Afghanistan: Progress reports, in more than name

We have paid fairly constant attention to the quarterly Afghanistan progress reports the federal government has submitted since special advisor John Manley recommended greater transparency (along with other things) in 2008. The tale has been pretty consistent, and bleak: progress against limited, quantifiable goals on specific projects, in a general context of worsening violence and despair. It wouldn’t have been too unfair to summarize most of these reports as, “Construction continues on schedule, but the locals who haven’t died yet are terrified that they’ll be next.”

That’s changing. Quite starkly. For the better.

Yesterday Foreign Minister John Baird tabled two quarterly reports — the March report, which dealt with the last quarter of 2010, was delayed by the election, and since the June report, dealing with the first quarter of this year, was ready too, he made them both public. To see what jumped out, it’s worth going back to previous reports.

Each of these reports ends with detailed checklists comparing progress against a set of benchmarks Manley suggested in 2008. These include polio vaccination, school construction, progress on building a functional Dahla Dam to irrigate the arid countryside, army and police training, and so on.

But before the tables, there’s always a section describing “The Quarterly Context” — that is, the general environment within which Canadian Forces, Afghan National Army, the local population — and the Taliban and other insurgents — were operating. John Geddes and I have usually seen this section as the cut-to-the-chase part of the report, because polio vaccinations, while useful, are less so if children and their parents risk violent death at any moment. Here are some excerpts from Geddes’ occasional blog reports on previous updates.

December, 2008: “But no reputable account of the situation in Afghanistan holds that what’s happening amounts to mere seasonal fluctuations in violence. The quarterly report Day released tells us, in its first paragraph: ‘Numbers of insurgent incidents, and casualty rates among civilians and soldiers, reached levels higher than in any year since the Taliban was overthrown in 2001.'”

March, 2009: “The previous quarterly report, released last September, surveyed the summer months. It emphasized the seasonal pattern of violence. ‘Summer has come to be known in Afghanistan as “the fighting season”,’ explained the very first line in the report, ‘when insurgents mobilize for their most aggressive offensives.’ Today’s report covers the fall. And here’s its first sentence: ‘Security conditions in Afghanistan remained especially dangerous and by some measures deteriorated during the quarter.'”

March, 2010: “How do the locals feel about the situation? Canada’s aim is for their confidence to be steadily increasing. But this flat sentence stands out in the benchmarks section of the report: ‘Kandaharis did not perceive security as improving in any of the six key districts.'”

Now the two new reports. You can get your copies here and read along.

The March report, covering October-December 2010, says this: “Incidents of violence in Kandahar province decreased compared to the previous quarter, largely due to the onset of winter. Fully two thirds of Kandaharis polled indicated that they feel safe in their communities, up from 40 percent in May 2010 and 34 percent in November 2009.”

And from the “Quarterly Context” section of the same report, this fuller description: “The security environment in southern Afghanistan showed some signs of progress in the fourth quarter of 2010. During this time, operations of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) and the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) made significant gains in eliminating long-standing Taliban safe havens in southern Afghanistan and additional gains against a determined insurgency elsewhere in the country. Incidents of violence decreased in Kandahar province compared to the previous quarter.”

The June report, covering January-March of this year, is similar in tone:

Although observed violence levels were higher than those noted between January and March 2010, the security environment across Afghanistan remained relatively stable this quarter as Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) and the International Security Assistance Forces consolidated significant gains made during operations last fall, increasing the influence of the Government of Afghanistan and maintaining freedom of movement.
While Kandahar City experienced its first complex attack by insurgents in the last nine months, during this reporting period the violence in Kandahar province was down 30 percent from the previous quarter. Despite ongoing insurgent threats and intimidation, the majority of Kandaharis polled continued to report that they felt safe and that security was improving in their communities.

The updates on benchmarks are also, generally, encouraging. For instance: “Canada’s education signature project to build, expand or repair 50 schools in Kandahar province also advanced with the completion of two more schools, bringing the total to date to 41. Work continued on the remaining nine schools.”

But the updates on benchmarks have generally been encouraging, and I have stubbornly believed it didn’t matter much as long as Kandahar was a death trap for a significant number of its residents. It’s precisely that security situation that’s improving. Michael Petrou sensed some of the benefits of those improvements during his recent trip to Kandahar, where he spent most of his time on a Canadian Forces convoy outside the safer confines of Kandahar Air Field. (Incidentally, don’t miss the fascinating video Petrou shot down there.)

Are the reports of improving security credible? Is the improvement sustainable? And is it enough?

I think they are credible. And here I think it would help for Canadians to realize that Canadian Forces have had, and continue to have, only a limited influence over conditions in Kandahar. There simply haven’t been enough of them to sustain clear-hold-build operations in that vast territory. And that’s precisely what changed. In 2009-2010 thousands of American troops moved in to reinforce the Canadians. On my own last trip to Kandahar, last April, I met a U.S. civilian official who gave me the best explanation I’ve seen for why that changes the situation.

“The Canadians were out here for five years with a kind of augmented battalion. They call it a battle group but I think it only had about 1,200 guys in it,” said the U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity. “So the insurgents would come back every summer running the same play. If they were a football team, you would say they had one play in their playbook. The play is to lay up in the crescent around Kandahar City—from Arghandab to Zahri to Panjwayi to Dand, running north, west, south in that agricultural crescent,” he said, naming districts that are roughly equivalent in size to rural Canadian counties.

“They lay up in there and when they feel that the city is vulnerable enough and they are strong enough, they make a run on the city. They did this in 1994 and that’s when they took the city. And by 1996 they had taken the country. So they scored on that play, once. So they came back at the Canadians in ’06, ’07 and ’08. And the Canadian battle group was able to deny them the city—but they were never able to vanquish them from this area of operations because they didn’t have the resources.

“Well, the resource picture now is quite different. You have a battalion of American paratroopers in the Arghandab. You have a battalion of American infantry out in Zahri. You have the Canadian battle group in Panj­wayi. You have a squadron of American cavalry, that’s 500 guys, coming into Dand. You have the Strykers doing the road mobility mission on Ring Road 1 and Route 4 down to Pakistan, so they keep that road clear. And then you have the Second Brigade of the 101st Airborne, which is going to be 5,000 or 6,000 guys, coming in this summer.

“That’s a lot of people. I mean, that’s just a completely different set-up than anything the insurgency has ever faced down here.”

I’ve long thought the report I produced from that trip was unduly optimistic. The ISAF summer offensive got pushed back after Brig.-Gen. Daniel Menard was relieved of his command. Rampant corruption at all levels of the Afghan government remains a huge problem. But many thousands of U.S. soldiers change the tone of a neighbourhood pretty quickly.

Durably? Not sure. But perhaps. Certainly there’s a good chance the Canadian pullout from Kandahar this year will have limited impact. Quite simply, we’re subtracting far fewer soldiers than the Americans have added. They’re not eternal either, but all the while, Afghan National Army and police — the latter perhaps not all corrupt, he said optimistically — are getting trained up.

Anyway, as a longtime student of these quarterly reports, I’m genuinely struck by the concrete grounds for optimism contained in these latest two.