The South Asia Channel

The U.S. End Game in Afghanistan

Despite a steady stream of negative press reports coming out of Afghanistan these days, a strong indicator of success was revealed on Monday when ATR Consulting, an independent survey company, released the results of a major survey it conducted with over 4,000 Afghans between September and October 2013. ATR traveled to all corners of the country, interviewing 3,038 men and 1,180 women in 18 districts and nine cities. Representing Afghans of various socio-economic, tribal/ethnic, age, and geographical backgrounds, the survey's results indicate that there are larger positive trends emerging in Afghanistan that bode well for Western interests.

Though Afghan President Hamid Karzai has continued to distract the world with his vocal opposition to a bilateral security agreement with the United States, there is fundamental progress in the country that has not been fully recognized: 

  • Some three-quarters of Afghans trust the Afghan National Army (ANA) and, to somewhat lesser extent, the police (ANP); findings consistent with a recent Asia Foundation survey and extensive internal reporting by NATO's International Security Assistance Force (ISAF).
  • 80 percent of Afghans reported that the government is in control of their areas of the country.
  • The Taliban generate little support, with only 7 percent of respondents wanting to see them back in power; as to be expected, they are more popular in the southern part of Afghanistan. Indeed, people seem to actively mistrust the Taliban and a plurality, 45 percent, see them as acting at the behest of foreign interests, such as Pakistan.
  • The notion that the Taliban represent the Pashtuns is false, but about a third of southern respondents would like to see the Taliban involved in some level of governance. The survey shows the Taliban are not a national movement, but Pashtuns are "war weary," though this should not be confused with acceptance -- it is merely acquiescence.
  • Afghans have seen their standard of living improve over the last 10 years, particularly in areas of education, healthcare, infrastructure, and access to goods.
  • Women, at greater levels than men, see the changes of the last 10 years as positive, and reject the Taliban; less than two percent want a Taliban government.

U.S. Objectives in Afghanistan

The United States' core military objectives in Afghanistan were simple: provide basic security and stability for Afghans and prevent the country from once again becoming a sanctuary for global extremists. More ambitiously, U.S. and international state-building efforts have sought to develop a democratic civil society, build institutional capacity, and provide economic development, with an emphasis on women's rights.   

That significant progress has been made against the core objectives is evident in both the effectiveness of the Afghanistan National Security Forces (ANSF) and the positivity the Afghan populace. The ANSF is the cornerstone of ISAF's efforts to build a stable security environment that constrains the effectiveness of the Taliban and other extremist elements to launch attacks. Even the more ambitious goals for women's rights have been successful, though that progress is tenuous. Today, the Taliban's severe restrictions on women and segregationist policies have been largely rolled back, with the government workforce now comprising 20 percent women, three million girls are attending school, and more than 40,000 women obtaining some form of higher education.

Importantly, the vast majority of Afghans feel that the government is in control of their districts, towns, and provinces, with perceptions of state control higher in urban areas and the northern parts of the country. In many provinces, non-state actors -- including armed groups, such as local tribal, village, or "warlord-linked" militias-- coexist with the government and exercise de facto control over some parts of the territory, such as along Highway 1 in Zabul province, Patika province's Zadran Arch area, and in Kunduz province, where government-co-opted former Northern Alliance commanders dominate. But ISAF's interests will be served as long as these regional and local dynamics do not pose a significant threat to the Afghan government, or provide a sanctuary for al Qaeda or other extremist forces.

Economic Perceptions

Afghanistan has modernized, urbanized, and changed in significant ways over the past decade, with 64 percent of the population reporting an improvement in their living conditions. However, the sense of improved living conditions reveals a discrepancy between Afghanistan's north and south. Greater levels of insecurity and violence in the country's southern provinces have hindered the efforts of social and economic programs, which is not surprising given the intra-Pashtun conflict for power and authority manifested in the Karzai-Taliban competition centered on Kandahar.

Trust in the Security Forces

Despite Western narratives that the Taliban will just "walk in" to take control of the country, the ANA has been remarkably effective, especially as a battle force. In some 3,000-4,000 firefights in the past "fighting season," the ANA triumphed in all but 100-150 of them. The ANA and ANP are also able to sufficiently control major population centers while contesting other areas. The public's high confidence in the ANA is a reflection of their demonstrated capability and willingness to fight. Additionally, ANA leadership understands how to work well within these communities and likely benefits from not being viewed as too aligned with Karzai or the Taliban.

As usual, all politics is local and the population's respect and support for the ANA is an important element for governance and legitimacy in the country going forward. The ANA and ANP, however, cannot sustain operational capability without the $4 billion a year they are currently receiving from the international community. According to the ATR survey, 40 percent of survey respondents listed the provision of financial suppor/development and support to the ANSF as their top two priorities.

Cutting aid will not only have material effects on the forces themselves, but also impact the psychology of the ANSF, the local population, and political elites. It will also embolden the Taliban and the security considerations of others. It is unfortunate to think that gains in Afghanistan could be lost due to U.S. domestic political calculations undermining the provision of minimal financial support for the ANSF. To lessen risk, the financial support should be supplemented by a core U.S. presence that delivers training, key enablers, such as transportation, and a tailored counter-terrorism capability.

Though relations between Washington and Kabul are frosty at best right now, the ATR survey reinforces the fact that the United States can still help create a stable Afghanistan, but only if it continues to support the ANSF. A relatively small, but reliable funding stream underwritten by U.S. leadership and with a demonstrated  commitment to maintain an adequate residual force would help solidify the gains that have been made over the last 12 years, and lessen the strategic risks. The United States should not squander another opportunity to sustain its current progress towards security and stability, as it did in Iraq.

Derek Harvey is the Director of Research and Strategy at the University of South Florida's Citizenship Initiative. Prior to joining the initiative, he led the Afghanistan-Pakistan Center of Excellence at U.S. Central Command. David Jacobson is the founding director of the Citizenship Initiative. His most recent book is Of Virgins and Martyrs: Women and Sexuality in Global Conflict.

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