How Are Things Going in Afghanistan?
A Pentagon report says: not well.
Hamid Karzai has gone back to Afghanistan, and so the denizens of the Pentagon's E Ring and Foggy Bottom's seventh floor can drop their strained smiles and resume biting away at their fingernails.
Things in that unhappy country are going badly—much worse, of course, than Team Obama had to pretend this week but quite a bit worse than even a sensible skeptic might think. And unless Karzai takes to heart the lectures he heard (someone must have given him a stern talking-to amid all the bonhomie), things are only going to get worse still.
The evidence for this comes from an unclassified, 150-page Defense Department document called "Report on Progress Toward Security and Stability in Afghanistan." Released in late April, it's the fifth in a series of semi-annual reports mandated by Congress. A few disheartening lines from its executive summary were duly recited by the media. But the full report is a hair-raiser. The news is almost all bad; and the few bits of good news turn out, on close inspection, to be extremely misleading.
Let's take a look at one of those bits of pseudo-good news. The executive summary proclaims, "Polls consistently illustrate that Afghans see security as improved from a year ago." The report, on Page 7, quantifies this claim as "a 50 % increase in the proportion of Afghans that saw security improve."
That sounds very positive. But wait: "a 50 percent increase" compared with what? The answer comes in a footnote on Page 27: When Afghans were asked in July 2009 how security had changed in their area in the previous six months, 22 percent said it had improved; in November, the figure rose to 33 percent. Yes, 33 percent represents "a 50 % increase" over 22 percent, but it's still a pretty paltry share of the population.
It gets worse. A footnote on Page 28 reveals that, in both surveys, 25 percent of Afghans said security had worsened in the previous six months. And, for some reason, the report does not reveal the findings of the most recent survey in April 2010.
Another set of polls, cited in the report, suggests the numbers got worse. In December 2009, and again in March 2010, Afghans in 121 "key" districts were asked to describe the state of local security. In December, a majority in 33 districts said the area was "secure" or marked only by "occasional threats"; in March, this number rose to 42.
Yet in the same polls, the number of those describing their districts as "frequently threatened," "dangerous," or "unsecure" rose from 58 to 72.
Here's how the report summarizes the situation in straight prose: "Some individual islands of security exist in the sea of instability or insecurity." The authors muster only two islands: the town of Mazur-i-Sharif in the north and "small contiguous areas" near the Ring Road in the south. The level of security, they add, is "significantly related to the presence of well-led and non-corrupt" units of Afghan soldiers or police.
The problem is that "well-led and non-corrupt" Afghan security forces are, as yet, rare commodities. The Afghan army and national police force are making "slow progress" toward its manpower targets because of "high attrition and low retention." Between 60 percent and 70 percent of uniformed police are "hired and deployed with no formal training." By this August, NATO troops will be mentoring Afghan police in 45 of the 80 most important districts. Yet the report notes that even well-trained police units "have regressed" after a mentoring team is reassigned elsewhere.
Meanwhile, the training of the Afghan security forces is going slowly as well. Of the 5,111 Western personnel authorized for NATO Training Mission Afghanistan, as the command is called, just 2,673—barely half—have been assigned to an Afghan security unit. The United States is contributing its share of trainers, but the NATO allies are falling short. And since some of those allies have announced they're pulling out of Afghanistan altogether, these "credibility gaps," (the report's words) in training will only widen. The U.S. armed forces have to fill the gap, and they're having a hard enough time meeting the schedule to deploy troops for combat.
By the way, the Afghan people aren't so thrilled with our armed forces, either. In a poll taken in March, 29 percent of Afghans said they have a "good" or "very good" impression of U.S. and NATO troops, while 38 percent have a "bad" or "very bad" impression—the worst score since polling began on this question in September 2008. (NATO is so sensitive on this matter—our strategy, after all, is to win over the hearts and minds of the Afghan people—that this survey is taken each quarter.)
Fred Kaplan is Slate's "War Stories" columnist and author of the book, The Insurgents: David Petraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of War. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter.
Photograph of Robert Gates by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images.