President Obama today declared that his strategy in Afghanistan and Pakistan is "seeing significant progress," but that is not necessarily matched by conditions on the ground -- especially when you speak to Afghans living with conflict every day.
The strategic review released Thursday lumps Helmand and Kandahar provinces in Afghanistan together as the places where progress is being made. But an ABC News/Washington Post poll, released just last week, suggests that while Helmand has made huge improvements, Kandaharis are deeply doubtful that the future will be positive.
Case in point: two-thirds of all municipal jobs in Kandahar City are unfilled. People are just too scared to work for the government because the Taliban remain strong enough to assassinate anyone they want. And that's in the city -- some of the rural areas are even less secure.
Then there are the provinces that haven't had a surge of U.S. and NATO forces. In many of these areas, insurgent momentum is actually positive.
In the west -- rural Heart and Badghis, along the Iranian and Turkmenistan borders -- fighters from Helmand have arrived in recent months to launch a targeted assassination campaign and to make the roads too dangerous to travel. Conditions are much worse there than they were a year ago, according to local residents.
In the North -- in a large swath from Faryab in the northwest to Takhar in the northeast -- criminality, vacuums of governance, and warlords have combined with Taliban to reduce the writ of the government. The best measure of that: you simply cannot drive from anywhere in the north to Kabul without being stopped by the Taliban, who scan cell phones for evidence of work with Westerners or the government. Conditions there are worse than they were a year ago, according to local residents.
At the same time, it's important to note that there are pockets of success around Kunduz, where a U.S. surge brigade landed this summer. And targeted killings by U.S. and Afghan special operations forces have weakened insurgent groups. But Afghans say that hasn't translated into improvements in their lives.
"There's less awareness than we need to have because we're not there," the official said.
The review acknowledges that the gains are "fragile" and perhaps "reversible." Part of the blame is laid on Pakistan's decision not to launch a major operation in North Waziristan, from which the most dangerous Taliban group (the Haqqani Network) floods into eastern Afghanistan. But while the U.S. does need more help from Pakistan, laying the primary blame on Afghanistan's neighbor only deflects from the U.S.' own difficulties inside Afghanistan.
Worsening conditions are not only reflected by Afghans living in these areas. They are also reflected by development workers, some of whom have lived through three wars in Afghanistan -- and say conditions today are worse than they have ever been.
Just yesterday, the International Committee of the Red Cross in Kabul held an extremely rare and downbeat press conference to declare that conditions in the country -- in terms of their ability to do their work -- hadn't been this bad in 30 years, since the organization first arrived here.
"The proliferation of armed groups threatens the ability of humanitarian organizations to access those in need. Access for the ICRC has over the last 30 years never been as poor," said Reto Stocker, the Red Cross director for Afghanistan. "The sheer fact the ICRC has organized a press conference ... is an expression of us being extremely concerned of yet another year of fighting with dramatic consequences for an ever-growing number of people in by now almost the entire country."
The ICRC doesn't blame only the Taliban. It blames a collection of insurgent and criminal groups, which exploit huge pockets where there is no governance and no U.S. troops. And it predicts that the violence will be worse than ever in the spring -- an assessment that the U.S. military agrees with.
"In a growing number of areas in the country, we are entering a new, rather murky phase in the conflict in which the proliferation of armed groups threatens the ability of humanitarian organizations to reach the people who need their help," Stocker said. "One armed group may demand food and shelter in the evening, then, the next morning, another may demand to know why its enemy was given sanctuary."