Editor's Note: Michael O’Hanlon is coauthor with Martin Indyk and Kenneth Lieberthal of the new book, Bending History: Barack Obama’s Foreign Policy. You can read more from him on the Global Public Square.
By Michael O'Hanlon – Special to CNN
Today I had the honor of interviewing General John Allen, Commander of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan at the Brookings Institution in Washington. We had a half hour of direct discussion before taking questions from the audience. The general was, as usual, impressive and inspiring. Of course, the mission he leads in Afghanistan remains challenging.
After a week of testimony and media appearances, much of what General Allen now believes about the current state and future trajectory of the Afghanistan effort had already surfaced. Today’s conversation focused largely on the campaign as it is unfolding in Afghanistan, in somewhat greater depth than many of his other recent appearances have permitted. It highlighted several key realities about the war effort.
A major theme of General Allen’s public discussions this month in Washington have focused on improvements in the Afghan security forces. Last week in Congressional testimony he called them “better than we thought.” Today he went a bit further - not breaking huge news, perhaps - but explaining a few key things:
- The 201st and 203rd Corps of the Afghan Army, focused on the country’s east, are fighting impressively and being substantially augmented. This will compensate to some degree for the fact that ISAF troops available for operations in the east are somewhat fewer in number than originally planned, a year or two ago.
- Where Afghan unit leadership is competent and not corrupt, there is a general sense that Afghans are very good fighters and very good partners.
- Improving the quality of that military and police leadership, in cooperation with the Afghan national political leadership that must discipline and/or reassign problematic individuals, is “mixed.” But there is a trend towards slow and steady progress - which is part of why 137 of the Afghan Army’s 168 “kandaks” are now rated in one of the three top tiers of readiness, a major if somewhat subjective improvement from a year ago.
- Ethnic balance in the Afghan forces is reasonably good; the population shows confidence across ethnic and confessional lines especially in the nation’s army, and there remains considerable hope that the Afghan security forces can be the symbol and further catalyst of national unity in general
- Despite the tragic cases of “green on blue” violence with Afghan soldiers or police killing NATO troops, including another in the last 24 hours, and despite the reduction in trust this has engendered, the relationship between the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) and ISAF is still good and is manifested in tens of thousands of positive interactions and collaborations per day
- About half of these "green on blue" incidents are due to Taliban infiltration or indoctrination and the other half roughly to “self radicalization” or emotional instability or personal motives. They also lead to high numbers of “green on green” attacks in which ANSF personnel kill other Afghan soldiers and police.
There were a few other points of particular note:
- Reintegration efforts have stepped up, with almost 4,000 former insurgents having chosen to give up their arms and rejoin society, particularly in the country’s north and east.
- Reintegration has occurred in the east, but on balance insurgent forces there are likely hoping to make progress this year themselves, and ISAF is expecting a tough year of fighting ahead.
- The north and east, and Kabul, are reasonably secure despite the occasional spectacular attack.
- The east can be improved, through a layered defense and substantial work this year and next, even in the face of Pakistani/ISI support for the insurgents.
- Border cooperation at the tactical level among ISAF, Afghan, and Pakistani units is beginning to resume after the tragedies and other challenges of 2011.
A final point: While there is no guarantee of a strategic partnership accord being reached by the NATO summit in May, the two countries’ leaderships favor such a long-term arrangement and it seems likely to be worked out over time - though of course, the sooner the better in psychological and political terms.
The views expressed in this article are solely those of Michael O'Hanlon.