This week’s attack on civilians in the southern Afghan province of Kandahar, allegedly carried out by a lone U.S. Army staff sergeant, has revealed an appalling lack of understanding of the political context in which our military effort takes place.
This context are the Afghan people themselves, the locus and lodestone of the campaign led by the United States with fifty Allies and partners and the United Nations. Everything we are doing is focused on supporting the Afghans’ effort to develop their economy, political, legal and civic institutions, and civil organizations.
And they are succeeding, which means we are succeeding.
This puts into context the recent spate of violence between US/NATO forces, Afghan security forces and the Taliban. As important as these incidents are (and they have been declining since the beginning of the surge of U.S. forces in 2009), they are not indicative of the overall state of affairs in the country. These include an expanding economy, an independent and representative parliament, an active news media, and a growing civil society. Include within this the established jirgas, tribal structures, the mosques, provincial governors (dependent on Kabul, to be sure), and other local organizations. All of these are developing in addition to the security apparatus that seems to be the only context we pay attention to, with good reason given the 90,000 U.S. troops we have deployed there at considerable risk.
But the nascent and growing political order is what our forces are there to protect. The Afghans are vesting themselves in the organizations and institutions that constitute that order. And that is what the Taliban and other enemies of the current order are confronting to their peril. While the current problems between foreign and Afghan forces will undoubtedly make our military mission more difficult (indeed, the Taliban have already initiated reprisals), it is important to note our enemies are not attacking the institutions and organizations that have established legitimacy with the Afghan people.
As with all insurgencies, this fight is political — a battle for brains and souls — and the Taliban are at least clever enough not to attack the institutions and individuals that are gradually providing for a better life for the people they would like to rule and dominate again. But therein lies their downfall. As long as we, the foreigners, can help provide security, before they know it our enemies will have lost the political war as the people vest themselves totally in the new political order. The Taliban is in a tighter spot that the headlines suggest, which explains why despite the recent Qur’an confusion and alleged massacre they still appear willing to negotiate with the central government and the coalition. (Correction/Update March 15: According to The New York Times, the Taliban in talks only with American representatives broke off discussions unilaterally, significantly, not in connection with recent incidents but over prisoner transfers.)
It is not courant in counterinsurgency to speak of winning and losing, but I am willing to say we are succeeding despite appearances to the contrary. That is because the news media focus — and even, unfortunately, expert opinion — is not shining the light where it is most important to look right now. The most important battlefield in this war is not the space between our soldiers and the elusive guerrilla but elsewhere: in the Afghan parliament, in Afghan homes clustered around radios, in the bazaars, in schools and universities and clinics. That is, in every way that we have affected the daily lives of every Afghan for which they will remember us.
As in Iraq, if we have done our job properly — and I argue here that we have — whether and when our forces leave is now irrelevant. And those who will rue our leaving the most will be the Taliban because they will no longer have an enemy to fight and will lose in the end the souls of the people.