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Wednesday, April 7, 2010 as of 11:14 AM ET

Foreign Policy

Conor Powell

Afghanistan

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Signs of Optimism in Afghanistan

January 11, 2010 - 10:12 AM | by: Conor Powell

For most of the past year, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the top American military commander in Afghanistan, described the situation in the war torn nation “as serious and deteriorating.”

Yet in recent weeks, senior military commanders are now describing the situation in Afghanistan as “serious but no longer deteriorating.” Though at the same time, acknowledging the situation in Afghanistan is still “very fragile.”

“We’re cautiously optimistic.” says Lt. Col. Edward Sholtis, a spokesman Gen. McChrystal. “What was a deteriorating security situation across the country now is not getting worse in places and is getting better in some places.”

From a distance, their improved outlook seems odd.

Taliban leaders believe 2009 was the most successful year of the insurgency. U.S and coalition troop deaths hit record highs. A corrupt presidential election divided the international community and severely damaged the reputation of Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

According to analysts’ estimates, the Taliban made substantial gains across the country – and now have a “significant” presence in 33 of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces. And senior U.S. Intelligence officials say the insurgency is as well organized and unified as ever.

Since the summer, insurgents have seemingly been able to strike just about anywhere at any time – even well guarded international and western facilities.

In August, just days before Afghanistan Presidential election with security supposedly high, insurgents passed through multiple checkpoints and attacked the ISAF headquarters in Kabul – killing seven Afghans and wounding nearly 100.

In October, a bomb exploded outside the Indian Embassy in Kabul killing a dozen people – then just days later, gunmen stormed at U.N. guesthouse killing six U.N. employees and two local workers.

And most recently, a Jordanian double agent killed 7 CIA agents in Eastern Afghanistan after he was invited on to a remote CIA base.

Yet a new report by the Chief of Intelligence in Afghanistan, Gen. Michael Flynn, helps explain why military commanders are “cautiously optimistic” about 2010.

On July 2, nearly a thousand marines fanned out across Northern Helmand Province  – a long time Taliban stronghold. At the time, the Afghan government lacked a local presence, markets were empty, and the Afghan villagers “often refused to make eye contact with U.S. troops for fear of retaliation from Taliban fighters.”

Five months later, Gen Flynn describes the situation in Nawa as “radically different.”

Saying: “Insurgents find it substantially more difficult to operate without being ostracized or reported by farmers; government officials meet regularly with citizens to address their grievances, removing this powerful instrument of local control from the Taliban’s arsenal; the district center has transformed from a ghost town into a bustling bazaar; and IED incidents are down 90 percent.”

Gen. Flynn says success is due to many reasons but points to one important factor:

“Many local elders, it turned out, quietly resented the Taliban for threatening their traditional power structure. The Taliban was empowering young fighters and mullahs to replace local elders as the primary authorities on local economic and social matters.”

Gen. Flynn and other military commanders see Nawa as a blueprint for the rest of Afghanistan. And hope its success can be replicated.

If it can’t, their cautious optimism won’t last long.

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