Is Afghanistan safer, or isn't it?

The UN and Petraeus appear to disagree.

Musadeq Sadeq/AP
The outgoing U.S. and NATO led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) commander in Afghanistan Gen. David Petraeus claps, as he welcomes the new NATO-led International Security Assistance Force commander in Afghanistan, U.S. Gen. John Allen, during a changing of command ceremony in Kabul, Afghanistan, Monday, July 18.

With NATO handing over security control of parts of Afghanistan to local forces today, and with US top commander Gen. David Petraeus's departure from the theater declaring the war is on the right track, you'd think it's been a good summer so far for US forces and President Hamid Karzai in Afghanistan.

But it's getting increasingly hard to parse the real nature of the war, particularly since the statements of US officers like General Petraeus on the security situation are dramatically at odds with some of their international partners.

It's hard to know who to believe. And that's a problem for anyone trying to make informed judgements about how well the war as going as many NATO partners start to pull out and US forces plan a drawdown of their own.

At his departure ceremony Monday, Petraeus told the officers and soldiers gathered to hear him: “You and our Afghan partners have wrested the momentum from the enemies of the new Afghanistan in much of the country." He added: "Contrary to intelligence analyst forecasts of significant further increases in insurgent attack levels this year, the number of attacks the past two-and-a-half months was actually less than the number for the same period last year, even though there are over 80,000 more Afghan and ISAF forces this year and we have been on the offensive."

The United Nations has a very different take in its reports on the second quarter of 2011 and on the first half of the year, though perhaps the UN is using different metrics.

It's possible that when Petraeus says "attacks" are down he's referring to attacks on NATO troops or some other limited measure. Also, the 2-1/2 month period Petraeus refers to – May, June, and the first two weeks of July – may present a different statistical picture than the April-May-June period looked at by the UN.

But a June 23 report from the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) to the UN General Assembly reported a sharply deteriorating situation in the second quarter of the year. "During the reporting period, the number of security incidents was 51 percent higher than in the same period in 2010," UNAMA wrote. In the second quarter of the year, 1,090 civilian conflict deaths were recorded by the UN, a 20 percent increase during the second quarter of 2010.

Overall, the UN has presented a grim picture. Whereas Petraeus told the troops Monday, "you have taken away from the insurgents important areas in the former Taliban heartland, in places like Central Helmand Province and Kandahar," the UN said that Kandahar is the most violent place in Afghanistan.

The UN's report for the second quarter says "the city of Kandahar and its surroundings registered the majority of the incidents during the reporting period, with a quarter of the overall attacks and more than half of all assassinations recorded countrywide."

The southern city, a Taliban stronghold prior to 2001, is a patchwork of warring business interests, Taliban supporters, and tribal rivalries. President Karzai's brother Ahmad Wali Karzai was the city's preeminent strongman and political fixer until his murder last week. The US has spent billions on offensive operations and development projects in the area in the past few years.

The UN overview on the first half of the year also shows momentum going in the other direction. Georgette Gagnon, UNAMA's director of human rights, told a July 14 press conference that 1,462 "conflict-related" civilian deaths were recorded in the first six months of this year, up 15 percent from the same period last year. She said that "80 percent [is] attributed to anti-government elements, an increase of 28 percent in civilian deaths from the same period in 2010."

The UN said that 191 civilians, generally key tribal figures or government officials, were assassinated in the first half of 2011, up from 181 in the first half of last year. The UN said that May was the deadliest month for civilians in the country since 2007. "Suicide attacks have increased significantly since March 2011, with 17 suicide attacks in April, including five complex attacks, a higher number than any month in 2010."

Petraeus, who's returned to Washington to run the CIA, acknowledged that the Taliban is not fading away, and indirectly complained that the group is using Pakistan to stage attacks inside Afghanistan.

"Afghan and ISAF forces clearly are engaged in a tough fight against an enemy willing to carry out the most barbaric of attacks, an enemy willing to target civilians indiscriminately, an enemy who wants to turn the clock back several centuries in Afghanistan rather than to allow this country to move forward and take its place in the modern world," he said. "There is nothing easy about such a fight, especially when the enemy can exploit sanctuaries outside the country."

Afghanistan is still a very troubled place. Terrorist attacks and assassinations have increased in frequency inside Kabul – the latest the murder of pro-Karzai warlord Jan Mohammed Khan on Sunday. And local practices that many in the West find distasteful are not confined to Taliban areas, as the UN points out in its quarterly report. Women are particularly vulnerable.

"Women and girls who flee their homes due to abuse or threats of forced marriage are often charged with the crime of adultery or the intent to commit adultery," the UN reported. "During the reporting period, the Supreme Court has upheld convictions of women victims of rape for the crime of adultery, with sentences of up to 15 years imprisonment. UNAMA continued to document incidents of violence against women, including 'honor killings' in Badakhshan and Kunduz Provinces and the arrest and detention of women and girls for running away from home in Nangarhar and Paktya Provinces."

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