The Latest Official Report on Afghanistan

If you’re trying to explain to friends and family why you oppose the war in Afghanistan, you can find much useful information in the latest “Report on Progress Toward Security and Stability in Afghanistan.

The National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2008 requires that the
Defense Department, State Department, Director of National Intelligence, Attorney General, Administrator of the Drug Enforcement Administration, Administrator of the United States Agency for International Development, Secretary of Agriculture, and Secretary of the Treasury all sign off on this “Report on Progress” delivered to the Congress every 180 days.

The fifth such report has just been released. It does not in fact report “progress” but tells us, among other things:

The U.S. military has designated in Afghanistan 80 “Key Terrain districts” (“districts where the bulk of the population is concentrated, and that contain centers of economic productivity, key infrastructure, and key commerce routes connecting such areas to each other and to the outside world”) and 41 “Area of Interest districts” (“districts that, for a variety of reasons, exert influence on Key Terrain districts to a degree that renders it necessary to focus information collection and operational resources upon them to support operations in the Key Terrain districts”). These surround the three main highways linking the major cities.

The International Security Assistance Force (ISAF)—the international force which is overwhelmingly U.S. with diminishing NATO and other participation—only has “the resources to conduct operations in 48 focus districts.” Thus even as the U.S. forces climb to 98,000 by August by order of President Obama, ISAF will be unable to operate in most key districts. Several key generals have noted that the war cannot be won militarily. This report tacitly admits that victory would require a huge further “surge.” (This at a time when ISAF is planning an assault on Kandahar opposed by the local people and even the Karzai regime, which politically fearing too intimate an association with the invaders has invited the U.S. to fix a deadline for withdrawal.)

The report states, “Violence is sharply above the seasonal average for the previous year – an 87% increase from February 2009 to March 2010.” It spiked during the election last September. As U.S. troops sought to “stabilize” areas so that the balloting could be held—and upheld to the world as an instance of “democracy” conferred upon the Afghans by the invaders— Karzai rigged his re-election. (And got away with it, however much U.S. officials were obliged to express distaste. It’s not like they have many Afghans willing to work with them.) The increase in occupation forces has contributed to the increase in violence.

The report tells us: “The overall assessment indicates that the population sympathizes [as of March 2010] with or supports the Afghan Government in 24% (29 of 121) of all Key Terrain and Area of Interest districts.”

In its section on “Governance” the report provides figures on popular sentiment in the key 121 districts, as determined by a U.S. military commissioned poll. But none of the districts deemed “key” for military purposes are listed as “supportive” of the Karzai government. The chart doesn’t really show a rise in number of districts sympathetic to the government  over the time interval, since 38 were not assessed in the earlier survey. In December 2009, 33 out of the 83 assessed districts (40%) were pro-“insurgent” and that figure in March (48 out of 121) was still 40%. The pro-government figure is also virtually unchanged (23% to 24%). That leaves 36% of the districts “neutral.”  But in these districts surrounding the highways, the “insurgents” enjoy significantly more support than the Kabul government, and the war is strengthening them.

The report also makes clear that the Talibs are not the only “insurgents,” and that there are half a dozen different organizations fighting the government. There’s a  colorful map explaining what armed groups are here or there. It gives you a sense of the diversity of the fighters who are really a patchwork of Pashtun nationalists and others much less interested in a concept of global jihad than merely ridding their landscape of the unwelcome invaders’ presence. The war appears to be generating new resistance groups.

How do Afghans feel about the people providing “assistance” to them in achieving “security”? According to the report, 34% responding to a recent  Army-commissioned poll rate ISAF “bad” or “very bad,” compared to 30% who rated it “good” or “very good.” 34% rated it “fair.” In September 2008  only 28% thought ISAF bad or very bad, and 39% thought it good. It seems the persistence of foreign presence, and the mounting civilian casualties (producing indignation at all levels of Afghan society, even occasioning parliamentary walkouts) are turning more people against it.

The report notes, “Afghan women and girls can still be sent to prison for ‘moral crimes,’ including fleeing domestic violence or eloping. Many State Department rule of law and human rights programs help civil society organizations and Afghan policymakers advocate for reform of such discriminatory laws…”

In other words, all that pre-war hype (including from Laura Bush, taking over her husband’s weekly radio address in November 2001) about freeing the Afghan women from the burqa etc. was just that—cynical hype. The fact is the Afghan war proponents have all along tried to enlist women in their cause arguing that the invasion was necessary to liberate women. The point was not so much to liberate anybody but to vilify the Taliban for their misogyny for political propaganda purposes. It worked in the short term but now with all these reports of continued abuse of women (with the backing of current legal authorities) it gets hard for U.S. officials to posture as any kind of moral authorities in Afghanistan.

Having invaded and imposed regime change on a country where fundamentalist Islam and tribal tradition govern most people’s attitudes towards gender and sexuality, the U.S. can’t remove the burqa, impose the practice of educating girls, prevent the imprisonment of girls who resist forced marriage, or even ensure respectful treatment of elected female legislators in the Afghan Parliament. The military seems to be shrugging off these issues, along with that of the Afghan policemen’s proclivity to rape boys, as “cultural” issues.

