Afghanistan and Failed State Wars: An Update

The Afghan conflict has become steadily more complex with time, and also steadily more difficult to assess. The process of Transition during 2014 withdrew outside combat forces, and many aid, consular, and NGOs had to withdraw in the process.

The United States and its allies have lost access to many sources in the field, have cut back sharply on official reporting, and have often shifted from realistic assessments to public relations exercises that exaggerate success and either disguise key challenges or fail to mention them. Official Afghan reporting often seems to be generated by computer models that make detailed estimates based on only tenuous data collection.

Post-Transition Sources of Data

There are, however, a wide range of sources that examine key aspects of the fighting and the current situation in Afghanistan. Some European countries have provided assessments of insurgent strength. NGOs like the Institute for the Study of War and the Long War Journal have contributed regular analyses, as have major media sources like the New York Times, Washington Post, and BBC.

The UN has provided casualty and risk data that provide key insights into the fighting. A range of NGOs have also provided key data on the patterns of terrorism in Afghanistan and Pakistan, many drawing on the START data base and well as their own sources.

There also are important sources that examine the causes of instability in Afghanistan. These include data on governance, economics, and aid flows from international bodies like the UN, World Bank and IMF, as well as reporting by the U.S. Special
Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction (SIGAR).

They also include a number of NGOs as well as important survey efforts examining Afghan perceptions by the Asia Foundation, and critical data on population numbers and “youth bulge” issues from the UN, CIA, U.S. Census Bureau and USAID, and on population density, sectarian, and ethnic issues from a range of experts and NGOs, as well as data on corruption, narcotics, and human development.

There also is still an important flow of data on the progress of Afghan security forces, largely due to the efforts of SIGAR, and earlier reporting by the Department of Defense.

Key Limitations to Such Reporting

The data that these sources provide are complex, and often sharply contradictory. It is often necessary to extrapolate from a wide range of sources to get what is still a rough picture of basis trends. In some cases, it is also necessary to ignore or sharply discount given sources simply because they are clearly political in their content or based on models and data sources that are too uncertain to use.

Many of the sources that do have value make little serious attempt to define key facts and figures in proper detail, or assess their level of uncertainty – which is often “acute” at best. Both international organizations and governments seem to feel that some of the most critical aspects of analysis – defining one’s terms and stating uncertainty – are not required in official reporting. There often also is a clear attempt to avoid controversial or critical data and assessments – effecting “spinning” the outcome of Transition in favorable ways for political purposes.

Comparing Key Data, Metrics, and Maps

The Burke Chair at CSIS has prepared an updated rough working draft comparison and summary overview of key maps, metrics, and data on the fighting. It shows key trends, but focuses on the state of Afghanistan at the end of 2015 – nearly a year after Transition – and the role of Pakistan in the fighting.

This briefing is entitled Afghanistan and “Failed State Wars”: The Need for a Realistic Transition, and is available on the CSIS web site here.

The briefing has 23 main sections:

