The Afghan War: Reshaping American Strategy and Finding Ways to Win

By Anthony H. Cordesman

The U.S. strategy in the Afghan War remains one of “creeping decrementalism.” It still seeks an exit at the earliest possible time that does not result in a direct collapse of the Afghan government and Afghan forces.

When President Obama issued yet another statement regarding Afghanistan on July 6th, and once again delayed his plans to cut the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan, he took action that had already become almost inevitable. Even though he had announced his plan to cut U.S. troop levels to 5,500 by the end of 2016 less than a month earlier, a level of only 5,500 troops risked critically weakening Afghan forces and quickly losing the war. Unfortunately, keeping the level at 8,400, however, is at best a half measure in meeting Afghanistan’s real needs.

The United States needs a far more serious, and zero-based review of its strategy in Afghanistan. The United States should seriously examine its prospects for success, and conduct the kind of “strategic triage” that examines the trade-offs between staying and withdrawal. If the United States decides to stay in Afghanistan, it needs a “conditions-based” strategy that is realistic about the need for a long-term U.S. effort, that offers a serious prospect of a lasting military victory, that can win the support of the Afghan people, and that can build sustained U.S. public and Congressional support.

If this president can still act, the United States needs a strategy that can at least try to avoid making Afghanistan an unnecessary pawn in the bitter Presidential campaign, give the Afghans a clear incentive to make critical reforms, and provide a proper legacy for the next president. If such a review has to wait on the new president, the time is long overdue for the kind of comprehensive net assessment that can develop a credible plan of action, and be presented to the Congress and the American people.

These issues are examined in depth in a new Burke Chair study entitled, The Afghan War: Reshaping American Strategy and Finding Ways to Win.

The study has the following table of contents:

Adopting a Conditions Based Military Strategy

The study argues that critical changes are still needed in the size and nature of the U.S. military train and assist, combat support, and combat missions. The Afghan War is likely to be lost or drag on indefinitely without them. Making the right changes, however, requires far more objective analysis of the fighting and the progress being made by the various insurgents. It also requires a zero-based net assessment that focuses on determining actual Afghan needs, rather than a focus on further U.S. force reductions and setting near-term deadlines for near total withdrawal.

The U.S. needs a military strategy that looks beyond the tactical dimension and focuses on the extent to which the insurgents are making serious gains in controlling given areas and depriving others of security. It needs to examine the ability of the security forces to deny the Taliban and other insurgents control over key elements of the Afghan population and territory. It means providing security, and not simply winning tactical victories. It also means providing the Afghan government with the capability to govern.

It seems unlikely that this will require major U.S. combat units. It seems clear, however, that the U.S. will need plan for an extended effort. It will need to provide more combat air support, limited additional ground elements to help Afghan forces in a crisis, and it will need a far more pervasive train and assist mission that extends down to a limited presence in Afghan combat units, that can push the entire chain of command to become more effective, and that focuses on creating effective Afghan warfighting capability rather than training and generating more manpower.

Determining the right goals, however, will require the U.S. government to stop “spinning” its analysis of the fighting in favorable ways. The U.S. needs to make major changes in the way it assesses and reports on the fighting. It needs to examine the full nature of the threat, and to treat the Afghan government in real world terms. This means honestly assessing the many weaknesses, corruption, and failures in the present Afghan security forces and the overall structure of Afghan governance and politics, and treating them as part of the threat.

Giving the Civil Dimension of Counterinsurgency the Same Priority as the Military Dimension

At the same time, the United States needs a strategy that fully recognizes that counterinsurgency warfare has a civil dimension that is as important as the military one. The U.S needs to give the civil side of the war the same strategic priority as the military. This does not mean spending far more on the civil side, or to seeking to transform Afghanistan into a modern state with different values. Wasting money on such efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan has already proved to be a dismal and expensive failure.

It does, however mean paying proper attention to the fact that counterinsurgency and irregular/asymmetric wars have to be won on the civil-military level – not just the military level. It requires the U.S, to go from a “hole in government” approach to the equivalent of a “revolution in civil-military affairs.”

This kind of “nation building” does not require the U.S. to take on “mission impossible,” but it does mean making U.S. military and civil aid and support dependent on enough Afghan reforms to allow the government to fight effectively, win popular support, and meet the urgent needs of its people.

