The Afghan War: Creating An Afghan Capability to Win

By Anthony H. Cordesman

The Burke Chair at CSIS has updated its reporting on the Afghan War, and issued a major new report entitled The Afghan War: Creating An Afghan Capability to Win . The updated report is available on the CSIS web site at:

This report addresses the key causes of the problems that the Afghan government and security forces now face, as well as the fact that the “enemy” is only part of the threat. Enabling Afghan military forces to defeat their enemies at the tactical level is only part of any meaningful form of victory. Today, Afghanistan faces the following eight threats:

  • A mix of enemies that now includes the Taliban, Haqqani network, ISIS, other elements linked to Pakistan, and has little incentive to seek a real peace as distinguished from trying to exploit peace negotiations as a form of war by other means.
  • A U.S. ally that failed to properly resource the development of Afghan forces until 2011, attempted to rush force development to meet an arbitrary withdrawal date of end-2014, and has since never properly sized its security or civil aid to meet the real world conditions on the ground, but rather slowed its withdrawal of an already inadequate military and train and assist effort.
  • A U.S.-led military aid effort that focused on tactical victories rather than “hearts and minds” and the political realities of the insurgency. This effort consistently understated the reemergence of the Taliban and other enemy forces, lacked realism in reporting on the true pace of Afghan force development, never came firmly to grips with Afghan corruption, and accepted a withdrawal schedule that was clearly too quick.
  • A U.S.-led civil aid effort that was never properly linked to the security and stability needs of Afghanistan, and failed to create an effective integrated civil-military effort. The civil aid effort made even more exaggerated claims of progress, did not deal with Afghan and outside corruption, put far too many resources into project aid and the use of Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs) to buy temporary support, and did not realistically plan for the impact of post-2014 cuts in military and aid spending on the Afghan civil sector.
  • Afghan national security forces that remain unready to fight and divided on many levels, weakened by corruption at every level, lacking in air power and mobility, sharply affected by the number of missing or ghost soldiers, and focused on tactical victory.
  • Afghan national security forces that remain divided into military, police, and local forces where the military forces are largely the only elements capable of directly fighting the Taliban, Haqqani network, ISIS and other factions . The police and local forces cannot “win,” but also lack the capability to hold and deal with the ability to enforce security and justice—in part because of the corruption and failures of the civil government from the central to the district level.
  • A divided and deeply corrupt Afghan civil government whose limited reforms have not met its people’s needs or expectations, where rule is still largely by power brokers rather than from “Kabulistan,” and which is steadily losing the confidence and support of its people .
  • A de facto threat from Pakistan —a supposed ally—from Iranian and Pakistani expulsion of refugees, and from Russian support of the Taliban.

The updated report provides a detailed analysis of these threats and the problems caused by the failures of past U.S. Administrations to properly structure and resource U.S. combat support forces, and military and civil aid missions necessary to support Afghanistan. It also addresses critical failures in the Afghan government that threaten its survival and military success.

It includes a detailed analysis of key weaknesses in U.S. allied train and assist, counterterrorism, and combat air support missions, and in the security efforts of the Afghan government. It also addresses key problems in the Afghan civil sector, in politics, governance, corruption, the economy and winning Afghan popular support.

The report suggests significant changes to the U.S. military mission in Afghanistan that shift from a deadline-driven withdrawal strategy to a conditions-based strategy that provide the resources needed to help Afghan forces until they are truly ready for transition. Many of these changes have also been proposed by Gen. John Nicholson, commander of the U.S. forces in Afghanistan, and some have evidently been endorsed by Secretary of Defense, James Mattis during his recent visit to Afghanistan.

The report also suggests major shifts in the U.S. civil efforts from one focused on development to one focused on addressing the key weaknesses in Afghan politics and governance, and meeting critical Afghan civil needs and winning popular support.

At the same time, the report suggests that any such U.S. and allied effort must be made firmly conditional on actual Afghan reforms and performance, and that continued Afghan failure should lead the United States and other outside states to seriously consider ending aid and withdrawing from Afghanistan.

The Table of Contents of the Report include:

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