The second weakness is more serious still. It may be, as Andrew Exum, an analyst at the Center for a New American Security (and a former special-ops officer who has fought multiple tours in Afghanistan), recently put it, that social services help the insurgency at least as much as they help the counterinsurgency.
To put the problem another way: We may have the wrong idea about what sorts of services the Afghan people really need.
David Kilcullen, a former adviser to Gen. Petraeus and author of Counterinsurgency, among other highly regarded books and essays on the subject, thinks that what the Afghan people want—and what the Taliban are doing a much better job at supplying than the Afghan government—is justice.
Where the Taliban have strongholds, they've set up courts, they issue property deeds, they even have ombudsman's offices where people can file complaints and get responses.
"There's nothing like that in the official Afghan system," Kilcullen says. "If you show up at an Afghan police station with a complaint, they'll beat you up for bothering them. If you take someone to an official court, it takes months to get a judgment, and it will go to the guy who pays the biggest bribe. The Taliban courts take a half-hour, they're free, and the Taliban locals enforce the agreement."
Taiban justice is often harsh, but it's swift, and it instills a sense of order. Kilcullen says the crucial factor in this war may be whether the government can match the Taliban on that score.
In other words, as he's written several times, the problem isn't so much that we're being outfought; it's that we're being out-governed.
This is why U.S. officials are so concerned about the corruption in Karzai's regime, in the provincial districts, in the Afghan police—throughout the entire ruling apparatus. The issue here is not about imposing morality or building democracy; it's about instilling a sense of legitimacy—a bond between the people and the government. Without that, no counterinsurgency campaign can succeed, no matter how well the generals plan or the soldiers fight.
It's precisely for this reason that the other bit of news—that President Karzai has finally agreed to let Gen. Petraeus form local police forces around Afghanistan—is, at least potentially, promising.
According to Post reporters Rajiv Chandrasekaran and Joshua Partlow, Karzai initially rejected the idea, fearing the rise of militias and "warlords," which could splinter the country. (Though Karzai didn't say so explicitly, it could also dilute the power of his regime and his cronies.) He approved the program after Petraeus agreed to institute formal links between the local police and the national government—through uniforms, oaths, and a paycheck from the interior ministry (which, of course, gets its money from NATO governments).
The idea is that local police—which would be trained and, to some extent, supervised by U.S. special-operations forces—would presumably be better-trusted by the locals because they are, for the most part, locals themselves. (The Afghan national police are widely distrusted because the national government is widely distrusted.) The plan is modeled after a program called the Afghan Public Protection Force, which has been in place for roughly a year in Wardak province and which has reportedly been more successful than the national police at warding off insurgents. One U.S. military official, quoted in the Post story, called these local police "a community watch on steroids."
It's a start. If the insurgents are going to be defeated or melt away or get co-opted into the established order, eventually the main counterinsurgents have to be Afghans themselves.