The Afghan War: A Campaign Overview
June 7, 2010
Finding the Path to Victory: The Afghan Campaign and the Tools Needed to Win It
The US and its allies have made major progress in developing an effective campaign plan, and in providing the resources needed to win the war, since changes in strategy and leadership took place in mid-2009. The reality is, however, that much still needs to be done. The so-called surge in troops and civilians is only now beginning to be fully in place and many of the key steps necessary to fully implement the new strategy are not yet defined – much less in place.
The Burke Chair has developed two reports that address these issues. The first summarizes the campaign plan and the key issues involved. The second addresses the need for far better focused and more transparent reporting on the war – both within ISAF and at the public level.
The Campaign in June 2010
ISAF and the US now have a well-defined campaign plan and have put most of the resources necessary to implement it in place. For the first time in a war lasting more than eight years, there is some practical prospect of victory. At the same time, military efforts have at best halted the momentum of an insurgency that now has influence in most of the country, still has a near sanctuary in parts of Pakistan, and has been able to exploit years of a near power vacuum in many key districts of the country.
This mix of potential success and enduring threats is reflected in a Burke Chair report that summarizes the current metrics on the campaign plan and efforts to implement it. This report is entitled The Afghan War: A Campaign Overview and is available on the CSIS web site at http://csis.org/files/publication/100607_AfghanCampaignSummary_0.pdf.
It provides a mix of metrics and analysis that shows that there is now both a credible campaign plan and a definition of an “end state” for the war which is actually achievable. At the same time, the same data warns that the legacy of eight years of critical mistakes and underresourcing can still easily lose the war. It is still far from clear that the mission can be accomplished:
- The Ability of the Insurgent Threat to Adapt and Respond.The insurgent threat may still be relatively small and unpopular, but it has expanded into a near power vacuum in many areas of the country, and key ISAF leaders agree that its momentum has been arrested but not yet reversed. Its divisions cost it some capability but complicate attacks on its hierarchy in spite of growing successes by US UCAVs and elite forces. It has now had eight years of experience in irregular warfare, and has created far better trained cadres. For all of its weaknesses, it is often less abusive, and virtually always far less corrupt than the various elements of the Afghan government. It has learned to avoid direct combat when this only brings defeat, to infiltrate and create shadow governments, and exploit its ties with Pakistani extremist movements, Al Qa’ida, and a variety of foreign movements. It will win if it can adapt and outlast ISAF and GIRoA in a war of political attrition.
- Far too much of GIRoA is still part of the “threat.” The Afghan government has honest and capable elements at every level, but their impact is outweighed by a virtual kleptocracy at every level from the President’s office and family through Provincial and District Governors down to the lowest levels in the field. Eight years of capacity building have had limited effects. Training and advisory efforts are often more than offset by the constant flow of military and civilian contract and aid money to power brokers and corrupt officials. Afghan politics have become more divisive and power oriented since the election campaign in 2009, civil servants and judges remain grossly underpaid, and the efforts of the many honest Afghan officials and civil servants are either hamstrung or countered by the wealth and power of power brokers, cronies, and the corrupt. The lack of Afghan government integrity and capability remains a more serious threat to winning the war than the Taliban, and it is still unclear that the US, ISAF, and allied governments can work with honest and capable Afghans to counter this threat during the course of the coming campaign.
- There is still a critical lack of unity of effort and effectiveness within ISAF. The international command structure of NATO/ISAF has shown considerable strength, competence, and unity. The nations who contribute, however, still apply caveats and restrictions to key national forces that gravely limit their effectives. Pledges to provide trainers and mentors for the ANSF are not kept. Parts of the Afghan population are not properly protected. Military contracts of all kinds, including virtually every road shipment, often lack sufficient control to avoid empowering corrupt officials and power brokers, police and other elements of the ANSF, and sometimes the Taliban.
- The situation is worse in terms of foreign aid. Far too many national efforts are little more than boutique programs that meet the needs of capitals, but not Afghan needs in the field. Far too much money goes to politically incorrect, but unachievable goals. Far too little money goes to meeting Afghan needs and expectations that are critical to winning an ongoing war and supporting a population-centric strategy. Efforts to proper manage and coordinate aid are weak and ineffective, and UNAMA has yet to show that it can effectively report on aid efforts, much less manage and coordinate them. The sacrifices and risks taken by aid workers in the field are offset by mistake made in Kabul and national governments. Moreover, all of these problems are compounded by short tours in country, “national branding” that funnels aid to meet goals set by capitals and not Afghan needs, excessive leave and force protection policies, lack of transparency and accountability, and a kind of “ticket punching” where military and aid officials strive for artificial accomplishments during short tours of duty.
