Afghanistan and Obama
April 12, 2010
It has been over a year since President Obama announced the outline of a new strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, and well over half a year since the appoint of General McChrystal and Ambassador Eikenberry has led to newefforts to define and implement that strategy in practical terms. However, the Obama Administration has yet to address most of the key issues that now shape the ability to implement that strategy.
The Administration has failed to address the most critical aspect of “strategic communications:” Providing the American people and the Congress with a clear picture of progress in the war, the broad structure of US plans, and some picture of the timelines involved and the future costs of the conflict. There has been no meaningful transparency, and the Administration’s credibility depends almost exclusively on a leap of faith.
The Department of Defense: A Grade of D+
The Administration has issued one useful document which is available on defenselink – an update of the Department of Defense “biannual” Report on Progress toward Security and Stability in Afghanistan.” See the publications section of the defenselink website at:
The cutoff date for this document, however, is September 2009. The document is also so poorly scanned that the graphics are almost completely unreadable. It provides some useful detail and history, but it does not describe the current situation and—more importantly—it is part of a series of reports on Iraq and Afghanistan that have never attempted to put forth any clear plans for the future. Even the DoD web page describes it as a historical document and promises an update—but with no set time it will issue this update.
The only other major report from the Department of Defense—also available at defenselink—is little more than the kind of rubbish governments issue to claim success when they are actually failing. This report is entitled United States Plan for Sustaining the Afghan National Security Forces. See the publications section of the defenselink website at:
This paper adds up to a web of lies by omission. It is largely factual, but it relentlessly dodges around the major problems in the Afghan force development effort that led to a total reorganization of that effort in the fall of 2009. In fairness, it too is described on the Department’s web site as historical, and only goes up to June 2009—before the President’s new strategy could have an impact, and before an effort could be made to correct more than seven years of mismanagement, a lack of proper funding and resources, and unrealistic force development goals. DOD also promises to update this report. .
Less visibly, the Defense Department has increased its effort to reach out to think tanks and other elite policy makers, but this is scarcely a substitute for an almost complete lack of official reporting available to the American people. One should not have to have a full time job studying Afghanistan in order to receive credible reporting on the war.
The Department of State: A Grade of F-
The Department of Defense, however, has at least done something. The State Department has never provided any meaningful public reporting on its role in either the Afghan or Iraq Wars. Its web site is little more than an intellectual vacuum, filled with topical spin. It has never provided any meaningful picture of its aid efforts, limiting the reporting it does provide to gross descriptions of the status of expenditures and “gee whiz” data on aid efforts. It has never shown that its aid efforts meet valid requirements, or how they are tied to winning major counterinsurgency campaigns; nor has it shown that it has any process for evaluating contractor performance, measuring the effectiveness of individual projects, or measuring the overall impact of its aid projects in meeting nation-wide needs and the urgent priorities of war.
This seems to reflect the fact that nearly a decade after 2001, the State Department still has no clear operational structure for managing either the civilian side of the war, or the aid efforts that are critical to winning a counterinsurgency campaign. Although our Embassies in Baghdad and Kabul have made real efforts – at least in recent years – to develop integrated civil-military plans, the State Department remains publicly decoupled from its operational role in warfighting, and responsibility for coordinating the civilian partners the military need.
Indeed, this all too apparent in State’s Report on Progress toward Security and Stability in Afghanistan.” While these data reflect the situation before the “surge” in civilians coming out of the new strategy, they send a striking message about the role civilians were playing as “partners” in the war in Afghanistan. The US military had 1,101 personnel assigned to the Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs), but only 965 of them actually in place. The State Department had 12 assigned (11 on-hand), USAID had 12 assigned (12 on-hand), and USDA had 12 assigned (12 on-hand). In short, DoD more than 30 times as many people working the most critical civilian functions in the war as all other branches of government. Moreover, these personnel were spending a total of $331.2 million in Commander’s Emergency Reconstruction Program (CERP) funds and $273.5 billion in non-CERP funds.
The Overall US Government: A Grade of “Incomplete” and De Facto Dropout
More broadly, the US government has never provided a coherent analysis of the details of the overall civil-military effort in either the Afghan or Iraq War, and still fails to provide any detailed analysis of overall costs and projection of future costs. It has never provided any meaningful overview or analysis that looks at both the Afghan and Pakistani side of the wars.
The Bush and Obama Administrations have dodged around making any meaningful projection of the future in every year of both wars—evidently hoping that if they fail to report on the scale and timeframe of its probable future commitments to combat and stability operations, no one will challenge their policy rhetoric on the grounds that it so far has proved to be about as credible as the emperor’s new clothes.
ISAF and Intelligence Reporting: A Grade of C+ or B- but the Average is Improving
If there is a bright side to this situation, it lies largely in two areas. One is the unclassified reporting and metrics coming out of ISAF—largely on the intelligence side. Until the McChrystal team was put in place, both ISAF and US command reporting constantly understated the expansion of Taliban and insurgent influence, focused on tactical operations and related forms of violence, and issue updates that always tried to present the situation in favorable terms. All of this occurred while the Taliban went from a nearly zero presence to a serious presence in more than 40% of the country and raised the number of its shadow governments from none to one in every province by Kabul.
At the same time, no effort was made to provide an honest net assessment of how popular reactions to the war were affecting the course of combat and the success of Taliban and other insurgent groups. There was no meaningful net assessment of the role and impact of Afghan governance and justice system, of the effectiveness of the Afghan national security forces (ANSF), or of the impact of either civil or security aid. The problems in the Karzai government—and the impacts of the complex mix of Afghan corruption, power brokering, narco-trafficking, and links to the Taliban—were largely ignored or excused.
No one was willing to address the national constraints and limits on the use of given ISAF forces, or the lack of coordination, honesty, and effectiveness in national economic aid efforts. The end result was politically correct, to provide aid and comfort to the enemy, allow it to create a major insurgency, and vastly increase the number of Afghan, US, and allied casualties.
It is important to note that these were far more intelligence and policy failures in Washington than in Afghanistan. All of these issues and problems were raised from 2003 onwards by intelligence officers in the field, various commanders, and various ambassadors. It was Washington that did not respond, bogged down in bureaucratic stovepipes and infighting, and which did not seem to want to hear or communicate bad news at the highest levels of government.
This situation has changed steadily since last summer as a result of the President’s new strategy, the emphasis on realism and effectiveness led by General McChrystal and Ambassador Eikenberry, and the work of a far more demanding intelligence effort led by Major General Flynn. It has not been reflected in any Department of Defense or other formal report, but it has been clear in the briefings coming out of ISAF and USCENTCOM. Some of the latest data involved are summarized in a briefing available on the CSIS web site, entitled “Shaping the War in Afghanistan: The Situation in the Spring of 2010 “and available at:
General Flynn has also provided an unclassified summary of the issues involved entitled “State of the Insurgency: Trends, Intentions and Objectives” which is available on the wired.com web site at http://www.wired.com/images_blogs/dangerroom/2010/01/isaf-state-of-the-insurgency-231000-dec.ppt
The US country team is now making it clear that we came close to decisively losing the war by early 2009. It is addressing the need to focus on the population and not kinetics, and the need to transform integrated civil-military efforts from hollow rhetoric to actual practice in key population centers and districts. If the next Report on Progress toward Security and Stability in Afghanistan” can break out of the Politically Correct -Cover Your Ass - Lowest Common Denominator mode that has crippled past reporting, and actually use such material, there is hope for future credibility – and the kind of trust that might build lasting support for the war.
Efforts to Develop New Polling/Data Based Models and Metrics: Eight Year Late But There is Work in Progress
The second area of progress is a series of efforts that are underway to develop broad models to provide an integrated civil-military set of metrics, or matrix, to provide a clear picture of what is happening in the Afghan and Iraq Wars. It is a deep reflection on the fundamental failures and incompetence of the leadership within the NSC, State Department, Department of Defense and the intelligence community that this effort is only now becoming serious—eight years into the Afghan conflict.
It is not clear what will happen to such efforts, but they correctly focus on polling and Afghan/Iraqi perceptions as well as hard indicators; they focus on key regional issues rather than largely dysfunctional nationwide indicators, and they attempt net assessment—rather than focusing on only one problem at time. The work done by Gallup Consulting in developing a Stability and Development Roadmap on Iraq, and in an ISAF Joint Command Metrics Workshop, part of the Rich Contextual Understanding (RCU) of Pakistan and Afghanistan (PAKAF) project, are cases in point.
US counterinsurgency operations suffer from a lack of coordination and clear policy mandates, as well as close ties to the operational and intelligence efforts in each country. Nevertheless, the State Department is at least beginning to address the fact it has not been involved in post conflict reconstruction in Iraq and faces years before it can report that Iraq no longer needs aid and stability operations.
It also is addressing real world problems, rather than searching for “good news” at the cost of credibility, and beginning to address the planning and data requirement necessary to cut across its internal bureaucratic differences and stovepipes—such as the divisions between aid experts and Defense personnel within the PRTs—problems that have been far more serious that even the civil-military divisions between State and DoD.
These efforts may lead to more transparent and realistic measurements of progress in the war. All metric systems, however, can be undermined if the civilian or military personnel using them are not ruthlessly honest in their reporting. Whether these efforts finally lead to real integrated civil-military reporting and plans for either war—versus the largely empty conceptual efforts that have taken place to date—is still an open question. A few steps in the right direction, however, are a major improvement over nothing—or at least over years of failure and neglect.
What is to be Done: Getting the US Government to an Acceptable Grade Average
It is all too clear is that there will be no quick victory of any kind in either Afghanistan or Iraq that will somehow reduce the need for a level of credibility and transparency that two Administrations have totally failed to provide for two long wars. Forging a strategic partnership in Iraq will take at least another five years of civil and military aid and assistance. Winning in Afghanistan and Pakistan—if this is possible—will take at least another decade of both counterinsurgency and stability operations and far more costly levels of aid to a country that has no real sources of wealth to fund demanding military and reconstruction/development efforts.
The President was at best ingenuous in taking about beginning US withdrawals in 2011, and denying we are involved in nation building. Short of a virtual implosion in the Taliban and other insurgents, it is far more likely to be 2012-2014 before the US can safely cap its involvement and make major reductions in US forces. We probably face at least two more years of hard fighting and casualties. Even then, we will have to continue to fund most Afghan security operations and probably continue to provide major security assistance to Pakistan – as well as substantial aid to one of the world’s poorest countries, one suffering from decades of war, and one where armed nation building will be a constant reality as part of a strategy of shape, clear, hold, and build.
This is not a burden the US can pass on to ever more reluctant allies or a largely mythical “international community.” Countries like Canada and the Netherlands are already planning important force cuts next year. Moreover, the US requested a total of $5.6 billion to fund Afghan security forces in FY2009 for a force half the size of the one that may well be required. The total allied contribution to the NATO ANA trust fund as of September 30, 2009 was only $7.8 million. The bulk of the aid effort in governance and economics will also continue to fall on the US, particularly the forward effort in the 80 most critical districts where the Taliban and other insurgents have major influence or pose a critical threat. ISAF may be a 40-country alliance, but only a few key allies like Britain and Canada are likely to put aid workers in harm’s way in offensive operations.
Neither the President’s timeline for beginning withdrawals, nor his denial we are involved in nation building, have any real credibility. If America is to sustain long wars filled with uncertainty, this situation must change. It also means that transparency must address not only the present situation, but a range of key issues in all of the real world “centers of gravity” that shape the Afghan and Pakistan conflict:
- Defeating the insurgency not only in tactical terms, but by eliminating its control and influence over the population.
- Creating an effective and well-resourced NATO/ISAF and US response to defeating the insurgency and securing the population.
- Building up a much larger and more effective mix of Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF).
- Giving the Afghan government the necessary capacity and legitimacy at the national, regional/provincial, district, and local levels.
- Creating an effective, integrated, and truly operational civil-military effort. NATO/ISAF, UN, member country, and NGO and international community efforts.
- Dealing with the sixth center of gravity outside Afghanistan and NATO/ISAF’s formal mission. with the actions of Pakistan, Iran, and other states will be critical to success in Afghanistan.
Defeating the Insurgency in Tactical Terms, and by Eliminating
its Control and Influence over the Population
It is far easier to talk about a population centric strategy, and use buzz words like shape, clear, build, hold, and transfer, than it is to show how this can be accomplished and that it is credible. The military challenges involved are all too real—particularly in helping Pakistan develop the capabilities its forces need to fully secure the country. The US and ISAF did, however, continue to win every tactical encounter from 2001 to 2009 while they lost much of Afghanistan.
If ISAF and the US are to change this situation—and create an Afghan and Pakistani capability to operate largely without US forces in the future—they need to show that they can build much larger and more effective Afghan forces, build up all of the necessary civilian elements to hold and build, and do so on a national basis within a reasonable amount of time, at a practical cost.
