How is it really going in Afghanistan? In his recent testimony before Congress, Gen. David Petraeus reported substantial if fragile progress and conveyed a can-do attitude reflecting confidence about our prospects. Yet press reports and other organizations and individuals on the ground seem to grow more dispirited by the month. Are they looking at the same war?
They are. But they apply very different standards, and so they reach very different conclusions.
Soldiers are trained and equipped to fight. They expect to operate in dangerous environments, and they look for gradual improvement from very dangerous to less so. Most civilians, by contrast, do not expect to live and work in combat zones. This encourages a more binary sense of security for them: Either a district is safe enough to send aid workers to live in or travel through, or it is not.
In Afghanistan today, there has been real progress. But much of it has been concentrated in previously very dangerous places such as Helmand, Kandahar and Khost. Here, entrenched Taliban insurgents have increasingly been driven from districts they had once controlled so solidly that even heavily armed coalition troops could not enter without pitched battles. In Marjah, Nawa, Lashkar Gah, Argendahb, Zari, Panjway and many other localities, the coalition is now able to move forces freely, whereas the Taliban has been forced out or underground. This has allowed some markets and schools to reopen and a degree of commerce to return.
But this does not make these places "safe" in a conventional sense. Roadside bombs and suicide attacks still occur, albeit much less often. Insurgents who had achieved control of territory have now lost it in such localities, but they can be expected to revert to the assassinations and intimidation tactics that they had used years ago in such places. If progress continues, these intimidation attacks will get progressively harder for the Taliban to pull off, and the environment will get progressively safer there. But for now, many civilians, Afghan and foreign, are likely to see such places as dangerous still.
At the same time, some places that had been safe, such as Konduz in the north, are now less so. The Taliban have an imperfect ability to shift forces (many of their fighters operate only in their home districts, which are overwhelmingly in the south and east), but they have understandably sought to swing their efforts from places where we are strong to places where we are less so. This has produced an increase in insurgent activity in the north. The result is a far cry from the control the Taliban achieved in key parts of Helmand or Kandahar in the south. And ongoing coalition offensives in the north are clearing many of the pockets the Taliban have established there. But the net result has been an increase in violence in places that had seen little of it in recent years. Its virulence is still low in normal military terms, and it is unlikely to reach anything like the recent turmoil of the Afghan south and east. But it has been enough to convince many civilians that the danger zone has spread.
Moreover, as coalition forces clear and hold some districts, they move onward to secure others where the Taliban have fled or retained control. Where the Taliban are in clear control, communities are quiet: insurgents have no need to kill when the population is cowed. Quiet in such places is not a sign of success for the coalition, however. And when coalition forces enter to contest the Taliban's control, the result will be fighting. If one's standard for success is the absence of violence, this will look like a sign of failure. But violence per se is merely a sign that someone's control is being contested; where the fighting results from an expansion of coalition control and a contraction of the Taliban's, this is the cost of progress rather than an indicator of looming defeat.
The net result of all this is a real, meaningful expansion of coalition control in the south and east, counterbalanced by a degree of decay in the north. But whereas the coalition now has the resources to continue expanding its control in the south and east — thanks largely to the rapid growth in the strength of the Afghan army and police — the Taliban are unlikely to be able to expand their presence in the north to anything like the same degree. And if the process continues, they will eventually be forced out of their recent gains in the north, too.
Counterinsurgency is slow. To establish real control will require the coalition to defeat inevitable Taliban counterattacks and to weather Taliban efforts to substitute assassination and intimidation for control that they can no longer exert. This takes time and will mean casualties even if things go according to plan.
Nationwide safety in the normal civilian sense will not come to all of Afghanistan in a year, or two. But General Petraeus is right to see real progress overall. And continued gradual improvement toward a safer Afghanistan, without Taliban control, is likely — if the coalition chooses to stick it out.
Stephen Biddle is a senior fellow at the Council On Foreign Relations. Michael O'Hanlon is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. His e-mail is email@example.com.