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Was it a good year in Afghanistan?

As 2012 draws to a close, we should all cast a thought to the roughly 68,000 American living in dusty military outposts in places such as Kabul and Kandahar who are celebrating the holiday season far from their loved ones. It has been a busy year in Afghanistan – U.S. forces have downsized by one-third, Afghans have assumed much more responsibility for the security of their country, NATO supply lines through Pakistan were reopened, and the U.S.-Afghan Strategic Partnership Agreement was signed. But the question remains: Are we really winning this war?

When assessing the facts and figures, it’s hard to separate spin from substance. Reaching any hard conclusions about where Afghanistan is heading is no easy task. For those who want to believe the mission is going badly or who believe the war is a distraction from more pressing American national priorities, it is easy to find dismal trends to make their case. For those still hopeful, it is comparably easy to identify signature successes that put the United States on track to achieving President Obama’s stated goal of ending the current mission by 2014.

Take the recent debate, spurred by the Pentagon’s December 2012 semi-annual “1230” report to Congress, on the evolution of Afghan security forces’ capabilities. That report identified only one Afghan army brigade in the top tier of readiness and no longer requires any outside help for its operations. Some critics have concluded that this illustrates the failure of U.S. efforts to develop strong Afghan security partners.

Admittedly, the Afghan National Security Forces, the country’s military and police forces, is a work in progress at best. But at a time when the ANSF lacks ample air power or logistics support, this is, in fact, inevitable. These deficits are almost by design, as such capabilities were viewed by NATO and Afghan officials as secondary priorities – to be emphasized once the core infantry force structure was built.

Beneath the surface, meanwhile, there have been significant improvements within the Afghan military. It is now near its full, intended size of roughly 350,000 soldiers. There are now 92 kandaks – formations of battalion size, or a few hundred soldiers – scoring in the top two tiers of readiness. That’s triple the number of late 2010, and 30 more than in 2011.

Leading missions

A better indicator of ANSF preparedness is the percentage of missions Afghan forces are now leading. This metric not only speaks to technical readiness, but to the commitment of the armed forces to the nation.

Encouragingly, these numbers are improving fast. A year ago, Afghan forces led less than 40 percent of all missions – today the figure is closer to 85 percent. Admittedly, this information does not tell us if the Afghan forces are leading the most challenging operations or how well they are doing, but it does tell us about their willingness to put their lives on the line for their country.

Other metrics are also on their way up. For example, about half of all Afghan security forces now have at least first-grade levels of literacy. The bad news, of course, is that this is a very low standard. The good news is that the figure was under 10 percent just two years ago, so progress has been rapid.

The casualty rate for Afghan forces is telling, too. Afghan army and police suffered about 1,000 fatalities a year from 2007 to 2009, then the figure grew to about 1,500 in 2010, 2,000 in 2011, and more than 3,000 this year.

This may sound as if the Afghan army is suffering more defeats with each passing year, but the story is more complicated than that. These high loss rates for Afghan forces suggest they are committed to and fighting for their country. Of course, such figures also indicate that the enemy is still resilient and dangerous, so the message is mixed. U.S. losses have declined as the ANSF has stepped up: Despite dozens of insider attacks this year – which thankfully began to slow toward year’s end – American fatalities declined from some 500 in 2010 and more than 400 in 2011 to around 300 in 2012.

For Afghans, of course, the big question is whether their nation is getting less violent. Here too, the statistics are mixed. The good news is that the numbers are going down, even as NATO starts to downsize. Fully 100,000 American “boots on the ground” worked to ensure peace and stability in 2011 – since the surge ended, that figure has declined by more than 30,000 soldiers. Many of the cities have seen notable improvements: Kabul remains quite safe, accounting for fewer than 1 percent of all nationwide attacks – with NATO troops providing very little of the security. Kandahar City and the northern hub of Mazar-e-Sharif are much improved, with attacks down 60 percent or more in each city this year. The western city of Herat is safer too, and the nation’s ring road, which follows the nation’s perimeter, is substantially more usable than a couple years ago.

The bad news, however, is that the 10 percent decline in violence nationwide is within the likely error margins, since not all violence is observed or documented by NATO or Afghan troops. As a result, it is hard to claim too much major improvement. And by other metrics – like the number of civilians killed by the Taliban – there is no progress at all.

Again, reaching a bottom line on what’s happening in Afghanistan is hard. There is grist for both hope and anxiety in such figures.

Afghanistan’s economy presents a similarly mixed picture. The good news is that it has consistently grown at a 6 to 8 percent clip in recent years. The bad news is that much of this growth is due to the twin stimulants of the huge foreign presence in Afghanistan and revenue generated from the opium economy. Even worse, widespread corruption means that wealth doesn’t always trickle down to those most in need.

Other indicators of how life is improving for Afghans are less ambiguous. Some 90 percent of the population has access to basic health care within an hour’s walk of their homes e_SEnD and as a result, life expectancy appears to have increased by more than a decade over the course of a few short years. Nearly 10 million children are in school, and more than 38,000 are enrolled in vocational schools, an increase of one-third over the last 12 months, preparing students for the types of jobs that Afghanistan’s economy actually generates. Electricity production is up fourfold since the mid-2000s.

Limited electricity

But even amid such statistics, there are troubling indicators. For example, access to electricity in rural areas as well as urban slums is quite limited, and increased power has mostly benefited the privileged urban elites.

President Hamid Karzai’s government is itself a mixed bag. He is personally popular and continues to poll well, with 70 percent of Afghans or more regularly saying they hold a favorable opinion of him. And more Afghans than not say their country is moving in the right direction: The latest figures from the Asia Foundation show a 52-31 favorable-unfavorable split when asked about the basic trajectory of their country. That’s better than in most recent years – or for that matter, most other countries in the world. But there are still enough disaffected Afghans to produce ample recruits for the insurgency, and uncertainty about the 2014 elections has led to fears about a possible return to civil war should the campaign exacerbate sectarian tensions.

As we prepare to ring in 2013, determining what lies ahead for Afghanistan remains a murky venture. It’s a close call as to whether the good news outweighs the bad, but there are certainly glimmers of hope. Anyone who claims to be able to predict the future there has a clearer crystal ball than we possess.

(Ian Livingston is senior research assistant in the Foreign Policy Program at the Brookings Institution. Michael O’Hanlon is senior fellow and director of research there.)

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