The Afghan government must show it has achieved enough political unity to actually win a war and serve the Afghan people. This starts with cutting corruption and power brokering to functional levels, and it means actually implementing Afghan economic reform plans rather than endlessly recycling new versions and stopping after declaring the intention to act. It means focusing Afghan reform plans on urgent popular needs and the fact this is likely to be a war than last for another half decade, and as well adopting other key reforms identified by bodies like the IMF and World Bank.

Imposing conditions on other states is scarcely popular with aid donors and even less so with recipients. However, the functional and ethical need to impose such conditions is too clear in the case of failed states like Afghanistan. What passes for non-interference leaves the nation’s people without support and buys time for failed regimes to make things worse.

If the U.S. decides to provide the levels of military support and civil support that reflect the actual conditions in the war, it needs to impose “conditionality” on an Afghan government and political structure that has kept Afghanistan the equivalent of a corrupt “failed state.” Indeed, the host country regime the U.S. and its allies are seeking to protect has become as much of a threat to creating a meaningful outcome to the fighting as the Taliban and other declared enemies.

The Need for Strategic Triage

The need for a successful U.S. intervention in Afghanistan should not be taken as a given. The U.S. should make an equally objective analysis of the impact of U.S. withdrawal at a time it has so many other strategic priorities, and the Afghan government presents so many problems. No commitment to a limited war should ever to be open-ended if the partner country is not ready to do its share, and strategic triage always should be a key part of U.S. planning.

As Hans Morgenthau pointed out decades ago – giving way to the American tendency to turn war into a moral crusade where the enemy is demonized and the ally’s limitations are ignored. The U.S. has many competing domestic needs and other strategic priorities. The U.S. should not withdraw if it can find a cost-effective way to win that matches the strategic value of an effort that is now taking place in a state at the margin of U.S. strategic interest and is no longer the center of a far broader terrorist threat.

As Robert Osgood also pointed out in the 1950s – at the height of the Cold War – limited wars are wars the U.S. can afford to leave or lose. A U.S. departure from Afghanistan would not materially impact global perceptions of a war that has already been too long and too uncertain for world opinion to see it as critical. There is also a reasonable chance that states like China and Russia would be forced to act, Pakistan could be ignored, and that Afghanistan would be caught up in internal power struggles that would keep any given extremist movement from becoming a major threat to the U.S. and its allies.

The “Threat’ From U.S Politics

Timing is already a critical issue. Ideally, the U.S. needs to make such changes as soon as possible. It is unclear, however, that further progress can be made under the Obama Administration. What is clear is that the Administration has other priorities and that it feels it has already taken steps that will make the Afghan War a legacy for the next President that will come to office in 2017. In spite of the debates of past years, Afghanistan is simply not a critical item on the present U.S. political agenda.

It is one of the many ironies of the current Presidential campaign that the United States is now involved in five wars: Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and Libya. Three of these wars—Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria—involve serious U.S. military commitments that began in 2001, 2003, 2014 respectively, and all will clearly last far beyond the end of the Obama Administration. Yet, none of these wars has become the subject of serious policy discussion or debate in the 2016 campaigns, or a key focus of either Clinton or Trump. Each war continues without a full discussion or debate over the strategic goals the United States has in fighting such wars and how they can be ended.

The focus on the Afghan war has been largely on how to cut the U.S. effort. The focus on Iraq, Syria, and Libya has been on defeating ISIS with no clear picture for what each state should become, what will happen to its divided sectarian and ethnic factions, how Iranian and Russian influence can be limited, how they will interact with their neighbors, or what will emerge in terms of terrorism or extremism once ISIS is driven out of its “caliphate” and dispersed. The focus in Yemen has been on helping the Saudi-UAE led coalition to defeat the Houthi-Saleh coalition and restore the “elected” government without any clear focus on what comes next.

If the U.S. is to be ready to take more effective action to support the Afghan forces and government in 2017, however, the key U.S. planners and analysts directly involved in the Afghan war need to act now, and look beyond the time-buying compromises that have been made to date. Action in Afghanistan has long lead times, and the U.S. has focused far too much on the military dimension of the conflict to the exclusion of taking effective action on the civil side.

The Congress also needs to change its approach as much as the Executive Branch. The Congress has failed to carry out its mission of properly evaluating how U.S. resources are being allocated and spent, and official U.S. reporting on the war lacks a focus on effective action. If the U.S. is to be ready for more effective action in 2017, it needs to consider its options now as well as plans for change. It also needs to move from deadline-based efforts at the military level to conditions-based efforts and recognize that action on the civil side is urgent and means-making aid conditional on Afghan reform.

Anthony H. Cordesman

Anthony H. Cordesman

Former Emeritus Chair in Strategy