States Of Conflict: An Update

Michael E. O'Hanlon, Director of Research and Senior Fellow, Foreign Policy, 21st Century Defense Initiative
Sunday, April 10, 2011

Leaving aside all the new conflicts in the Middle East, how are our nation's longstanding struggles in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan going?

Iraq had the best winter of the three. Bombings by insurgents continued, but the disputes over last year’s general election finally tapered off, and the waves of revolution that affected much of the region mostly missed the country. There may be rougher times to come, as United States forces are supposed to withdraw entirely by the end of December, likely leaving big issues like territorial disputes between Kurds, Arabs and Turkmens in the north unresolved. But Iraq is going through a period of at least temporary stability, and oil production and the economy are inching upward.

Pakistan recently suffered two high-profile assassinations — of the former governor of Punjab Province and the minister of minorities — and its civilian government remains quite weak. Fortunately, the military continues to consolidate control in the tribal regions and surrounding areas where Pakistan’s own insurgents have been strongest. The big question for 2011 is whether it will do the same in the border areas that provide sanctuary to the Afghan Taliban.

With the global recession finally ending, this is also an important year for economic growth, particularly after last year’s devastating floods. Development will bring better prospects for stability — and the future of the world’s second-largest majority Muslim state, with the world’s fastest-growing nuclear arsenal — depends upon such matters.

Afghanistan has seen the most action. Gone, it seems, are the days of quiet winters there. Violence has been frequent this year — partly because of mild weather, partly because of the work by the NATO -led International Security Assistance Force and Afghan troops to consolidate their gains against insurgents in places like Kandahar, but also because the enemy is resilient and vicious. While the overall security trend seems mostly favorable, progress is slow. Assassinations remain a serious threat. Some headway has been made on fighting corruption — perpetrated by Afghans and worsened, often inadvertently, by foreigners — but not enough.

Perhaps the best news is the progress that has been made in building up Afghanistan’s security forces, which are ultimately NATO’s ticket home. But there is much work to do, which is why Secretary of Defense Robert Gates warned last month in Brussels that any troop reductions this summer would probably be modest.