Brookings scholar: There might be hope for the war in Afghanistan
Expert says that despite media portrayals, the U.S.’s longest war might be winnable.
There is a case for maintaining hope that the U.S. can succeed in its longest war ever, says Michael O’Hanlon.
He spoke to members of the UNLV and journalism communities in a lecture titled “Toughing it Out in Afghanistan” in the penultimate event on Brookings Mountain West’s 2010 calendar, Wednesday.
O’Hanlon is a Brookings fellow in foreign policy and an expert on U.S. military policy.
“You news junkies out there, you have read his work, his many op-eds in all the leading national papers. You’ve seen him on all the talk shows,” said Brookings Mountain West Director of Planning and Communications William Brown, as he introduced the speaker. “He’s a go-to guy for information on foreign policy.”
Addressing an audience comprised mostly of journalists in the Greenspun Hall Auditorium, O’Hanlon said that his argument stands contrary to much of what mainstream media report on the war in Afghanistan.
He said that journalists in Western democracies who see media as having a responsibility to serve as a check to government run the risk of skewing coverage of the war to the negative.
“Because the media has this role of being a critic of government and a fourth estate and an independent voice, which in some ways … sees itself as being properly designed as holding government accountable, the media has a tendency in this type of situation to emphasize the bad news,” he said.
He said the state of affairs in Afghanistan might not be as dismal as we think, but that there are logical reasons for journalists to believe the U.S. is failing there.
O’Hanlon said that life was easier for foreigners in Afghanistan from 2003 to 2006 than it is now, with less threat of kidnapping and assassination and lower overall violence, but life was not necessarily better for the average Afghan at that time than it is now.
The marks of a developing democracy are there in Afghanistan, O’Hanlon said, but he suggested that many journalists covering the conflict who are versed in war but not in the theory of young democracies are likely to misinterpret the evidence.
“If you’re thinking instead of comparing the Afghan democracy to what democracy should be in its ideal form,” he said, “it doesn’t look very good.”
O’Hanlon said he intended neither to make the case that the U.S. and NATO forces are in for a sure win in Afghanistan, nor to push an over-patriotic message.
“This is not an unbridled ‘rah rah’ speech about how if we just band behind General [David] Petraeus, he’ll do it again no matter what, nor is it sort of a wrap-myself-in-the-flag on the day before Veterans Day and if you just let the men and women of America’s military on a problem, they will ultimately prevail,” he said. “I’m not going to go to those extremes, because I think there are ways we could still lose this war.”
O’Hanlon conceded that more U.S. and NATO troops are killed every year in Afghanistan, that violence is increasing yearly, that Pakistan continues to be a sanctuary for the Taliban and that Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s administration is corrupt.
But, he said, there is more reason for a bright outlook than reports let on. He based his case on the evidence of economics, security and public opinion of governance.
“In Afghanistan, since the overthrow of the Taliban in 2001, life has definitely gotten better for the average Afghan,” O’Hanlon said.
He pointed out that gross domestic product has increased, as has access to education and health care, cell phone use, the proliferation of electricity and what he called the “bustle of life.”
“Kabul used to be dark,” he said. “Now, it’s a humming place by developing-world standards. Kabul itself … looks pretty good. Kids are not cowering behind their doors. Parents are not shooing their families into safety, away from the bullets and the car bombs.”
That, O’Hanlon said, is because security in the Afghan capital is gradually improving.
For instance, he said, the city has not had a major car bombing since May.
O’Hanlon said his argument might be seen as damning the Afghan war with faint praise but that some metrics point to progress.
“You might say, well, comparing today’s Afghanistan with the economy of the Taliban and saying that it’s better today is no great shakes,” he said, “… and you might also point out that Afghanistan’s economy today is artificially stimulated by those two great artificial stimulants of foreign aid and opium … and that’s not a very sustainable or strong of a foundation on which to build an economy. And I would have to cry uncle on all those points.”
But the fact, O’Hanlon said, is that the economy is getting better.
He said part of the progress is linked to education. Schools are opening in Afghanistan and 2.5 million girls are being educated.
O’Hanlon said that does not prove the U.S. and NATO are going to succeed, but that it does suggest that the Afghan people want the effort to work.
“They don’t want to go back to the 15th century,” he said. “They don’t want to go back to the Taliban. They may be mad as heck at Karzai, but the reason they’re mad at him is because the system he is running is actually skewing the distribution of resources.”
