The Afghan-Pakistan War
May 20, 2009
President Obama and top US officials have made it clear that the United States is not winning in Afghanistan. Put differently, the United States and its allies are winning at the level of tactical military encounters, but they are losing in political terms and in terms of Taliban and Jihadist influence and control. At the same time, Pakistan has become increasingly more unstable, with growing Pakistani Taliban, Deobandi, and other Jihadi influence moving out of the broader areas and becoming a threat at the national level.
The Burke Chair has developed a briefing that highlights the full range of strategic challenges and threats the US must meet to win in both Afghanistan and Pakistan. This briefing, however, focuses on the US ability to execute a “clear, hold, build” strategy in Afghanistan, as well as on the trends in the fighting and in those aspects of Afghan capabilities that do most to shape US and NATO/ISAF capabilities to execute such a strategy.
This brief, entitled The Afghan-Pakistan War: “Clear, Hold, Build” is available on the CSIS web site at: https://csis-website-prod.s3.amazonaws.com/s3fs-public/legacy_files/files/publication/090520_afpak_clear_hold_build.pdf
It looks beyond the trends in attacks and casualties to summarize recent polling data on Afghan perceptions, NATO/ISAF reporting on the growth of Afghan forces, and trends in Afghan conditions of life. It examines trends in the economy, governance, and the impact of narcotics. It also looks at key aspects of aid activity as they affect a “clear, hold, build” strategy.
The metrics presented in this briefing are generally updated to either the end of March or the end of April 2009. It should be noted, however, that it is not yet possible to provide more than the crudest indication of what combinations of forces, advisors, Afghan government officials, and aid personnel can be deployed to implement such a strategy. The new approach to the War that President Obama announced in conceptual terms on March 27, 2009 has not yet been described in terms of detailed plans or any unclassified assessment of the estimate force ratios and deployments that will be carried out during 2009 and 2010.
The data that are available indicate that the US, allied, and Afghan forces, governance, and aid levels planned to date will present serious risks – particularly if the Afghan government remains as limited in effectiveness and as corrupt as it has been to date. Serious questions also arise as to whether a war of political attrition is winnable as long as the FATA and Baluchi border areas in Pakistan remain near sanctuaries for Al Qa’ida, the Taliban, Hekmatyar, and Haqqani forces, and rising numbers of foreign volunteers.
This, however, is impossible to quantify even in crude terms, and several factors may well make victory possible. One is the extremism of all the Jihadist forces and the possibility that their very “success” may alienate many of the Afghans they seek to control. The second is steady build up of Afghan security forces, embedded advisors, and partner units. The third is the build up of US forces and the fact that advances in areas like precision firepower and situational awareness make many of the traditional estimates of the number of US and friendly forces required to win a counterinsurgency campaign suspect at best.
There are also two key uncertainties that are illustrated in the briefing, but cannot be addressed in detail. One is the sharp contrast between the relatively restricted number of areas where there is active combat and the far larger areas of sufficient Taliban and Jihadist presence to create a major risk for aid workers. The key to winning a counterinsurgency – and to implementing any form of “clear, hold, build” strategy – is not to defend the entire country or to win tactical clashes or battles, but rather to establish lasting security and a viable government presence in the most critical and the most threatened areas. None of the unclassified metrics currently available credibly address this issue.
This raises the second key problem. All of the current metrics cover the entire country, but a “clear, hold, build” strategy is implemented locally. There are no meaningful local break outs of how much security the current mix of US/NATO/ISAF/Afghan forces can provide; there are no metrics on the level of governance and government services versus Jihadist influence and control; and there are no metrics on the economic issues and impact of aid in such discrete combat and high risk areas. Some of these metrics exist at the classified level, and some do not seem to have been developed in coherent or credible form.
It is the ability to actually implement each key phase of “clear, hold, build” in key districts and population centers, and to transition to Afghan rather than US/NATO/ISAF operations, that will determine victory or defeat. At this point there certainly is nothing approaching a credible unclassified baseline or plan, and there are strong indications that no reliable classified metrics are available as well. Given the limitations on US and allied resources, effective force and aid allocation makes creating such metrics and plans an essential part of victory.