- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 14, 2009

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Our top military leaders look at Afghanistan and see problems. “There is no question that the situation has deteriorated over the course of the past two years and that there are difficult times ahead,” Central Command commander Gen. David H. Petraeus said last week. Lt. Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, recently tapped to command the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan, told Congress on June 2 that needless civilian deaths resulting from actions against insurgents are alienating the Afghan population. “If defeating an insurgent formation produces popular resentment,” he said, “the victory is hollow and unsustainable.”

The uptick in violence is unmistakable. Incidents were occurring at a rate of approximately 35 per day in the first five months of 2009, compared to almost 22 per day in the comparable time period in 2008, according to a NATO report. Compared to the 160 incidents per day at the height of the war in Iraq, the number is still low, but the trend is not encouraging. With the rise in incidents come more casualties. According to a tally by Associated Press, for the first five months of the year, U.S. deaths in Afghanistan were up 66 percent compared to the same period in 2008 - but enemy deaths were up 90 percent, and insurgents were killed at a rate about 25 times that of coalition troops.

We are certain to have some hard months ahead. Casualties will mount as coalition forces press the fight deeper into inhospitable insurgent safe havens. The change in seasons alone will have an impact. Last year, according to data from the National Counterterrorism Center’s Worldwide Incidents Tracking System, there were 196 incidents in Afghanistan in the winter months of December 2007 to February 2008. From June to August 2008, there were 401 incidents, slightly more than double. The attacks in the winter months were centered farther to the south and west, closer to Kandahar, while in the summer the attacks centered to the north and east, closer to Kabul. The election scheduled for Aug. 20 will also contribute to a long, hot Afghan summer.

The most concerning development is the decline in Afghan confidence in the coalition’s military effort. In a poll conducted during the winter by the Afghan Center for Socio-Economic and Opinion Research, 37 percent of Afghans surveyed said most people in their area supported the NATO force, down from 67 percent in 2006. A quarter said attacks on Western forces could be justified. This coincides with a 40 percent increase in civilian casualties this year, according to the United Nations. Most of the increase was because of a greater number of enemy terror attacks against noncombatants. But 39 percent of the civilian deaths - 828 men, women and children - came as the result of the actions of pro-government forces.

In March, President Obama promised a “stronger, smarter” war in Afghanistan. We said then that the true measure of his plan would be its implementation. We trust that the military leaders who brought victory in Afghanistan are aware of what needs to be done to meet these challenges. But it clearly will be a rough ride getting there. Winning back the support of the Afghan people must be at the top of the administration’s agenda.

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