Afghanistan and “Failed State Wars”: The Need for a Realistic Transition
October 15, 2015
President Obama has decided on a limited change in U.S. strategy in Afghanistan. He will keep 5,500 U.S. troops in Afghanistan through 2017, rather than reduce the number to a nominal 1,000 or less deployed around Kabul at the end of 2016. An article in the Washington Post indicates that this will cost about $15 billion a year, about $5 billion more than the smaller, 1,000-person Kabul-based force.
The problem is, that like so many of the President’s decisions, this is an awkward compromise with reality. It is not conditions-based and designed to meet Afghan needs, but rather than absolute minimum a U.S. military responding to the President’s clear desire to leave by the end of 2016 could have asked for.
Too Low a Number, No Real Strategy, and Media that Don’t Ask the Right Questions
The new number is almost certainly too low to be effective. Like all of the President’s previous manpower totals, it is not explained and exploits news media that never seems to realize that total personnel numbers are almost meaningless as a measure of effectiveness.
There is no way to no how many personnel are now in – and will remain in -- given aspects of the train and assist mission, be involved in the counter terrorism force, have a role in providing air support, be dedicated to protecting other U.S. forces and the Embassy, or be involved in various logistic and support functions. There is no indication of what other kinds of support the U.S. will really provide, the role it expects its allies to play, U.S. goals in trying to improve various parts of the Afghan security forces, and the scale and distribution of future military aid and equipment transfers.
The White House has gotten away with announcing meaningless manpower totals in the past, rather that describing a real strategy. It seems to have little fear that the media will asking meaningful questions this time, probe hard, or examine the range of options that led to a 5,500 man total.
Too Little and Not Late Enough
What is clear from the problems in the present nominally 9,800 personnel effort is that the existing numbers are not adequate to meet Afghan needs, much less a 5,500 personnel figure roughly half the present total. The new total will only apply through 207, not be tailored to a realistic time scale. It will be far too little to properly cover every Afghan corps, much less major combat units. It will not be large enough to provide advisors and train and assist efforts that can deal with the Afghan police and local police.
It does not mark any clear commitment to keep some form of U.S. combat capability like the counterterrorism force to help in emergencies, and does not commit the U.S. to providing the combat air support which is the only way the U.S. can ensure that Afghan forces have the combat power to prevent more Taliban and insurgent victories until – and if – the Afghan Air Force can really become effective. It is to be blunt, a half-assessed compromise – rather than a shift that goes from simply set a deadline to getting out before the President leaves office to conditions-based strategy designed to meet enough Afghan needs to have a credible change of success.
Changes in the U.S. military effort that are lean and demanding might make the present 9,800 adequate, but lean and mean is not the present American way. Past contingency studies created figures around 13,000 military personnel and above and looked towards phasing out around 2020. Times may have changes, but too little too early has not reduced most requirements and may have increased them.
At a minimum, the President should explain the options, justify his choices, and describe a real strategy.
A Military and Not a Civil-Military “Strategy”
The other critical problem is that the military dimension is only half of a credible strategy. The Afghan forces may have recovered Kunduz –at least for the present – but the overall situation in the country continues to deteriorate in terms of politics, governance, economics and security.
The U.S. can only justify a meaningful military effort if it has both a strategy to deal with the Taliban and insurgent threat, and with the critical problems on the civil side. These problems are analyzed in depth in an updated briefing by the Burke Chair at CSIS.
This briefing examines current trends and metrics in depth, provides comparison data in key areas, and provides further evidence that Afghanistan cannot stand on its own and will requires U.S. help in terms of aid, train and assist support, and airpower well beyond 2016.
It is entitled Afghanistan and “Failed State Wars”: The Need for a Realistic Transition, and is available on the CSIS web site at http://csis.org/files/publication/150929_Cordesman_Afghanistan_Failed_State_Wars_1.pdf.
It has 21 main sections. The content of each section covers the following issues in detail:
- Key Lessons of “Failed State” Wars summarizes the key lessons that the U.S. should have learned to date.
- Uncertain Claims of Success highlights the fact that many U.S. claims of success to date are exaggerated and uncertain
- A Nation Under Acute Population Pressure and with Critical Ethnic
and Sectarian Divisions provides detailed tables and comparative charts and maps describing the impact of population growth, Afghanistan’s deep ethnic and sectarian divisions, and the impact of its exceptionally young population and youth “bulge” on the need for jobs to maintain stability.
- Key Civil Challenges provides a detailed analysis of the real world civil challenges that Afghanistan still faces and the extent to which the State Department and USAID have made exaggerated claims of progress and success. It provides metrics on Afghanistan’s level of corruption, human development indicators, real world progress in education, and how the Afghan people view such challenges.
- Uncertain Politics and Large Areas of Failed Governance highlights the critical problems in the quality of Afghan governance, and the political problems that limit public support and trust.
