- The Washington Times - Friday, December 3, 2010

The year 2014 could have been the time when NATO forces transferred responsibility for security in Afghanistan to their Afghan counterparts, with all sides confident that the latter were ready and able to stand on their own two feet.

The newly reinforced, population-centric counterinsurgency strategy currently being applied by Gen. David H. Petraeus is the right one and appears to be yielding genuine progress in many places. Improvements in governance, security and economic development in central Helmand province are tangible — Lashkar Gah, the provincial capital, is now an Afghan area of operations which Afghan forces secure effectively in a similar fashion to Kabul.

It is the most bitter irony, therefore, that the determination of U.S., British and other NATO leaders to transfer responsibility in 2014 - more or less regardless of conditions on the ground - could undo all of this. The fact that President Obama, who just went to Afghanistan on Friday, has belatedly emphasized that the 2014 deadline is not “unconditional” is somewhat moot; everyone now knows that NATO wants to be all but gone by the middle of the decade, and no amount of political wordsmanship will change that fact.

Indeed, British Prime Minister David Cameron has not even bothered to offer that caveat, stating categorically Nov. 29 that Britain’s 2015 withdrawal deadline is “a firm commitment and a firm deadline that we will meet.”

Yet what our political overlords fail to recognize is that by trumpeting their intention to withdraw from Afghanistan in such a public way, they risk generating precisely the climate of fear and uncertainty among ordinary Afghans that will make a transfer of responsibility in 2014 immeasurably more difficult.

The Pentagon’s most recent progress report on Afghanistan, released a few days ago, confirms that “modest gains” have been made “in security, governance, and development in operational priority areas,” adding that “the deliberate application of our strategy is beginning to have cumulative effects and security is slowly beginning to expand.”

All this risks being jeopardized, however, by fixing the date for transfer and withdrawal. The Pentagon’s report goes on to state categorically that “the Taliban’s strength lies in the Afghan population’s perception that Coalition forces will soon leave, giving credence to the belief that a Taliban victory is inevitable.”

What politicians in the United Kingdom, the United States and elsewhere must understand is that perception is everything in Afghanistan. If the Afghan people cannot be sure in their own minds that to lend their support to the government side now will not be to invite bloody retribution on themselves and their families further down the line, then they will not lend the government side their support, and understandably so.

This, of course, is why the counterinsurgency strategy currently being pursued offers a much better chance of success than the predominantly counterterrorist approach that characterized the early years of this conflict. The difference is that while the latter strategy made the elimination of enemy forces its overriding approach, the former seeks to eliminate the conditions of poverty, insecurity and poor governance that generate these enemies in the first place.

NATO forces have been doing this through the provision of security and training in and around key population centers in Afghanistan, enabling both Afghan and international actors to develop domestic security, economic and governmental infrastructure in the space provided. This strategy is the right one, but it can only work if the Afghan people perceive that the results it is starting to yield will be sustainable down the line.

Of course, it is not just ordinary Afghans who need to be persuaded of this. Those occupying official positions inside government, the police and elsewhere must likewise be confident that the new modus operandi can survive beyond the withdrawal of John Bull and Uncle Sam from Afghanistan. Critics of President Hamid Karzai rightly point out that his reluctance to sever ties with warlords and other influential power brokers does serious damage to the legitimacy of his government both within Afghanistan and abroad. But the plain fact of the matter is that unless Mr. Karzai can be confident that the structures of governance currently being put in place can last, he will remain extremely cautious about burning his bridges with those upon whom his survival may ultimately come to depend.

The same principle applies with regard to Pakistan and its reluctance to relinquish its support for Taliban elements within Afghanistan. The historic relationship between Pakistan and the Taliban is well-known, and skeptics are right to maintain that unless and until Islamabad fully relinquishes its support for the Taliban, success in Afghanistan will be that much more difficult. But the fact of the matter is that Pakistanis will maintain their ties with the Taliban until such time as they become convinced that the Taliban are a busted flush and that further support for the group can only decrease their influence in Afghanistan going forward.

It is not hard to understand why Mr. Obama, Mr. Cameron and others are so keen on setting deadlines in Afghanistan. With budgets squeezed, progress slow and the war remaining unpopular with voters, the pressure to make clear that Afghan- istan is not an open-ended commitment is immense, but therein lies the irony.

The surest way to make lasting progress in Afghanistan to the point where transfer and withdrawal can be done responsibly is to commit to the long haul. The result may be swifter progress and a quicker withdrawal than was anticipated. By seeking quick victories set to a firm withdrawal timetable, our governments may well succeed in bringing about precisely the failure they are so desperately seeking to avoid.

George Grant is the global security and terrorism director at the Henry Jackson Society in London and recently released a report on the conflict, “Succeeding in Afghanistan.”