The Afghan Civil Transition Crisis: Afghanistan's Status and the Warnings from Iraq's Failure

For more than a decade, the U.S. and its allies have been issuing claims about the progress being made in Afghanistan, and have tended to focus on success as measured in holding elections rather than the quality of governance and real world economic progress.

It is now a matter of months before the U.S. and its allies withdraw virtually all of their combat troops from Afghanistan. As yet, the U.S. has no meaningful public plan for transition, has not proposed any public plan for either the civil or military aspects of transition, and remains focused on the quality of the Afghan election rather than the quality of the leadership, governance, and conditions of Afghan life that will follow.

The United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) – the organization theoretically in charge of assessing and coordinating all international aid in Afghanistan - has never written a single report on the overall structure and progress of aid. USAID and DoD have failed to demonstrate they have reliable methods of accountability for aid spending, and neither have developed overall plans for Afghan development or any reliable measures of effectiveness.

It is unclear that any other donor nations have done better, or that the Afghan government has made serious progress in their ability to handle the civil problems of Transition or carry out the key reforms they pledged at the Tokyo Conference.

The Burke chair has expanded past reports to provide a summary overview of the civil challenges Afghanistan faces. This report provides a graphic assessment of UN, World Bank, CIA, SIGAR, Transparency International and other data that show the seriousness of the problems in Afghan governance and economics entitled Afghanistan’s Civil Transition Challenges: Governance and Development Indicators. This report is available on the CSIS web site at

These challenges do not mean that the Afghan government cannot carry out an effective civil transition in 2014 to 2015, but they may well mean that the U.S. and other donor states must be prepared to help Afghanistan through far more serious problems in governance and economics than they currently budget for.

They also provide a striking comparison to a similar assessment made of the failure to develop Iraq, and the gross corruption, failures, and human rights abuses of the Maliki government in Iraq. These failures are laid out in detail in another Burke Chair report entitled Hitting Bottom: The Maliki Scorecard in Iraq, which is available on the CSIS web site at

Taken together, the data on Afghanistan and Iraq are a grim warning about the shortfalls in the US and other outside efforts to transform the civil government and economy of both Afghanistan and Iraq, and the limits to what can be accomplished in any real world counterinsurgency operation. They warn about the need to be far less ambitious and far more honest about the limits of outside aid and intervention, and to develop far more competent and well-managed aid efforts tied to realistic plans, metrics, accountability, and measures of effectiveness.

The comparison between Afghanistan and Iraq is particularly striking because of the degree to which it warns that even the most successful elections are not a credible path to success, and because Afghanistan has no past base of economic development or equivalent to oil wealth to help it through Transition.

As other Burke Chair reports show, these challenges are further compounded by the fact that Afghanistan has made far less progress in security than Iraq has made at the end of 2011 – although the Maliki government has largely thrown that progress away. These Burke Chair reports include:

Anthony H. Cordesman

Anthony H. Cordesman

Former Emeritus Chair in Strategy