  • Key Lessons of “Failed State” Wars summarizes key lessons of the fighting and nation building effort to date, the need to address complexity, both civil and military trends, and provide suitable net assessments – lessons that have not been learned in practice.
  • Uncertain Outside Claims of Success versus Very Different Afghan Perceptions highlights the fact that many claims of success to date are exaggerated and uncertain, and are not supported by Afghan perceptions – many of which show a sharp decline in popular expectations and confidence.
  • 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. It highlights the fact that the pressure on Afghan security and stability are sharply affected by demographics, the “youth bulge,” and Afghanistan deep sectarian, ethnic, and tribal divisions.
  • 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 ion the quality of Afghan governance, and the political problems that limit public support and trust. The comparison of the trends in World Bank assessments of governance and Asia Foundation survey data of Afghan perceptions provide critical warning indicators.
  • The Corruption Challenge provides equally critical warning data. It shows why many Afghans do not trust their government – a warning reinforced by later data on the broad perception that the Afghan police are corrupt and there are serious problems in the justice system.
  • The Budget Challenge warns that the Afghan government is not meeting its goals for raising domestic revenues, and remains acutely over dependent on aid. It highlights the impact of other data showing the impact of aid and military spending cuts on key factors like employment and perceptions of progress. It also highlights the critical absence of any data that go beyond assessing the impact of the budget in terms of Afghan ability to spend the money available, the lack of any estimates of the impact of corruption and waste, and the lack of any reliable estimates on the impact of spending and measures of effectiveness.
  • Economic Challenges explores the key problems in Afghan economics and development – highlighting World Bank warnings about the impact of the Transition process, and SIGAR’s warning that the Tokyo reforms have effectively been abandoned and not replaced with any tangible course of action.
  • Poverty Challenge summarizes World Bank and other warnings that Afghan poverty began to increase well before Transition and that popular concerns over income and employment provide valid warnings of discontent.
  • Economic Stability and Development Challenges warn that Transition has led to serious problems in sustaining development and afghan perceptions of such progress. It also highlights Afghanistan’s acute dependence on a fragile and rain-driven agriculture sector, and a service sector that cannot be sustained now military and aid spending has been sharply reduced.
  • Business, Investment, Mining, and LoC Challenges warn about the myth of any major near-term wealth or increase in government income from mines, pipelines, outside investment, or concept like the “New Silk Road.”
  • Narco-Economy Challenge warns that the counter-narcotics program has been a dismal failure, that drugs are a far more critical aspect of the entire Afghan economy than many sources have been willing to admit, and that estimates based on farm gate prices are inherently ridiculous in a country where power brokering and narco-trafficking interact to create “value added” that goes far beyond farm gate prices and the grower.
  • Warfighting and Violence Challenge highlights the fact that the “surge” in U.S. forces in Afghanistan failed to have any lasting effect and the levels of violence have grown sharply in the process of Transition. A comparison of the previous civil trends, and overall trends in Afghan perceptions, shows the interaction between civil progress and violence, and that the Transition is not succeeding in its current form.
  • 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 provides a grim warning that a focus on tactical clashes, rather than the relative level of government and insurgent influence and control, marks critical failure in any meaningful and objective analysis of the course of the war, and that a lack of transparency and objectivity present dangerous risks in addressing real world warfighting problems. It is also again clear that assessments are so different that there is a critical need to improve the data and collection and analysis effort.
  • Terrorism Challenge provides a range of estimates in the sharp rise in terrorism in Afghanistan as well as metrics on these trends relative to those in other areas and countries. It also, however, raises serious question about how terrorism should be assessed versus fighting in insurgency and counterinsurgency.
  • Casualty Data provide further data on the trend in violence as well as important metrics on the fact that the surge in Helmand has proven be largely a failed, and violence is sharply increasing in the East and North.
  • ANSF Force Strength and Readiness Challenge provides an overview of the readiness of the Afghan forces and popular sympathy for the Taliban and other insurgents versus support for the Afghan Army and Afghan Police.
  • Ministry of Defense and ANA Forces and Readiness provides the official data on readiness. They do not provide meaningful assets of actual combat capability, or grave problems in the MoD.
  • Afghan Air Force vs. US and Allied Air Support again provides anodyne official data. The public reporting is essentially meaningless. It disguises grave problems in the ANSAF data, as well as the critical need for sustained outside air support from the U.S. and other allied countries.
  • Afghan Ministry of Interior Forces and Readiness provides similar data on the MoI and various elements of the police. Once again, the readiness data are largely meaningless and do nothing to illustrate either paramilitary capabilities or the ability to provide a functioning local justice system. Unofficial polling data do highlight broad levels of corruption in the police force, corruption that has extended in the past into much of the MoI and many elements of the Afghan justice system.
  • Afghan Ministry of Interior Forces and Readiness highlights the problems inherent in cutting forces to meet a deadline, rather than on a conditions-based level. New decisions to maintain a significant advisory presence through 2016 may help, but cannot correct for the lack of clear plans to extend the train and assist mission to Afghan combat units or provide the necessary level of air support.
  • U.S. Civil and Military Aid draws heavily on the work of SIGAR and others to show how critical aid remains, but also that past funding and program stability has been managed poorly and in ways that sharply limit the benefits of such spending. Reporting on the ongoing level of corruption and waste by SIGAR warns that these problems continue, but it is equally clear that rapid cuts could effectively undermine the Afghan Transition effort.
  • An Uncertain Pakistan warns that Pakistan remains an ally that is also a threat, and continues to play an important role as a sanctuary for insurgents.

A Cautionary Note

This is a working paper and will be revised over time. Comments, corrections, and additional material will be gratefully received.

More broadly, any summary of this kind presents several serious problems. It often presents data that were never designed for direct comparison, takes them out of context, and does not provide the narrative behind the data shown which is critical to a fully understanding.

It is a broad guide to issues that need further study and examination, and which have a critical impact on the course of the fighting and Transition, but it is not in any sense a definitive analysis. It also only represents material that is public and unclassified, the selection is the author’s, and so are the judgments made about the data presented.

The practical problem, however, is that some base is needed to provide an overview of the data available, its limits and differences, and how broad comparisons of the full range of factor shaping Transition can be displayed and sometime quantified. It is also all too clear that such a comparison often highlight critical problems in past decision making and areas that urgently need more policy-level attention.

Anthony H. Cordesman holds the Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

© 2015 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.

Anthony H. Cordesman

Anthony H. Cordesman

Former Emeritus Chair in Strategy