Friday, October 17, 2008

Afghanistan Is Improving Slowly

Pech Valley, northeast Afghanistan - As much as the news from
Afghanistan tends to be bad these days, some bright spots are already
faintly discernible on the horizon.
As I have mentioned, things in Afghanistan are no piece of cake.
Attacks are up about 30 percent this year. For the first time the
generals have said the situation in Pakistan will need to be solved
before the war in Afghanistan can be won.
And the war is getting deadlier. More than 130 US soldiers dead so
far this year. Roadside bombs, used to such deadly effect in Iraq,
are now well and truly part of the Afghan scene. The Afghan defense
minister said the other day bomb makers, sophisticated enough to know
how to blow apart coalition vehicles, are forsaking Iraq as a lost
cause and flocking here instead.
And the drug trade continues, often under the protection and
sponsorship of the Taliban. Corruption is rife in the government and
security forces.
Whew! How bad can it get over here? It's pretty bad.
And yet.. and yet.
Some of those hopeful signs are starting to emerge, and they are
going to get bigger as the time goes on.
- Development is the keynote of the strategy to win here. Here in
the Pech Valley, I am typing this on a small base by a river on the
valley floor. The Pech used to be terrible from one end to the other.
About 2 years ago the government (paid for by the US) ran a paved
road along the bottom. Now the Pech Valley is pretty quiet on the
bottom, and the insurgents spent most of their time in the hills above
the valley, dropping in mortars and rockets on bases like this one.
The moral: development works. Too bad it will take another year
before roads go into the side valleys, where the same peace-making can
be expected to take place. Some places will never be peaceful (the
Korengal, a side valley of the Pech, is one example). But overall,
development works.
- In the northeast the US military is now moving to arm the local
tribes to fight the insurgents. This is the same strategy that
General David Petraeus (now commander of US Central Command) used in
Iraq to win the support of the Sunnis. Which won the war there.
Essentially, you pay the tribes to act as militiamen. For a wage they
fight the insurgents. It is the earliest of days yet to see if this
will work here (about 2 weeks in). But we know unemployment causes
instability. 10 percent of the population is poor enough to want to
fight for their supper. This strategy ought to work here as it worked
in Iraq.
- Corruption is plenty lousy. But the government is finally
beginning to fire people who have their hand in the till. Five
provincial governors are "reformist" governors whose backgrounds are
working for NGOs. They are the antithesis of warlords, who are
universally corrupt. A body called the Independent Directorate of
Local Governance has been set up to appoint provincial government
officials, who are generally not corrupt. Still, all too often
corrupt officials are let off. Or they are "fired" and promoted. But
there are Afghans out there who will resist bribery at its worst. The
earliest steps have been taken.
- The economy is getting better, slowly. People are still
desperately poor. Prices are rising. But the number of cars in Kabul
has risen approximately four-fold since 2001. There is money in the
markets of provincial capitals. As roads are built trade invariably
increases. The process is just beginning
- Afghanistan can expect a mini-surge of US troops. Some analysts,
such as the British ambassador to Afghanistan, believe foreign troops
are the problem not the solution. Not so. A surge of troops into the
northeast, which can insulate Pakistan's restive tribal area across
the border, will bring much of the stability needed to build more
roads! This is a good thing, even though many other provinces will
not be covered by the surge. And even though the money for roads too
limited, even here near the border with Pakistan.
- The Afghan National Army (ANA) is supposed to double to about
125,000 men within 5 years. At last. The ANA is good, and this
should have happened years ago.
- The Pakistanis are arming their own tribal militias across the
border. It could well be possible to foster a split within the
Taliban, which is becoming a criminal conspiracy at heart, if the
right pressure is exerted long enough.
So in all, the news from Afghanistan is grim. It is terrible. But
for the first time in months, it looks like the news from Afghanistan
could be much improved by the middle of next year.