The United States has turned a corner in Afghanistan, as I witnessed after returning from my fourth trip in the past year. It has made some progress against the Taliban and other insurgent groups in eastern Afghanistan, and created a window of opportunity to spread this elsewhere.
The conventional view from Washington, supported by a slew of recent reports, is that Afghanistan has plunged into a spiral of violence. Some parts of the country have certainly experienced deteriorating security. Admiral Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, recently noted there was a 27-per-cent increase in violence from 2006 to 2007. Most of this was in the south, where Canadian, British and Dutch soldiers are battling the Taliban and other groups.
But in eastern Afghanistan, where the bulk of U.S. forces are deployed, violence levels declined by 40 per cent in 2007. In Khowst, which I visited last month, suicide attacks dropped from one a week in 2006 to one a month in 2007.
The most significant reason is a shift in U.S. strategy. Building on counterinsurgency lessons from the British, French and American historical experiences, the U.S. military has increasingly focused its efforts on "soft power." This has translated into a greater focus on reconstruction and development projects, and less emphasis on combat operations.
At the core of this strategy is an assumption that local Afghans are the centre of gravity. Many are frustrated by the lack of development over the past several years, and unhappy with poor governance. To deal with these concerns, America's strategy includes three components.
The first involves interacting with tribal leaders to identify local needs and grievances, and to develop projects that help address them. In Khowst, for example, Colonel Martin Schweitzer and provincial governor Arsala Jamal have teamed up to build roads, hospitals and water and electricity projects.
The second component is hiring local Afghans to perform the work. A sizable chunk of the money comes from the Commander's Emergency Response Program funds, which enable U.S. military commanders to dole out aid quickly. Other aid comes from organizations such as the U.S. Agency for International Development and the World Bank.
The third is executing the projects. In Paktia province, where I visited, U.S. forces operating under Combined Joint Task Force-82 have focused on building roads and revamping water and power infrastructure. In Kunar province, newly paved roads have sparked a boom in commerce in the Pech River Valley, and fighting there has largely stopped.
Overall, the results have been impressive, and U.S. efforts have contributed to a decline in violence in the east. But this progress could be undermined by a failure to address several looming challenges.
One is Pakistan. Every major insurgent group — such as the Taliban, Sirajuddin Haqqani's network, Hizb-i-Islami, and al-Qaeda — enjoys sanctuary in Pakistan. Some individuals within Pakistan's government, including within the Frontier Corps and Inter-Services Intelligence agency, also provide assistance to insurgent groups, especially the Taliban and Haqqani network.
America's failure to persuade Pakistan to dry up this sanctuary and end its support for militant groups will undermine security in Afghanistan and the region. Outside support from states has been lethal to counterinsurgency efforts. Since 1945, insurgencies, such as Afghanistan's, that have gained and maintained state support have won more than half the time.
Another problem is governance. Afghans have become increasingly frustrated with national and local officials who are corrupt and self-serving. This sentiment is just as palpable in rural areas as in cities. There are well-known government officials at the district, provincial and national levels involved in drug trafficking.
Many of America's efforts in the east have helped local leaders deliver the services and security. But a failure to fix corruption will undercut this progress.
A final challenge is international resources, which are still not adequate. NATO has roughly 50,000 troops in Afghanistan, along with more than 50,000 Afghan army soldiers. Based on some counterinsurgency estimates that a minimum of four troops per 1,000 inhabitants is necessary to establish security, the requirement in Afghanistan is at least 128,000 soldiers.
This leaves a gap of 28,000 soldiers, which Afghan soldiers can fill over time. In the near future, however, the U.S. military must fill this gap. This requires making difficult choices, such as redeploying some U.S. forces from Iraq to Afghanistan.
America's war on terrorism began in Afghanistan in 2001 when it overthrew the Taliban regime. It is time for the United States to finish what it started.
Seth G. Jones is a political scientist at the Rand Corp. and author of the forthcoming In the Graveyard of Empires: America's War in Afghanistan.
This commentary originally appeared in The Globe and Mail on April 1, 2008.