As Afghans head to the polls Saturday to elect their next president, those in Washington still pushing for a lasting United States commitment to the country are hoping fervently that things go well – or at least well enough – to keep both the Obama administration and the American public on board.
Lately, the narrative in the U.S. around the Afghanistan War has hardened into one that shows it as a futile effort that has yielded little gains, despite more than 2,300 Americans killed and $600 billion spent since 2001. A December CNN poll revealed American opposition to the Afghan war hit 82 percent – higher than the Iraq War ever reached. Only one quarter of respondents wanted to see U.S. troops stay in Afghanistan after the official end of the war in December. National Intelligence Estimate predictions that security gains will retreatalongside the U.S. troop withdrawal, regardless of whether several thousand troops remain, have strengthened the hand of those within the administration arguing for the so-called "zero option" of keeping no troops in the country come January.
But those who have worked in Afghanistan on the diplomatic and military sides push back against that storyline and point to very real progress.
"I am cautiously optimistic about what I am seeing in Afghanistan," retired Adm. James Stavridis, former NATO commander who now heads Tufts University's Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, toldDefense One. "Despite unrelenting media focus on the difficult challenges of getting through the election and the ongoing insurgency, I think the macro picture is actually somewhat encouraging."
Stavridis, like many commanders and aid workers, pointed to millions of Afghan girls and boys in school and economic growth as high as 13 percent in recent years. Women, too, have made gains, serving as parliamentarians, governors, entrepreneurs, judges, police officers and civil servants after being banished from their streets and schools under the Taliban. Stavridis also praised Afghan security forces. "We now have 350,000 Afghan police and soldiers in the field and they are fighting well," he said. "They are taking casualties, but inflicting casualties, they are holding territory and the Taliban have made no significant gains whatsoever in terms of holding territory."