Afghanistan success is in eye of beholder

The young U.S. Army sergeant had lost nearly all the blood in his body by the time he was rushed into a military field clinic at this dusty base in eastern Afghanistan.

As his distraught unit mates converged on the surgical suite, some of them weeping, the entire camp pitched in for an emergency blood drive. But military doctors’ frantic efforts were futile, and Sgt. John A. Lyons, a 26-year-old from New Jersey who had studied Latin in college, died of the wounds he had suffered in a Taliban ambush.

As the U.S.-led war against the Taliban grinds into its second decade, the life-and-death struggle taking place daily across Afghanistan has gotten entangled in increasingly divergent narratives of the Western war effort. In this high-stakes phase of a waning conflict, perceptions of success have become crucial, perhaps more so than reality.


PHOTOS: A decade of war in Afghanistan

Yet even as the question of what constitutes success has become more urgent, it has become more difficult to pin down.

With an American troop drawdown underway and expected to accelerate in the coming year, the NATO force insists that violence is declining, that the insurgency’s strength is flagging and that Afghan forces are demonstrating a growing ability to take the lead in safeguarding the country.

Many Afghans, however, subscribe to a darker view: that daily life has grown more perilous, that national and local governance has become even shakier, that the country’s police and army are chronically unable protect its citizens, and that the Taliban movement is hunkering down to wait out the Western presence.

Recent months have seen escalating tension over so-called metrics that can be used to chart either progress or deterioration.

In an unusually public instance of clashing statistical analysis, NATO’s International Security Assistance Force declared last month that enemy attacks had dropped by nearly 10% in the first nine months of the year. But the United Nations, citing its own figures for an overlapping period, reported that violent incidents had jumped by almost 40% in the first eight months of 2011.

Ghazni, the rundown capital of the province of the same name where Lyons was killed Oct. 26, is on a provisional list of areas to be next handed over to the control of the Afghan police and army. That follows the summer’s security transfer of an initial group of seven cities and provinces. Nationwide, the process is to be completed within the next three years.

But this arid swath of terrain south of Kabul, the national capital, contains some of the country’s most “kinetic” areas, military-speak for the level of violent incidents and confrontations with insurgents. Many in Ghazni fear that Afghan security forces cannot begin to cope with the threat posed by the Taliban and other militant groups.

In at least four districts of the province, the Taliban movement has set up shadow governments, complete with courts, tax collection and its own harsh brand of law enforcement, said Mohammed Arif Rahmani, one of Ghazni’s representatives in the national parliament. Even in the provincial capital, Taliban commanders have sufficient sway to order a ban on music, in an echo of the harsh edicts in place when the movement ruled Afghanistan.

“Generally, people don’t really incline toward the Taliban,” Rahmani said. “But the levels of corruption and insecurity make them prefer the Taliban over the government.”

As an example, he cited inaction after local people complained to officials that they were being robbed and menaced on a particular stretch of road.

“Then we complained to the Taliban,” he said. “And they arrested the robbers, took what had been stolen, returned everything to the owners, and told the people, ‘Any time you face trouble because of thieves, you come to us, and we’ll take care of it.’”

He and other officials said local qualms about Afghan forces’ will and readiness to step up had been brushed aside. “The foreigners have decided to hand over security responsibility,” Rahmani said. “So there is really no choice.”

In Afghanistan, the Obama administration has shied away from setting specific “benchmarks” to be achieved before the American combat mission ends. The U.S. ambassador, Ryan Crocker, who served in Baghdad before taking up his post in Kabul, said he did not believe such measurements provided a true picture of progress.

“You can achieve every benchmark and still fail. Or you can meet none of them and be successful,” he said. “You have to view the situation through a wider aperture.”

Success in Afghanistan, he and other senior Western officials say, could be defined on some level by basic security that can be maintained by Afghan security forces, and the existence of a government that can provide essential services such as healthcare and education.

But there are intangibles as well.

“If parents have expectations, say, that their children will have a better life than they do, that’s part of it too,” Crocker said.

Although hopes and anxieties are hard to quantify, even statistics can offer competing versions of reality. The recent disparity in figures on violence can be explained in part by the fact that the North Atlantic Treaty Organization figures documented attacks on Western and Afghan troops, while the U.N. measurement was broader, encompassing those against civilians as well.

But assessments differ, too, over the degree to which insurgents are able to disrupt daily life and inspire fear among ordinary Afghans. Western military officials tend to speak dismissively of ambitious operations mounted by the insurgents, such as September’s 20-hour siege of the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, calling them a sign of desperation.

After a series of “spectacular” attacks this year, however, many people living in the Afghan capital are rattled as never before. The falling price of Kabul real estate has been cited by some as an indicator of rising security fear.

For many Americans, of course, the only statistics that matter now are the billions of dollars expended in Afghanistan, and the numbers of troops killed and wounded here. At least 1,833 U.S. service members have died in the conflict, according to the independent monitoring website

On Thursday, hundreds of people turned out in Seaside Park, N.J., for a solemn procession honoring Lyons, the Army sergeant killed in Ghazni. He had been scheduled to come home in December, a few days before what would have been his 27th birthday.

At the field clinic in Ghazni, one of the military doctors who struggled to save him described a “full-court press” in the operating room, despite the fact that the gravity of Lyons’ wounds had left him with only the faintest of life signs.

“Emotionally, it’s very hard,” said Air Force Maj. Brian Holt, a trauma surgeon from St. Louis who was a member of the team that day. “There are certain injuries that haunt us, as surgeons. You can’t save them all.”

PHOTOS: A decade of war in Afghanistan