The war in Afghanistan appears to be going well, the Pentagon said Sunday, but don't look too closely and don't ask too many questions.
You might not like what you learn.
Secretary Panetta issued a statement praising Afghan President Hamid Karzai's list of new areas that will pass from American to Afghan responsibility over the next phase of the withdrawal, calling it clear evidence that President Obama's plan is working.
"With more than 100 districts identified, this third phase will be the largest yet," Panetta said. "When implemented, roughly three-fourths of the Afghan people will live in areas undergoing transition to Afghan security lead. It means that transition will be occurring in every province in the country, and in every provincial capital. None of this would be possible without the growing strength of the Afghan National Security Forces, which remain essential to our shared goal of an Afghanistan that can secure and govern itself. I commend our troops and those of our ISAF partners for their determination and commitment to this vital mission."
And proud we are of all of them -- but what's the actual situation on the ground as American and Afghan troops attempt this handover? Dan Lamothe of Marine Corps Times just came back from a circuit with the leathernecks in Sangin, and his report does not give a lot of confidence about the Afghan forces taking over down there.
Sgt. Johnathan Cook leads his squad of Marines through the narrow alleys and dusty compounds in this district’s dangerous “Fish Tank” region, facing insurgents armed with grenades, machine guns and improvised explosive devices.American commanders inevitably explain that they know Afghan forces will never be the equal of the U.S. Marines or soldiers who've done so much of the heavy lifting in this war, but that they're getting better all the time. Still, in the same way each Marine in Sangin represents the United States of America, each Afghan soldier or policeman represents the central government in Kabul. Especially when, as Lamothe writes, many of the troops serving in Helmand Province are actually from Kabul and speak Dari, not the local Pashto. The more locals those troops alienate, the worse the odds of long-term stability.
During these patrols, Cook hears similar complaints from the villagers he meets. They’re worried not only about the Taliban, but also the local Afghan authorities. They tell him the Afghan Uniformed Police unit is crooked and violent. Farmers and shepherds accuse the AUP’s officers of beating women and children, levying steep unauthorized taxes, and even kidnapping and sexually assaulting a young boy, Cook said. The allegations make him uneasy about working alongside the AUP on partnered patrols, and whether Afghan villagers will brand Marines guilty by association.
“Whenever they tell me something like that, I always tell them they need to talk to their local government officials,” said Cook, a member of Baker Company, 1st Battalion, 7th Marines, out of Twentynine Palms, Calif. “But the people definitely don’t trust them.”
Cook’s concerns highlight the dark side to a major piece of the strategy for ending U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan. Eventually, the Afghan National Security Forces are expected to provide all security here. Some units, particularly in the once beleaguered Afghan National Army, are now admired and respected by civilians. However, other Afghan troops continue to abuse power, shirk assignments or worse, Marines said.
The next phase of this story -- what happens when the Americans at last transition out of "the lead" -- is very tough to predict, but reports like Lamothe's don't inspire a lot of optimism. Then again, nobody believes the Afghanistan-as-Switzerland delusion. Local corruption, abuse and who-knows-what-else may be the price that local Afghans must pay for American combat troops to leave. They may even welcome it, much as Washington might welcome supporting the Afghan National Security Forces to the tune of about $40 billion over a decade after years of spending some $2 billion per week on the war.
The cold-hearted reality is that by the Obama administration's own definitions of its goals, police abuses in Sangin or even continued insurgent trouble-making don't really matter, so long as they don't create a shady patch where the fungus of al Qaeda can grow. Local stability and order will be important, but there will also be American special operators zorching around Afghanistan for at least the next ten years, capturing and killing the worst of the bad guys. That may keep Americans at home safe from more terror plots hatched in Afghanistan -- which is supposed to be the whole purpose of the war -- but the typical Afghan might not see his life improve all that much.