army came quickly to their aid without phoning ISAF for help.
— In an effort to foster self-reliance, ISAF no longer supplies Afghan forces logistically, even though it could do so. Afghan logistical systems have a long ways to go to operate efficiently, but they are making headway.
— Insider attacks, by Afghan security force personnel or imposters against ISAF troops or Afghan soldiers and police, have declined by half or so in recent months as Afghans have accepted much more responsibility for vetting and monitoring their own ranks.
— A new unit rotation policy instituted by Afghan army leadership has reduced AWOL rates in Kandahar to the lowest in the nation, despite the heavy fighting that troops here must still do.
— According to Maj. Gen. Abe Abrams, the NATO regional commander, Afghan forces are getting much better at clearing operations of late — finding hidden weapons caches “better than we can,” for example. And according to several staff sergeants with whom we spoke, while the Afghans do not always train or fight hard when ISAF forces take charge, they actually do better when in the lead themselves, responding well to the challenge.
We are far from out of the woods in Afghanistan, of course. Even leaving aside all the problems in Kabul of late, the progress in the south (and the east) is still fragile. Afghans will have to protect roads and clear bombs without all of our high-tech assets that presently help them do so. They will have to master their logistics systems to keep fielded forces provisioned and supported. They will have to keep their political and tribal rivalries in check even as NATO forces end their current mission in 2014 — the very same year that Afghan presidential elections will create considerable additional uncertainty about the country’s future. Local government will have to deliver services to areas that are becoming more peaceful. And Afghans will have to continue to cope with malevolent elements in Pakistan just across the border.
But make no mistake about it, Kandahar right now is much improved, and continuing to head in the right direction. And so are the Afghan national security forces. This good news has not been reported much, but it should be factored into our assessments of where Afghanistan is headed and our approach to the country through 2014 and beyond.
Michèle Flournoy was under secretary of defense for policy through early 2012 and is co-founder of the Center for a New American Security; Michael O’Hanlon is senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.