Afghan War winnable & important

(Washington, May 10) As news from Iraq got progressively better in the last year the reflexive pessimists among us have shifted their focus to Afghanistan where they tell us portents of gloom and doom can be found in abundance. We hear of a resurgent Taliban advancing on several fronts, the capital of Kabul under siege, insurgents controlling ever more of the countryside, attacks and suicide bombings way up, the Pakistan border uncontrollable, and U.S. and civilian casualties increased dramatically.

Back in fashion are the words “quagmire” and of course “Viet Nam”. In fact a Newsweek cover story called Afghanistan “Obama’s Viet Nam”.

All these grim tidings, of course, lead to the inevitable advice that the U.S. should cut its losses, and escape this “graveyard of empires”, ASAP.

While most of the alarmist assertions cited above contain the proverbial grain of truth, collectively they represent a gross distortion of reality in Afghanistan.

A vital key to these misrepresentations is that increases in attacks or casualties are invariably reported as percentile increases over a previously established base number while failing to report how relatively tiny that number may be or offering any comparisons from similar conflicts (e.g. Iraq).

For example the Brookings Afghanistan Index reported a 48 % increase in attacks for 2008 in regional Command-Capital which includes Kabul and environs and has a population of over four million people. What is not reported is that the actual number of attacks went from just 106 to 157 for the entire year or that 157 was the average number of attacks that occurred in Baghdad every four days during the summer of 2006.

Similarly while civilian casualties are increasing in Afghanistan the total for 2008 represents only one sixteenth of the casualties in Iraq in the pre-surge year of 2006.

Thus when we hear as we do of late that attacks or casualties for a given week or month were greater in Afghanistan than Iraq this is much more a reflection of the dramatically improved situation in post-surge Iraq than any gross deterioration in Afghanistan.

In assessing the validity of comparing the two countries consider that Afghanistan ( 249,934 sq. miles) is a much larger country than Iraq ( 167,884 sq. miles) and its 30 million people exceed the population of Iraq as well.

In terms of results the Afghan war from the beginning has been a considerable success story despite being greatly “under resourced” when compared to Iraq. Today there are just 38,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan and even with the recently authorized 17,000 increase the total will be barely one third the number in Iraq during the surge (160,000).

Similarly the Afghan National Army (ANA) which has performed most effectively and is universally regarded as the most trusted indigenous institution in the entire country numbers only 80,000 men. Even adding the 70,000 men of the far less effective Afghan National Police (ANP) 150,000 total security personnel is small when compared to the 500,000 men in Iraq’s army and police.

Finally we frequently hear that “primitive” Afghanistan can never be a real nation but only an aggregation of feuding tribes.

This ignores the fact that while highly tribal Iraq has been a nation for less than one hundred years (1919) Afghanistan has been an independent country since the 18th century with a history of strong monarchs ruling a reasonably stable country. The last of these- Mohammed Zahir Shah (1933-1973) – oversaw substantial economic and political progress including a fairly democratic written constitution. Only a 1978 Marxist coup and the subsequent Soviet invasion precipitated the tragic period of war and civil conflict that has characterized the last thirty years.

By no means should we minimize the very daunting challenges we face in Afghanistan or conceal the fact that only a strong multi-year U.S. commitment can assure success.

However neither should we minimize the severe price of failure.

Many critics including President Obama long derided Iraq as the “wrong” war and a distraction from Afghanistan which was the “right” war and the one we “had to win”. The 17,000 additional troops President Obama authorized are a commendable first step in backing that conviction with deeds. In continuing along this necessary road of many difficult steps he deserves our strongest support.

William Moloney’s columns have appeared in the Wall St Journal, USA Today, Washington Post, Washington Times, Philadelphia Inquirer, Baltimore Sun, Rocky Mountain News and the Denver Post.