O’Hanlon based this claim largely on polls. He said the evidence of all polls should be taken with a grain of salt — especially those taken in a war zone — but that surveys of Afghans consistently seem to make sense.
In 2002, a year after the overthrow of the Taliban, 85 percent of Afghans polled expressed approval of the U.S. and NATO. Each year thereafter, with the exception of a spike following the election of President Barack Obama, the groups’ popularity declined, O’Hanlon said, as things got worse or as Western influence failed to noticeably improve life.
Generally, he said, Afghans would favor peace talks with insurgent leaders, but do not want to return to Taliban rule.
He said it is possible that those polled say they oppose the Taliban because they assume pollsters represent Karzai’s government or NATO, but if that was the case, they would be saying they support NATO and the Afghan government.
But U.S. and NATO popularity has decreased about 40 percent since 2001 and Karzai’s approval ratings are down as well.
Plus, Afghans tell pollsters that they believe Karzai and cronies cheated in the 2009 elections — something O’Hanlon said he believes Afghans would not say if they were censoring their responses.
“I believe these surveys because when you add up what they’re telling you, there doesn’t seem to be an intimidation factor,” he said.
O’Hanlon also said polls offer hope that Western forces might be able to draw on unity among Afghans that many used to think did not exist in the nation that has a history of weak central government.
“Yes, they do still care about their tribes,” O’Hanlon said, “but if you ask them, ‘Who are you first and foremost,’ they say, ‘Afghan.’”
He suggested that though the war is far from won, there is reason to believe that most Afghans want the U.S. and NATO to succeed, and that is reason for a measured optimism.
“Admittedly, if the best I can do after nine years of war or nation-building or whatever is to quote for you a bunch of statistics that suggest that the Afghan people would like to operate as a nation but I can’t actually prove to you that they are functioning effectively as a nation, again, that’s pretty faint praise,” O’Hanlon said. “And it’s pretty worrisome that I have to revert to this public opinion data to provide a hopeful vision of where the country might go, but it does tell you that they really do want this to work, and I think that’s pretty important.”
O’Hanlon said that despite the persistence of corruption and the presence of turncoats in the young central Afghan army, progress shows there is reason to be hopeful that security will improve.
He explained that the George W. Bush administration and NATO leaders used to think building Afghanistan an army would be futile because the nation was perceived as being unable to afford such a force and Western leaders thought they would not stay long enough to make the plan work.
The project at the start of the war was therefore to help Karzai co-op local warlords into quasi-legitimate security structure, O’Hanlon said. But he explained that that tactic was based on a caricature of Afghanistan that overemphasized the country’s history of tribal government.
Until 2007, Afghan army recruits received just 2-8 weeks of training and most police received no training at all before being given weapons and sent into the field.
“Once the individual soldiers were graduated and then sort of thrust together into units that barely had any identity or any additional training,” O’Hanlon said. “They went out into the field by themselves, and we wished them good luck and said, ‘We’ll see you some time.’”
Under a new plan for the Afghan military, training courses exist for noncommissioned officers, military academies must ensure that officers move into field rather than desk jobs, the armed forces are ethnically representative and 20,000 soldiers at a time receive literacy training.
And most importantly, O’Hanlon said, now, when an Afghan military unity deploys, a U.S. or NATO unit goes with them.
This allows Western forces to measure the Afghan forces’ success in the field, gives the native troops direct power to call in help and increases anti-corruption efforts by watching how unit commanders perform day-to-day.
“If you’re worried about corruption in Afghanistan and fighting corruption, and you should be, then being out there on patrol each day with these Afghan units is an extraordinary advantage that we never gave ourselves previously,” O’Hanlon said.
He mentioned that paychecks for Afghan troops are now competitive with the Taliban’s compensation, explaining that an approach that favors construction of a strong native security force, even if it costs the U.S. and NATO money, is a shift from the old policy. He said it reflects a sense that it might be better to fund the force for several years than to continue spending $100 billion annually on the war.
O’Hanlon said that Western leaders should know in 2011 whether their strategy is working.
The U.S. and NATO added forces to the Afghanistan effort in 2008, resulting in more fighting as insurgents were driven out. Now that the full complement of troops is in place, O’Hanlon said, recovery can begin.
“If the strategy works,” he said, “most Afghans should welcome the presence of NATO and the Afghan government in these places that have now been cleared and be willing over time to increasingly co-operate with us in identifying the identities and the whereabouts of the remaining extremists and not committing acts of violence themselves against our soldiers or Afghan police.”