- This is war, not post conflict reconstruction. Integrated civil-military operations must begin to be successful in the field in 2010-2011, or the war will be lost. As far too many of the metrics in the briefing warn, these problems in the ISAF and aid efforts are only part of the story. The population-centric strategy is the last chance that the US and ISAF have to win; there is no tolerance for another new start or strategy. Success depends, however, on civil-integrated military progress. It depends on showing that a combination of ISAF, Afghan forces, aid workers, and the Afghan government can really bring security, acceptable levels of governance, and some degree of economy progress to Helmand and Kandahar, and sustain the progress in the East. It depends on proving that enough progress is being made in other areas to end the near power vacuums that insurgents have exploited, and to significantly reserve – not simply arrest Taliban momentum. This can only be accomplished by building on the model of tight, fully integrated civil-military efforts that now exists only in RC East. It also requires fully developed, integrated civil-military plans and efforts are ready for the operation in Kandahar and be expanded in Helmand. This cannot be accomplished by relying on concepts that are not supported by joint, credible plans, or by accomplished by papering over a lack of civil-military coordination with polite rhetoric, leaving stovepiped aid operations (“silos of excellence”), or demanding the impossible of civil and aid staffs. Buzzwords like “state building” and “governance-led” need to be replaced with realistic civil-military goals and expectations, actual execution of key initial programs over the coming months, and measures of progress and effectiveness that reflect both Afghan perceptions and build outside confidence and trust.
- US, ISAF, UNAMA, national aid, and NGO efforts that support power brokers, and that corrupt Afghanistan, must be clearly brought under control. Up to 40% of all foreign aid goes to corruption, security, and overhead. In many cases, aid money does more harm than good because it flows to a wealthy and corrupt group of power brokers and officials – doing more to discredit the Afghan government and international presence in country than win support. The same is true of a large part of in country military expenditures and contracting -- particularly the funding of private security forces and militias outside and concealed with the ANSF. Anti-corruption efforts will at best be symbolic, and normally only create scapegoats and shift the balance among power brokers. The lack of validated spending requirements, transparency, auditing and accountability, and meaningful measures of effectiveness on the part of outside forces is the primary source of gross corruption in Afghanistan and often directly funds the insurgency. Metrics and narratives must show the corrupt and in capable are bypassed, and capable Afghans at the central government, provincial, district, and local levels get funding and support.
- Forcing the pace in developing Afghan National Security Forces can lose the war. The ISAF and US are just creating the kind of training and force development effort needed to win. The key equipment sets needed for training will be fully available for the first time in mid-2010. However, there will still be crippling shortfalls of trainers and advisors. Efforts to rush expansion of the Afghan Army mean the training cycle is far too short – particularly to create whole new units in a force where virtually all of its day-today leadership lacks adequate numbers of junior officers and NCOs and cadres with practical experience. This will be partly offset by far better efforts at partnering between ISAF and Afghan forces, but the progress that will result is still experimental and unproven. In spite of all of the improvements underway, there is a serious risk that Afghan forces will effectively be used up in combat and extended service and be far from ready to being transition in 2011. Quantity remains the enemy of quality, and even a year’s more time in reaching present goals could make a war-winning difference. This is especially true of the ANCOP forces – the key paramilitary element of the police. Current plans will almost certainly use this force up, rather than develop it on a sustained basis, and NTM-A needs to be given the time and resources to correct this and other key problem areas in ANSF development.
- A new realism is needed in dealing with the rule of law, police, corruption, and narcotics/organized crime. There still are critical gaps in linking police development to the creation of an effective criminal justice system and practical rule of law. The police face immediate needs to mix counterinsurgency with prompt justice, but an emphasis on a formal, Western-style rule of law is tied to goals that can only be achieved over a decade or more if ever. Afghan society is dependent on the prompt resolution of key disputes and crimes. This requires a systematic effort to blend formal and informal justice in ways that can operate almost immediately in the populated areas that are cleared and to be held as part of the coming campaign. It requires far more attention to the overall patterns of corruption and power brokering that affect every aspect of police, prosecution, and judicial activity – as well as providing adequate pay and security for judges and prosecutors. It also requires a new degree of realism as to what can be achieved in strengthening Afghan governance. Anti-corruption drives produce little more than token scapegoats and broadening them seems unlikely to succeed and will lead to significant political battles. Ending the corrupting effect of military and aid contracts, empower honest and effective Afghan officials and officers, cutting off funds and visa to their opposites, offers at least some hope of reducing levels of corruption to those expected and tolerated by the Afghan people. This, however, means a new degree of realism in the US and other outside efforts.
