After spending last month in Afghanistan on my fourth trip this year, the situation can best be described as a glass half full. A multifaceted effort in the south, led by a "surge" of U.S. and Afghan troops, has increased security in the southern Pashtun heartland this year. But a steady drumbeat of high-profile attacks, including a brazen assault on the U.S. embassy and assassinations of key Afghan officials, has had an outsized impact on the population by eroding already weak confidence in the Afghan government and the forces supporting it. As I was ending my trip with a few days in Kabul, an SUV packed with 700 kilos of explosives rammed an armored "Rhino" bus, killing a dozen Americans and inflicting horrific burns on others in a targeted, planned attack reminiscent of the worst days in Baghdad. The U.S. military has adopted the line that these "spectacular attacks" are in fact signs of the Taliban's weakness, and points instead to a notable decline in the number of enemy initiated attacks.
But numbers matter less than perception in these wars -- and shaping perception is precisely how terrorist groups fight and win. The dominant narrative in Afghanistan is: the Americans are leaving, the government is weak, the Taliban is still strong, and Pakistan is the problem. And though the details of the cross-border NATO bombardment Saturday, which killed 24 Pakistani soldiers, are still murky, it will undoubtedly send U.S.-Pakistan relations into a further downward spiral. Unless the reality underlying these perceptions about the United States in the region are addressed, sustainable momentum on the government side cannot be generated. The U.S. surge may have started to turn around the momentum that is currently favoring the Taliban, but Afghan political and military actions are required to create a perception -- and the reality -- that the Afghan government is capable of surviving and prevailing. Addressing several factors bedeviling the Afghan campaign between now and next summer, when the traditional fighting season resumes and more troops go home, might turn perception and thus momentum in the Afghan government's favor. Six are most critical:
Promptly reaching a strategic partnership agreement in which the United States pledges to continue providing security and economic assistance after 2014 could go a long way toward reducing Afghan fears of abandonment. The U.S. and Afghan governments have been negotiating such an agreement for over a year, and the general idea of a partnership (albeit with a 10-year limit on American forces in Afghanistan after 2014) was approved at President Hamid Karzai's Loya Jirga this week; both sides hope to finalize it before the Bonn summit next month. ...