- The Corruption Challenge summarizes the problem of official corruption in Afghanistan, and highlights studies provided by Transparency International and others on how much of a threat corruption in the Afghan government is.
- The Budget Challenge underscores the key budgetary challenges facing the Afghan government and the fiscal challenges to Transition, including declining levels of aid, increased dependency on civilian and military aid, increasing government expenditures, and investment in the public services sector and physical infrastructure.
- Economic Challenges details the economic factors driving civilian unrest, including the slow rate of GDP growth, the threat of ignoring growing demographic pressures, corruption cost and impacts, and critical problems in governance and budgetary planning and execution.
- Economic Stability and Development Challenges highlighting major challenges that are not war related, including poverty and demography, aid dependence, security and fragility, corruption and governance, lack of confidence in private sector job growth, and societal differences and divisions.
- Poverty Challenge summarizes the growing challenges posed by Afghanistan’s lagging economy, and the demographic pressures of a society leaving the rural agricultural regions to find work in the cities, creating urban slums and exacerbating poverty.
- Business, Investment, Mining, and LoC Challenges highlights the barriers to investment, development, and doing business in Afghanistan, key problems in the transport, agriculture, and power sectors, massive dependency on outside aid and uncertainty of future aid.
- Narco-Economy Challenge underscores the challenges of Afghanistan shifting back towards a narco-economy, the pervasiveness of opium, cannabis and other drugs, problems with the counter-drug effort, the negative impact of power brokers and the Taliban, and the flow of Afghan drugs into Europe, Russia, and Asia.
- Warfighting and Violence Challenges highlights the continued levels of violence challenging Afghan stability, the failure of the Afghan “surge” in defeating the Taliban, and the continued threat posed by Afghan insurgents and extremist networks.
- A Focus on Tactical Outcomes Disguises a Lack of Meaningful Reporting on the Key Impact of the Insurgency: Growing Insurgent Influence and Control and Declining Support for the Government uncovers the problems in reporting, “Lying By Omission,” and underscores the threat levels of districts that have limited government presence or none at all, and the fact that 27 of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces suffer from violence levels rated “high” or “extreme”.
- Casualty Challenge details the discrepancy between reporting that disguises growing insurgent influence and increased casualty levels.
- ANSF Force Strength and Readiness Challenge highlights the most critical challenges to the Afghan National Security Forces, the heavy reliance on Afghan National Police forces to carry out paramilitary functions they are not trained for, and the lack of unclassified reporting on army and police readiness by the media and government officials.
- U.S. and Allied Transition and Force Levels underscores the failures of the Transition plan, the errors in delaying preparing for Transition, and the mistakes of decisions on troop reduction levels out of step with realities on the ground.
- NATO and US Advisory Manning Levels summarizes the missteps surrounding the advisory role, including not providing sufficient numbers of advisors, and misplaced advisory emphasis on sustainment and not combat.
- Afghan Air Force vs. US and Allied Air Support highlights the unworkable Afghan Air Force development plan that is disconnected with the actual combat needs, contributing to the reliance on outside air support.
- U.S. Civil and Military Aid warns of repeating the same mistakes the U.S. and Allied countries have made historically, namely cutting aid too soon, inability to follow through on aid commitments made at Tokyo conference and elsewhere, and the dangers of declaring “victory” and leaving Afghanistan to fend for its own with rising dependence on foreign aid and decreased development assistance.
- An Uncertain Pakistan highlights the critical but destabilizing role that neighboring Pakistan has in the stability of Afghanistan despite rhetoric and efforts at senior levels, underscoring the challenges of mistrust and high levels of violence.
- Post-2014 Security Challenge summarizes the key warfighting challenges, urges reshaping U.S. and other partner roles to win popular support, support the Afghan government and ANSF, shifting the response to address new and continued threats, encourages plans and strategies that address Afghan problems from an Afghan perspective, and demands meaningful reporting and net assessments that have been largely absent since 2012 and 2013.
Time for a Real Strategy and Real Transparency
The risks are simply too high to task about 5,500 men through 2017. Some 14 years of poorly structure strategies which never honestly assessed costs and risks, described real longer-term strategy in any detail, and made “whole of government” a slogan that never led to serious integrated civil-military efforts have wasted billions, cost American and allied lives, and left Afghanistan unready for Transition.
The white House need to start asking itself serious question about what a realistic civil military strategy should be, the costs involved, the risks, and whether a serious conditions-based effort is worth it. The Congress and the media need to put real pressure on the White House to do this, do it openly, and allow the kind of review and debate that will decide whether a meaningful U.S. commitment should be made.
The President’s 5,500 figure may be a way to leave office before the cost of a failed approach becomes fully clear, but it is not a strategy. It is also an effort in political expediency that may be a clear failure before the President make it to the exit door.