Of course such things are cultural issues. For example, the practice of wealthy men retaining bacha bazi (dancing boys), often purchased from impoverished parents, has been widespread in northern Afghanistan for a long time.

In the south (Pashtun) regions there is the phenomenon of the ashna (“beloved boy”). The national police in northern Helmand province are less popular than the Taliban in part due to their history of kidnapping boys for sexual purposes, in line with longstanding tribal tradition. Members of the Alizai tribe loyal to a local warlord were appointed as police and used their power to terrorize the rival Ishaqzai tribe, which had supported the Taliban. One way they did this was by abusing boys. The locals drove them out and during the recent NATO offensive in Helmand expressed fears about their return. They prefer the Taliban.

Such practices persist following a regime change supposed to somehow liberate Afghans from the darkness of fundamentalist Islamist rule. Some U.S., Canadian and other foreign troops notice the moral contradictions and feel uncomfortable. They maybe wonder if this war they fight in tandem with the rapists is really a “war of necessity” to prevent another 9-11.

In the section on Afghanistan’s relations with its neighbors, the report suggests (without evidence) that Iran is providing arms to the Taliban while noting that “is inconsistent with their historic enmity, but fits with its overall strategy of backing many groups to ensure a positive relationship with potential leaders and hedging against foreign presence.”

In other words, if there is any cooperation between these historic enemies (the Sunni Taliban hates the Shiites and their Iranian revolution) it has been produced by the U.S. invasion and occupation of Afghanistan. (The fact is, Iran has sought and enjoys close diplomatic and economic ties with the Kabul government.)

Concerning Afghanistan’s relationship with Kyrgystan: “Importantly, we also have access to the Manas Transit Center in Kyrgyzstan, through which the majority of our combat troops transit on their way to Afghanistan.” Actually, this might be shut down soon. But it’s interesting to see how in this document Afghanistan’s foreign relations are viewed so narrowly and obviously though the lens of U.S. geopolitical objectives.

The fact is, the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan has destabilized neighboring Pakistan, producing groups calling themselves Taliban where there had been no Taliban before,  their influence now extending far from the border area into the Swat Valley. Pakistani Talibs are now threatening to attack the U.S.

From the report it looks like the government exerts greatest control in Kabul, Wardak, Nangrahar, Balkh, Jowzjan, Herat, Badgiz, Farah, parts of Helmand and Oruzgan, Ghazni and Paktia. But that’s less territory than the insurgents control. This despite $ 300 billion in U.S. military spending on the Afghan War and considerable outlays by allies. (Germany, has spent over 3 billion euros so far, while France spends about one billion euros per year on the Afghan occupation.)

How is it that these “insurgents” without substantial outside help (while rogue elements in Pakistan’s ISI may be providing assistance no government supports them) have been able to regroup and acquire growing popular support, while the U.S. allies become further estranged from the people, viewed with contempt as they grow more corrupt? One doesn’t have to support the Taliban, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar or any of the unsavory characters in the resistance to pose that question. Or to demand that the U.S. withdraw from a country where its presence is not the “necessity” Obama calls it but clearly unnecessary, unwelcome, increasingly destructive, regionally destabilizing and likely to provoke more anti-U.S. terrorism.

* * *

Reports indicate that Faisal Shazad, accused of attempting a bomb attack on Times Square, met with a leader of the Pakistani Taliban group (there are several) Tehreek-e Taliban and was attempting to retaliate for the U.S. drone strikes against Pakistan that have killed 700 civilians.

The Pakistani foreign minister, whose government has formally protested the attacks in violation of Pakistan’s sovereignty and international law, frankly terms the abortive bombing “blowback.”

That is to say: the U.S. can’t go on with its military aggression without inviting/inciting a response. The empirical evidence of the “Report on Progress” shows that more troops in Afghanistan simply produce more resistance. And bringing the whole region under U.S. hegemony, at a time when the U.S. is exposed throughout the Muslim world as a shameless defender of Israel, hell-bent under Israeli pressure to attack Iran, is a hopeless task.

Barack Obama is shouldering this task, justifying the effort as a matter of “necessity” produced by the 9-11 attacks. Maybe he figures more aggression will produce more blowback here at home. And more Homeland “terrorist” episodes will produce more sympathy for more war abroad. And even more “progress reports.”

GARY LEUPP is Professor of History at Tufts University, and Adjunct Professor of Religion. He is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa Japan; Male Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900. He is also a contributor to CounterPunch’s merciless chronicle of the wars on Iraq, Afghanistan and Yugoslavia, Imperial Crusades. He can be reached at:



Gary Leupp is Emeritus Professor of History at Tufts University, and is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa JapanMale Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900 and coeditor of The Tokugawa World (Routledge, 2021). He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, (AK Press). He can be reached at: