US National Security Advisor James Jones asserted January 25 that a revamped American military strategy in Afghanistan was showing initial signs of success.
US President Barack Obama late last year announced that the United States was dispatching an additional 30,000 troops to Afghanistan. And last week, the State Department released a new "Afghanistan and Pakistan Regional Stabilization Strategy" that focuses on the civilian side of the government. Later this week, at an international conference in London, the United States will strive to shore up more European and other allied support for its efforts in Afghanistan.
"It's still too early to assess how our strategy is working, our troops are just starting to arrive and they won't be fully in place until the summer. But early signs are encouraging," Jones said, speaking January 25 at the Center for American Progress in Washington, DC.
Among the positive developments, Hamid Karzai's presidential administration in Kabul has implemented reforms, Jones said, without providing details. In addition, recent public opinion surveys of Afghans have shown promising results, Jones maintained. Afghans blame the Taliban more than US forces for the instability in the country, believe the Taliban is weakening and, by a 9:1 margin, prefer the government they have to anything the expect the Taliban would provide, Jones noted.
Jones also took pains to emphasize that the date of July 2011, which has received the most attention of any aspect of the Obama administration's new strategy, is not a withdrawal date but "the beginning of a transition of responsibility to Afghan authorities and forces." He also stressed that, contrary to some critics' complaints, setting a deadline in advance will not "encourage in any way our adversaries to buy time or to wait us out," he said. "Nothing in its history suggests the Taliban will easily yield terrain. As US and coalition forces move in, we expect the fighting to be fierce. And if, for some reason they do choose to wait us out, then while they're waiting we will be seizing the initiative, securing population centers, training Afghan security forces and making it harder for the insurgency to return."
"What the July 2011 deadline does do," Jones continued, "is it sends an important signal to the Afghan people that we are not interested in waging an endless war, or occupying their country; that we want to be their partner, not their patron. And it sends a clear and urgent message to the Afghan government that they will have to take responsibility with the shortest delay possible."
In addition to the military strategy, Washington's efforts in Afghanistan rest on two additional pillars: building the capacity of the local government and economy, and on securing the cooperation of Pakistan in helping eradicate Taliban and al Qaeda safe havens near the Afghanistan border. "Our security and prosperity in Afghanistan ultimately rests on good governance and investment in people," he said.
The US government is also upping its civilian presence in Afghanistan. The US Agency for International Development will have about 330 officials in the country by "early spring," triple the number the agency had a year ago, in addition to a large increase in the number of Afghan USAID employees, according James Bever, director of USAID's Afghanistan-Pakistan Task Force, who also spoke at the CAP event.
USAID's efforts will increasingly focus on job creation, on buying more local products and using local services, increasing the focus on the southern and eastern parts of the country where security is currently the most tenuous, and working more with local governmental agencies, rather than with just the national or provincial leaders, Bever said.
But Bever and other experts who spoke after Jones's speech said that US success in Afghanistan will depend heavily on the extent to which the Afghan government improves its governance capabilities. Stability in Afghanistan will also depend on the Pakistan's determination to cooperate with US and European governments in pressuring the Taliban. In both these areas, US policymakers have yet to develop a plausible strategy to alter the status quo.
"The good news is that the insurgent forces are more widespread than they are entrenched," said J. Alexander Thier, director for Afghanistan and Pakistan at the US Institute of Peace. "And I don't think we need a centralized, powerful bureaucratic state for stability in Afghanistan. In other words, the more modest expectations that we have in Afghanistan actually can jibe with the strategy of success there.
"The bad news is that the problems on our side of the ledger are much more entrenched: bad governance, lack of rule of law, weak consensus - remnants of the Afghan civil war ... and negative regional dynamics are all factors that are working against us," Thier said.
The corruption of the Afghan government, as highlighted by the massive fraud carried out during the 2009 presidential election, poses a particularly difficult problem, he added: "What is missing is Afghan leadership. I am and continue to be very worried not only about the impact of what happened [last] fall in the elections, but what it suggests about the likelihood of the Afghanistan government dealing in a deep way with its corruption and rule of law problems."
Joshua Kucera is a Washington, DC,-based freelance writer who specializes in security issues in Central Asia, the Caucasus and the Middle East.