The Magazine

Yes, We Can

In the 'graveyard of empires,' we are fighting a war we can win.

Mar 23, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 26 • By FREDERICK W. KAGAN, KIMBERLY KAGAN and MAX BOOT
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If you believe the headlines, Afghanistan is "the graveyard of empires," a "quagmire" and a "fiasco," the place where President Barack Obama will meet his "Vietnam." In the media's imagination, the Taliban are on the march, and Kabul is on the verge of falling to a resurgent insurgency that already controls much of the countryside. Increasing numbers of voices, on both the left and the right, counsel that the war is unwinnable and that we need to radically "downsize" our objectives in order to salvage something from a failing war effort lest we go the way of the Russians or British, previous conquerors who foundered in this merciless land of violence and fanaticism.

Evidence to support the pessimists isn't hard to find. Violence has increased every year since 2001. The United Nations recently reported that there was an especially big jump last year, with civilian deaths up nearly 40 percent, from 1,523 in 2007 to 2,118 in 2008. Coalition deaths were up 27 percent, rising to 294 in 2008 from 232 in 2007. Because of the improving situation in Iraq, there have been a number of months when more U.S. soldiers have died in Afghanistan. Meanwhile the number of Afghans surveyed by ABC, the BBC, and the German network ARD who said that their country was headed in the right direction fell to 40 percent, down from 54 percent in 2007, with security rated as by far the worst problem, outpacing corruption and the economy.

The sense of doom is fed by news reports on spectacular attacks, such as the February 11 raid in which suicide bombers and gunmen attacked several government sites across Kabul, killing at least 20 people; the June 13, 2008, raid on the main prison in Kandahar, which freed 1,200 prisoners; and the April 27, 2008, attempted assassination of President Hamid Karzai at a public ceremony.

Fears of impending disaster are hard to sustain, however, if you actually spend some time in Afghanistan, as we did recently at the invitation of General David Petraeus, chief of U.S. Central Command. Using helicopters, fixed-wing aircraft, and bone-jarring armored vehicles, we spent eight days traveling from the snow-capped peaks of Kunar province near the border with Pakistan in the east to the wind-blown deserts of Farah province in the west near the border with Iran. Along the way we talked with countless coalition soldiers, ranging from privates to a four-star general. We also attended a tribal shura or council-a fantastic affair straight out of an earlier century-to sample opinion among bearded Afghan elders. What we found is a situation that is cause for concern but far short of catastrophe-and one that is likely to improve before long.

To start with, much of the north, center, and west remains relatively secure. Attacks have increased in those areas but are still extremely low. Figures showing large increases are deceptive because the total numbers to begin with were so small and because most of the attacks produced few if any casualties. For instance, the Brookings Afghanistan Index shows a 48 percent increase in attacks last year in Regional Command-Capital, which encompasses Kabul and its environs and has a population of more than 4 million people. But the total (157 attacks in 2008) would have represented just four days of violence in Baghdad in the summer of 2006. (Overall civilian casualties in Afghanistan, while rising, are still 16 times lower than the comparable figure for Iraq in the pre-surge year of 2006.)

As these figures suggest, while the capital of Iraq was a war zone, the capital of Afghanistan is remarkably peaceful. Entire weeks go by without an insurgent attack, and the streets bustle with cars and pedestrians. Coalition officials drive around in lightly armored SUVs, something that would have been unthinkable in Baghdad. We asked officers at NATO's International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) headquarters in the middle of Kabul whether they took any incoming rocket or mortar fire. Such attacks were an almost daily occurrence in the Green Zone in Baghdad for years, with numerous personnel being killed only yards away from the U.S. ambassador's office. But at ISAF they could remember only a single ineffectual attack back in September 2008.