The overall situation in Afghanistan, like that of Iraq last year, is grave and deteriorating. Violence is up by 27% in the country since 2006, there were a total of 140 suicide bombings throughout 2007 (as compared to 5 between 2001 and 2005), poppy growth is at an all time high, and 2007 marked the deadliest year for U.S. and allied troops since 2001. Meanwhile, the Afghan government remains unable to provide for its own people. "Afghanistan remains a failing state. It could become a failed state," concludes a report released yesterday by the former NATO Supreme Allied Commander, General James Jones.
In fact, General Jones' evaluation is one of three independent reports released this week which argue that the U.S.-and NATO-led efforts in Afghanistan are failing and are in need of urgent action. Despite these reports, recent Bush administration assessments of progress in Afghanistan have been overwhelmingly positive. In doing so, the administration is lulling itself into a state of denial concerning the situation in Afghanistan; one that is eerily reminiscent of its refusal to acknowledge the deteriorating situation in Iraq between 2003 and the end of 2006.
In testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Thursday, Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs, Richard Boucher, argued in reference to Afghanistan, "nobody can tell me that it's not going in a positive direction." Citing the growing Afghan cell phone market and meager improvements in the transportation infrastructure among other signs of progress, Boucher argued adamantly that there has been improvement in the overall situation in the country.
If one only listened to the first panel at the Foreign Relations Committee yesterday--consisting of Boucher and David Johnson of the State Department--it would appear that the mission in Afghanistan was on track. That is if one didn't stay for the second panel. Unfortunately, for Boucher, there was someone on the panel who could tell him that the mission in Afghanistan wasn't going in the right direction: General James Jones.
Jones, whose report was on every Senator's desk during the testimony, stated in no uncertain terms, "make no mistake, NATO is not winning in Afghanistan." General Jones went on to state that Afghanistan remains a "dangerously neglected conflict in a Washington transfixed by Iraq...On the security side, a stalemate of sorts has taken hold."
Not to be outdone, the administration fought back today in the Washington Post. In a highly optimistic oped, U.S. Ambassador to NATO, Victoria Nuland, echoed many of President Bush's State of the Union talking points from earlier this week. Nuland extolled the "major successes" the U.S. and its NATO allies have achieved throughout Afghanistan and praised the widespread security and development progress throughout the country.
While rosy assessments of the situation in Afghanistan from the administration are commonplace, the dangers of strategic drift in the country and the region now are particularly dangerous. As noted in one of the Afghan reports released this week, "At the strategic level, what happens in Afghanistan and beyond its borders can have even greater long-term consequences than how the struggle to bring a measure of stability and order to Iraq turns out."
Given the stakes, the United States cannot afford to allow the situation in Afghanistan to drift sideways any longer. To be sure, turning around the deteriorating conditions in Afghanistan will be no easy task and will be fraught with challenges. But like many ailments, a recognition of the problem is often the first step to recovery.