David Frum draws our attention to a report by the International Council on Security and Development (ICOS) which suggests that although the United States is winning militarily in Afghanistan, remedy we are losing the support of the populace there. “This is not good news,” David writes.
Of course, in a counterinsurgency, it’s never good news when the people whose allegiance you are trying to earn seem to doubt and dislike your efforts. But while the ICOS report gives legitimate cause for concern, it is also being misinterpreted and misused by anti-war critics, who have long been searching for an excuse to effect an American withdrawal from Afghanistan.
The ICOS study shows a divergence of public attitudes within Afghanistan. Southern Afghans are seemingly more skeptical of American and coalition efforts than their northern counterparts.
For example, according to Reuters, “more than 90 percent of southern respondents said they thought foreigners disrespected Islam and Afghan traditions.” The comparable figure in the country’s north was almost half that, or 47 percent.
Moreover, “the polling showed that support for educating girls and giving women the right to vote dropped in southern Afghanistan from last fall.
Sixty-six percent of those polled in southern Afghanistan said they opposed educating girls; and 61 percent opposed the vote for women. Opposition to both measures was at 49 percent last year in the south.
The clear implication, then, is that the more the Afghans see of us, the more they dislike and disagree with us. So why don’t we just leave well enough alone and get out before we make a complete mess of things?
Not so fast. Context is required. Southern Afghanistan, we must realize, is where some of the heaviest and most intense fighting has taken place. So it’s hardly surprising that ordinary Afghans might be war weary and tired.
Indeed, according to Reuters, “almost 90 percent of men polled in contested districts in southern Afghanistan believe foreign military operations are bad for them.”
But an ordinary Afghan certainly can believe this and yet also believe that the Taliban and other Jihadists are a menace which must be rooted out. He can honestly acknowledge that foreign military operations have taken their toll on his village and his province, and yet also recognize that there may be no effective or workable alternative right now.
And in fact, something like this calculus seems to have been made by ordinary Afghans, who clearly have no desire for a return to Taliban rule.
“Taliban justice is not popular,” reports the ICOS,
with only 16% of respondents in the south preferring this method of obtaining justice, while no interviewees in the north considered this as a possibility. The fact that support for Taliban justice is low even in the conservative south is an encouraging sign for the international community and the Afghan government.
Moreover, just “six percent in the north and 11 percent in the south stated [that] they would consider working for the Taliban if it meant that the foreign forces would leave Afghanistan faster [emphasis added].” And “only seven percent of respondents in southern Afghanistan believe that working with the Taliban is right.” However, 42 percent of southern Afghans share that view.
Most Afghans believe that U.S. and Coalition forces, and not the Taliban, are winning the war. But not surprisingly, in those districts where the Taliban has been most strong and just recently rooted out militarily — the Panjwayi and Maiwand Districts in Kandahar Province and the Garmsir District in Helmand Province — more Afghans believe that the Taliban, and not the Coalition, is winning.
What, then, should we conclude? Several things, I think:
1. U.S. and Coalition forces are winning the war.
This is something that I reported here at FrumForum back in February, and the ICOS study supports my conclusion: The momentum in southern Afghanistan has changed in our favor and is now militarily irreversible, as retired Gen. Jack Keane put it.
2. U.S. military leaders have been wise to insist upon a comprehensive counterinsurgency campaign.
There’s been a lot of nasty and unfair criticism, in the conservative blogosphere especially, about “Obama’s misbegotten nation-building” efforts in Afghanistan. But in fact, it was not Obama’s idea to adopt a comprehensive counterinsurgency strategy; it was Generals Petraeus and McChrystal.
And they were right: Because unless and until the populace is protected and the insurgents isolated, no military victory in Afghanistan can ever truly be secure.
Our Soldiers and Marines understandably chafe at their restrictive rules of engagement. But as the ICOS study shows, ordinary Afghans also chafe at the collateral damage inflicted upon them by U.S. and Coalition forces. Success lies in striking a difficult balance between offensive operations aimed at rooting out the Taliban and other Jihadists, and defensive operations aimed at protecting and empowering the populace.
3. The U.S. military — and not just the U.S. military, but the entire U.S. government — must initiate a comprehensive information campaign to counteract Taliban propaganda, and to inform and persuade ordinary Afghans that our cause is their cause; and that our common cause is just.
Taliban information warfare clearly is having an effect in southern Afghanistan. We see this, for instance, in declining support for the education of women and increasing support for the view that foreigners disrespect Islam and Afghan traditions.
This is a real problem, because in a counterinsurgency, winning a military victory is only half the battle. Military gains must be complemented by political and cultural victories that are designed to win over the populace. And clearly, on that score, the United States needs to do much better.
4. U.S. policymakers must accept and communicate — to the American people, to Afghan policymakers and villagers, and, indeed, to the world — that we will be in Afghanistan for decades.
Although it may seem like the United States has been in Afghanistan forever, in truth, it is only within the past year or two that we have been there in force, waging a counterinsurgency. This is noteworthy because counterinsurgencies are time consuming affairs; and they are dependent very much upon perceptions within the populace.
If the populace perceives that we are committed to winning, then they will be inclined to support us. But if they perceive that we lack resolve and commitment, then they will be inclined to side with the enemy or “strong horse.”
The Obama administration has at times seemed too eager to leave Afghanistan and less eager to win there. This has made Afghan political and tribal leaders reluctant to work with us and more eager to accommodate the Taliban and other Jihadists.
The fact is, though, that the United States will have to remain in Afghanistan for decades. This to buttress and support the Afghan Army and Afghan security forces, but more importantly to help root out and contain Islamists in Pakistan, who threaten the entire region.
The Obama administration may not want to admit this, but that’s the inconvenient truth now that Osama bin Laden is dead after having been found residing in a plush Pakistani neighborhood roughly 40 miles from Islamabad: The long war just got longer, and there’s not a damn thing any of us can do about it.
John Guardiano blogs at www.ResoluteCon.Com, and you can follow him on Twitter: @JohnRGuardiano.