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U.S. Progress in Afghanistan Easier for Soldiers than Civilians to See

Authors: Stephen Biddle, Adjunct Senior Fellow for Defense Policy, and Michael E. O'Hanlon, Senior Fellow, Foreign Policy, Saban Center for Middle East Policy, Brookings Institution
April 4, 2011
Baltimore Sun

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How is it really going in Afghanistan? In his recent testimony before Congress, Gen. David Petraeus reported substantial if fragile progress and conveyed a can-do attitude reflecting confidence about our prospects. Yet press reports and other organizations and individuals on the ground seem to grow more dispirited by the month. Are they looking at the same war?

They are. But they apply very different standards, and so they reach very different conclusions.

Soldiers are trained and equipped to fight. They expect to operate in dangerous environments, and they look for gradual improvement from very dangerous to less so. Most civilians, by contrast, do not expect to live and work in combat zones. This encourages a more binary sense of security for them: Either a district is safe enough to send aid workers to live in or travel through, or it is not.

In Afghanistan today, there has been real progress. But much of it has been concentrated in previously very dangerous places such as Helmand, Kandahar and Khost. Here, entrenched Taliban insurgents have increasingly been driven from districts they had once controlled so solidly that even heavily armed coalition troops could not enter without pitched battles. In Marjah, Nawa, Lashkar Gah, Argendahb, Zari, Panjway and many other localities, the coalition is now able to move forces freely, whereas the Taliban has been forced out or underground. This has allowed some markets and schools to reopen and a degree of commerce to return.

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