Afghanistan and the Growing Risks in Transition

It has become all too apparent that the Afghan election risks creating new political divisions and an even weaker level of leadership and governance in Afghanistan. The election, however, is only part of the story.

New reporting by UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) provide grim evidence that the “surge” in US forces in Afghanistan never produce any of the short-term benefits of the similar surge in Iraq and that US and ISAF reporting that minimize the Taliban and other insurgent threat and levels of activity is directly contradicted by a sharp increase in civil casualties on a national and regional level. Violence is sharply intensifying and Afghan forces have so far proved unable to cope.

These trends and casualty data are a clear warning that President Obama’s decision to limit the size of the US advisory mission immediately after the US combat role ends in December 2014, and then rapid cut the US mission to zero during 2015 and 2016 may well lead to major Afghan government defeats almost regardless of the outcome of the success or failure the current political struggles over the outcome of the 2014 election.

Similarly, new reporting by the World Bank and IMF shows that the problems in Afghan governance and the Afghan economy are far worse than is portrayed in US State Department, USAID, and Department of Defense reporting. They indicate Afghanistan will face major civil risks that equal or surpass the tactical outcome of the post-Transition fighting.

These patterns are complex and involve complex mixes of civil-military trends, but the current crisis in Iraq is a grim warning of what happens when the overall scale and complexity of the trends in a nation at war are ignored, “good news” is generated that is misleading or dishonest in character, and attention lurches from crisis to crisis without examining the overall challenges that must be met.

New Burke Chair Reports on the Security, Governance, and Economic Developments and trends

The Burke Chair at CSIS has been examining the military and civil patterns in the war, using official data and metrics, for nearly a decade. It is now revising its reporting to include the latest UNAMA/UNHCR. IMF, and World Bank data in forms that allow direct comparison with ISAF and US official data. The end result is a grim warning that the US government may be repeating the “follies” in Vietnam.

The US and its allies cannot proceed on this basis without losing the war. There are good reasons to debate whether US should persist in the Afghan conflict, and encourage its allies to do so, but it should lose or withdraw without taking such a decision openly, and without honestly addressing the challenge it faces and the real world cost-benefits of staying the course.

In doing so, it needs to be far more honest in addressing the capability of the threat, the weaknesses of the Afghan government, and the critical flaws in the current US effort. As the Vietnam War and recent events in the Iraq War have shown all too clearly, every serious counterinsurgency campaign actually involves at least three major “threats:” the enemy, dealing with partners and allies, and dealing with ourselves. A review of the trends in all three areas raises growing questions as together the U.S. and its allies can carry out a successful Transition in Afghanistan.

The Burke Chair has now comprehensively updated three related reports that deal with all three of these “threats,” and illustrate the current security threats in stabilizing the Afghan security forces; the post-election challenges to Afghan reconstruction; and the challenges facing Afghan governance and the Afghan economy.

The Burke Chair has prepared three reports that display the current trends and challenges in the Taliban threat, in the creation of Afghan security forces, in Afghan governance and the Afghan economy, and in official US reporting on the war.  


The Growing Crisis in Transition

These reports show a steadily rising risk that Transition will fail. They show that the “surge” in Afghanistan did not achieve anything like the positive results that the surge in Iraq achieved before US and allied forces left, and that Afghan security forces still have critical problems in quality and funding. 

The reports show that the risks on the security side are critical and rising. A detailed comparative examination of the full range of recent NATO/ISAF, US Department of Defense, SIGAR, UN, World Bank, and other reporting makes it it clear that the deadline of the end of 2014 is not “conditions-based.” It is rushing the development of Afghan National Security Forces in ways that present serious uncertainties and risks.

The rising trends in casualties and violence, and the limits to the progress in the Afghan National security Forces, all warn that the President’s May 27, 2014 decision to rush the withdrawal of US advisors and enablers poses critical risks. The President decided that, “At the beginning of 2015, we will have approximately 98,000 U.S. -- let me start that over, just because I want to make sure we don’t get this written wrong.  At the beginning of 2015, we will have approximately 9,800 U.S. service members in different parts of the country, together with our NATO allies and other partners. By the end of 2015, we will have reduced that presence by roughly half, and we will have consolidated our troops in Kabul and on Bagram Airfield.  One year later, by the end of 2016, our military will draw down to a normal embassy presence in Kabul, with a security assistance component, just as we’ve done in Iraq.”

These decisions have reduced the level and persistence of of  the US security advisory effort far below the past recommendations made by USCENTCOM and ISAF commanders. The level of effort at the start of 2015 has already been pushed down to the high-risk level. Further cuts will sharply increase the risk of failure in the period from 2015 to 2016, and the collapse of the ANSF. A failure to allow for the possibility that even the commanders maximum recommendations may require surges of enables like air power or additional advisors is not realistic.

UNAMA and the UNHCR reports issued in early July 2014 that show sharply rising levels of levels of violence and casualties. These reports provide strong indications that the ANSF will require a larger effort and almost certainly require a longer one. They also warn that the US must be willing to fund the gap between Afghan financing capability and the cost of supporting all of the elements of the ANSF through at least 2016, and probably beyond 2018.

More generally, the UNAMA and UNHCR reports reflects far more serious levels of threat activity that ISAF and Department of Defense reporting. When these levels of threat activity are compared to the full range of data on the strengths and weaknesses of the Afghan security forces, they also warn that the US must be prepared for a “conditions-based” increase in its military support if things go wrong.

At the same time, the reports show that the civil side of Transition will pose problems that are as serious as those on the security side, and will do regardless of the final outcome of the Afghan election. The data in recent World Bank and IMF reports warn that Administration, the State Department, and USAID have focused carefully- picked data and assessments of the civil progress in Afghanistan that sharply understate the problems the country will face as military and aid spending are cut and that undercut support for the government.

A comparison of the key trends in the latest NATO/ISAF, US Department of Defense, SIGAR, UN, World Bank, IMF, and other reporting document critical problems in the quality of governance, the ability to execute budgets and complex programs, corruption, demographic pressure, ethnic and sectarian divisions, and an economy that is so dependent on outside military and aid funding that its market sector could collapse unless the US and outside donors provide emergency support.

Such a comparison also shows that any examination of the uncertainty in the data on Afghanistan reflect far higher degrees of risk and uncertainty than the State Department, USAID, and some UNAMA reporting indicates. The UN Development Report, for example, indicates that Afghanistan is making progress, but lags far below two other extremely poor and divided countries – Nepal and Bangladesh.

The US may have to accept some form of failure in Afghanistan.  It has higher strategic priorities in Europe, the Middle East, and Asia, and finite resources. It must deal with a weak and uncertain Afghan partner, and one that has yet to show it can develop effective leadership an effective governance. For all of the negative trends and warnings reflected in the new Burke Chair reports, there are other data that indicate that a still limited but more realistic level of US effort might produce a relatively stable Afghanistan. 

A more realistic effort to support Afghan forces might well offer a much higher prospect of success.  The same World Bank reporting that provides level of realism on Afghan governance and economics that is sadly lacking in US official reporting now include plans that offer a more realistic and affordable path to acceptable levels Afghan governance and economics that dreams of a new Silk Road or sudden wealth in exploiting nation resources.

Anthony H. Cordesman

Anthony H. Cordesman

Former Emeritus Chair in Strategy