The key trends of the war in Afghanistan can be summarized fairly simply. The hard part is figuring out what they collectively add up to. The muddled picture no doubt contributed to recent poll results showing that two-thirds of Americans oppose their country’s involvement in the conflict. Afghans themselves seem confused; according to a 2011 Asia Foundation poll, 73 percent of citizens support their national government (and even higher percentages their army and police), but only 46 percent believe the country is headed in the right direction.
Here is what we know: Afghans are wealthier, healthier and better educated than ever before. Unquestionably, Afghan security forces are bigger and better. Despite the occasional spectacular attack, Kabul is relatively safe, accounting for less than 1 percent of violent episodes nationwide, thanks largely to the efforts of these troops. The security situation in the more dangerous south is also much improved, after two years of efforts by foreign and Afghan forces. The north and west are at least no longer deteriorating and collectively account for less than 10 percent of violence nationwide.
But the east, near where insurgents in the Haqqani network have found sanctuary across the Pakistani border, remains highly troubled. There, insurgent violence against Afghan citizens and troops, as well as foreign soldiers, actually went up about 20 percent last year. NATO and Afghan forces will increasingly concentrate their efforts in the east this year and next.
In addition, after attacks by Afghan soldiers on NATO units, trust between the forces is lower than before. Meanwhile, government corruption remains high. Some anti-corruption measures are in place, but we cannot yet find any clear evidence that they are working systematically. The Afghan elections of 2014 threaten to intensify already growing ethnic tensions between the Pashtuns and the minority Tajiks, and between Uzbeks and Hazaras, and peace talks with the Taliban are halting.
After recent weeks marred by the attacks on NATO units, as well as riots after American military personnel burned copies of the Koran and the accusation that another American slaughtered 17 Afghan civilians, Americans and Afghans are right to wonder about the future of this conflict. They do have some happy news to look to, however, like new accords transferring the responsibility for night raids and the main coalition prison to the Afghan government.
Based on current trends — some of which are depicted in the chart accompanying this article — the most likely outcome in Afghanistan is a mixed one. Come 2014, when NATO withdraws, we expect that the Afghan government will be able to hold most cities and major roads. That is because of the often underappreciated improvement in its security forces, combined with the hits taken by the insurgency in recent years, as well as the general lack of appeal the Taliban movement holds for most urban Afghans. Yet the government will probably still be unable to control many of the nation’s rural areas, particularly in the East. On top of that, corruption among officials will perhaps further erode the government’s legitimacy; the economy will suffer as the stimulus provided by foreign troops declines; and the 2014 electoral process could easily divide Afghans more than unite them.
That said, 2014 is a long way off, and the situation could easily get better — or worse — than this extrapolation of current trends suggests.
Ian Livingston is a senior researcher at the Brookings Institution, where Michael O’Hanlon, a co-author of Bending History: Barack Obama’s Foreign Policy, is a senior fellow.