- Success occurs at local levels defined in terms of specific population centers and groups, and local conditions, not in terms of nationwide narratives and metrics. Like politics, all forms of counterinsurgency and armed national building “is local.” The war -- and effective civil-military action and economic development -- will be won or lost in a series of key local campaigns, and “shape, clear, hold, build, and transition” efforts tailored to local and regional conditions. Success means shifting away from a focus on nationwide trends and the central government, and dealing with these realities. It means facing the true complexity of the war, and the fact that national metrics and surveys often hide far more than they disclose. If ISAF, national governments, and aid workers cannot accept the complexity of Afghanistan, and the need to fight and develop by creating transparency in ways that focus on key campaigns and regional problems, they will lose the war.
- Timelines based on national politics, exaggerated expectations, and past failures can lose the war before it can be won. Key countries like Canada and the Netherlands are withdrawing their forces in 2011. President Obama’s efforts to cap the size of the US military effort have been broadly misinterpreted as a sign the US plans to start major withdrawals after mid-2011. A lack of transparency and honest official reporting, failure to show credible progress, unrealistic goals and expectations have all combined to make the war unpopular in many ISAF and aid donor countries, and may still have that effect in the US. On the one hand, setting unrealistic timelines and expectations risks pressuring ISAF into trying to do too much, too quickly. On the other hand, it undermines faith in the US and ISAF commitment to stay in Afghanistan and continue to support Pakistan. It emboldens insurgents in their war of political attrition. It pressures Afghans and other in the region to hedge against US departure and compromise with insurgents. More broadly, it distorts the basic realities of an effective campaign plan.
This list of ongoing challenges may seem discouraging, but it is striking that only two of ten points on this list relate to Afghan problems and weaknesses. The other eight are the product of US, allied, UN, and aid donor mistakes made over the last eight years. All are correctable. None require new levels of combat troops, or major increases in commitments of money and civilians beyond what is already programmed. Limited progress will often be enough to have a major impact, and exaggerated expectations are often as much of a problem as current levels of capability and performance.
In many cases, what is needed most is to stop issuing concepts and undefined “strategies,” and drill down to create effective plans, implementation, and measures of effectiveness. This is often already taking place in parts of the field; the key issue is realism in capitals – one of which is clearly Washington.
Analyzing, Fighting, and Reporting on the Afghan-Pakistan War
No one approach to providing the proper mix of metrics and narratives in analyzing, fighting, and reporting on the Afghan conflict is “right,” and no unclassified, outside analysis cannot assess the fully range of what the US, ISAF, and allied countries are already doing. Moreover, the tasks involved include trying to deal with multiple “centers of gravity” in which US civil-military splits, other divisions within a 46-country alliance, problems in GIRoA, the fact this is both an Afghan and Pakistan conflict, and a foreign aid effort which is often decoupled from the reality that Afghanistan is at war all combine to vastly complicate the problems in providing an adequate mix of narratives and metrics.
Accordingly, the Burke Chair has developed a report that focuses on the full range of problems in the reporting and metrics the author saw in a recent trip to Afghanistan, and has seen in US, ISAF, UN, and other reporting over the last eight years. This report is entitled The Afghan War: Metrics, Narratives, and Winning the War and is available on the CSIS web site at http://csis.org/files/publication/100524_AfghanCampaignMetrics_0.pdf.
To the extent that the complex mix of issues contained in this report can be summarized for discussion purposes, they are condensed into the following six points:
- The narrative will always be the key message, not the metrics. Metrics should support the narrative.
- There needs to be far more focus on metrics and narratives that show progress in key operations and in meeting key challenges – rather than trying to map every aspect of the war, and create some kind of integrated model.
- It is far better to provide the best and most relevant metrics and narrative for a given operation/challenge at a given time, than to seek nation-wide coverage and consistency over time.
- GIRoA, power brokers, and other internal issues in Afghanistan, coupled to the problems in executing a US/ISAF/UN civil-military program, pose at least as great a challenge as the Taliban and other insurgents, and metrics and narratives must reflect these facts.
- Key problems remain in presenting anything approaching a convincing picture to show there is a realistic civil-military campaign plan through mid-2011, and in shaping the longer-term strategic narrative for 2012 and beyond. Strategic patience must be earned.
- Every aspect of the narrative and metrics needs to focus on long-term credibility, building the base for both truly integrated civil-military operations in the field, and enduring Afghan, Pakistani, regional, US, and Allied trust. It is time to dial back expectations and reporting to the point where narratives and metrics consistently underpromise and where the campaign consistently overperforms.
There are, however, two key thrusts of this report that do merit additional mention. First, any successful effort must drill down on the lack of effective civil-military coordination and tangible, credible, well-managed plans to back military success with the civil efforts needed to win. Second, a fundamental shift is needed in timeframe to reflect the reality that success requires a campaign plan which goes well beyond 2011 and probably beyond 2015. And third, the US, allied governments, ISDAF, and UNAMA need a fundamental shift in accountability and transparency to win (and deserve) the level of lasting popular and legislative support they need to win.