- - Friday, June 1, 2012

The war in Afghanistan is a slog at best. Even those of us supporting the mission there must acknowledge that it has been slower, harder going than expected. With Osama bin Laden dead and other al Qaeda leaders also out of the picture (or out of the region) the original motivation for the effort seems less compelling to many as well.

But the United States should not lose patience. Because we already have an exit strategy to remove most NATO troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2014, no one need worry too much about a possible quagmire. Beyond that, there are good reasons to think that even if this mission does not achieve its loftiest earlier goals, it likely can attain the minimal acceptable requirement: preventing a Taliban return to power and a major al Qaeda presence on Afghan soil.

Several hopeful things I saw on a recent trip actually centered on politics - often viewed by many American observers as the Achilles’ heel of our mission in Kabul. To be sure, cronyism and corruption still permeate much of the Afghan state, fueled at times by insufficiently monitored foreign-aid efforts and military contracts. And fears of possible future civil war have grown over the past few years.

But a spirit of hopefulness, more than fear, characterized most of those with whom I spoke recently in Kabul. The recent signing of the U.S.-Afghan Strategic Partnership Agreement to guide cooperation after 2014 reassures many that they will not be left to their own internal conflicts - or the mercy of their neighbors - when NATO’s transition is complete. Although details of this agreement may prove difficult to negotiate, the accord definitely has given a boost to the strides of many Afghan reformers who continue to work hard for their nation’s future.

Moreover, more than ever before, politics is breaking out in Afghanistan. The 2014 presidential election is still two years away. But new political organizations, such as the Rights and Justice Party, are forming, and reform movements designed to get out the vote and improve the independence and integrity of the electoral process, including the Coalition for Reform and Development, are gaining steam. Everyone is forming shortlists of the most likely candidates for the race - some of them serious reformists. We do not yet know, of course, if the process will be successful, and it is possible that a weaker or less honest and effective leader than President Hamid Karzai could be elected. That could spell disaster, and Washington needs to think hard about using its leverage to reduce the odds of such an outcome. But there is still positive political energy in the air.

Here are some other hopeful indicators in Afghanistan:

Afghan security forces have almost reached their envisioned full size of 352,000, counting army and police. They are collectively taking at least twice the casualties of NATO forces, participating in at least 90 percent of all operations and leading about 40 percent of operations themselves (albeit usually the simpler ones at this point). They repulsed the April 15 Haqqani network attack on Kabul and other cities largely on their own.

While the security forces still suffer from political patronage appointments and corruption, the problems are being addressed partially. About 50 Afghan army leaders in the east of the country alone have been replaced over the past year; 70 police officers were fired recently in the country’s west for poor performance; and the Ministry of Defense has opened a full criminal investigation into the problems that produced corruption and theft at Afghanistan’s main military hospital last year. To be sure, such efforts could be too little too late. There remain pockets of serious problems, such as with the country’s air force. And some of the firings and hirings raise concerns of ethnic bias. But on balance, the progress is picking up.

The Afghan Local Police (ALP) , a form of armed community watch overseen by NATO troops, generally is proving its mettle. These lightly armed and locally organized forces are holding their ground in about 80 percent of all firefights, even when sometimes outgunned by the Taliban, and they are taking the highest rate of casualties of any part of the Afghan security forces. There have been a handful of cases of abuse within this program, and a number of illegal militias are falsely adopting the name Afghan Local Police to disguise their true nature (which is sometimes to attack their neighboring tribes or communities). But U.S. special operations forces have monitored and worked effectively with the actual ALP forces and stepped in to address problems when needed. They only allow their formation after several months of getting to know an area and working with local elders to try to ensure a reasonable mix of ALP members. The admittedly daunting challenge in coming months and years will be to keep growing the program while also gradually handing over oversight to Afghan special forces.

Recent Asia Foundation work suggests that the quality of governance at the provincial level in Afghanistan is improving. There still are too many bad actors and too much interference from Kabul in the day-to-day operations of regional governments. But by one scale, at least, the average quality of governance has improved at least 10 percent over the past year.

On the anti-corruption front, more than 100 companies or individuals (some of them U.S.-based) have been debarred from working with NATO because of suspicions of corruption or association with enemy elements. This overdue effort requires constant vigilance to be sure that companies or individuals that have been debarred once do not simply reorganize under a different name - but NATO is finally on the job on that matter.

Much still needs to be done, of course. Land reform and prevention of land expropriation by corrupt actors demand attention. Electoral watchdog organizations need to be strengthened and means of possible voting fraud reduced before 2014. Otherwise, cheating and scandal could delegitimize the election outcomes and contribute to more ethnic tension. The army and police still need to get a lot better. Some of the worst of the worst need to be arrested and tried for corrupt ways. And the international community needs to find leverage - and communicate its willingness to use that leverage - to maximize the chances that good leadership emerges from that election - conditioning future aid and troop levels on the quality of future Afghan governance. Pakistan needs to help more. Even if true alliance and friendship are unlikely, we at least need Pakistan to behave like the “frenemy” it once was instead of the antagonist it more recently has become.

But all these points are pretty well known. Less well known is all the good happening in Afghanistan. Whether it will be enough in the end is unclear, but there is a lot to build on.

Michael O’Hanlon is co-author of the Brookings Institution’s “Afghanistan Index” and “Toward a Political Strategy for Afghanistan.”

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