This requires more than concepts and limited successes. It requires effort that can be cost-effective on a national scale. So far, the US has not addressed any aspect of how the new strategy can be scaled up to do this. It at most has looked at limited examples and test cases—many of which depend on levels of money, forces, and aid workers that cannot be provided at anything like the level to cover Afghanistan’s 80 most critical Districts, much less the addition 41 that are of particular interest, the other 243 —many of which are areas where the Taliban and other insurgent groups could redeploy over time.
Marja, if anything, is an example of an impossible approach. Throwing some 8,000-12,000 US, British, and Afghan security forces into an area only 600-750 square kilometers, with only 80,000 Afghans, and estimates of less than 1,000 easily dispersible Taliban insurgents is not a model that can be recreated in Kandahar or any other major population center. This density of resources is impossible to scale up, even in phased operations. Moreover, to the extent that Marja has been a test bed, it has revealed more problems than successes. Far too many elements of the ANSF did not perform well or with effective independence, and some of the weaker elements – like the ANP – began their stay in Marja by looting one of the local markets.
“Government in a box” has shown even greater problems at the civil level, and holding public meetings under pressure has not demonstrated much about credible public support. President Karzai’s appointments and lukewarm support have not helped, and so far the civilian surge in the area replicates the pattern of putting far too few courageous aid workers that are actually willing to go into the field into a small area. As was the case in Vietnam, the word “clear” is also still being applied to areas where no one can go at night without an armed and armored escort. General Abrahms applied the “go at night” test in Vietnam and it is equally valid in Afghanistan. As for “stay behinds,” shadow agents, and nearby infiltrators, it takes months to know the level of their effectiveness.
It should be stressed that this does not mean that the new strategy cannot work. It will, however, require enough time to create a mix of Afghan forces with both the size and effectiveness to do the job and supplement US and ISAF forces. It will require much stronger Afghan government support, as well as a build-up of Afghan government capacity in the field. It also will require experienced US and allied civil-military teams at a much larger scale than a limited surge of several hundred trained, but largely inexperienced, US civilians can accomplish.
Scaling up to begin to win in Kandahar seems credible if Karzai and the Afghan government provide real support and the right ANSF and GIRoA elements. Decisively winning in 2011 on anything like the scale required does not. The Obama Administration needs to address this, and do so honestly. There has been far too much spin and rhetoric in the past, and far too little substance. The end result is broad skepticism and distrust.
Creating an Effective and Well-Resourced ISAF and US response to Defeating the Insurgency and Securing the Population
“Scalability” is already a critical issue in terms of US forces and civilians. Every aspect of the war in Afghanistan is now part of a “resource to experiment,” rather than a “troop to task” ratio. There are no valid historical examples of what kind of US resources are required, and the troop ratios often quoted for counterinsurgency operations have little historical validity even for the cases quoted and do not take account of changes in military technology, the use of allied forces, and the impact of outside nations and sanctuaries.
It is clear, however, that currently planned US troop levels may well be marginal at best, that Afghan forces will take time to expand and train, that number of allied forces will drop, and that removing national restrictions and caveats will be difficult to impossible to accomplish.
It is also clear that talk about a US civilian “surge” has so far been little more than a sick joke. The addition of some 975 positions is useful, and is large by State Department standards, but it is scarcely a “surge” given the size of Afghanistan. Moreover, the State Department has never credibly explained who they will send, what their level of experience must be, or where they will actually go in the field. More importantly, it has never made the slightest effort to define the number of civilian personnel that is actually needed.
As for allied civilians who will actually go into the field and in harm’s way, there seem to be no clear data on the number currently serving, the level of national caveats, the restrictions they operate under, and the number of personnel that can be shifted to the Districts of critical interest. It is far easier to talk about asking other countries for more than to recruit civilian personnel from within the State Department—much less qualified ones that will stay for reasonable amounts of time and go into the higher risk areas where they are needed.
The Administration needs to show that it is providing the mix of military forces and civilians necessary to do the job. Moreover, it needs to start laying out at a rolling five year plan for US spending on both Afghanistan and Pakistan. Such a plan will have to change regularly, but it is time to stop pretending that a long war does not have consistently high costs. The United States must define these costs, explain why each cost is necessary, and prepare the Congress and American people for the realities of what is to come.
Building Up Much Larger and More Effective Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF)
The US and ISAF effort to train adequate Afghan security forces has been completely reorganized, and the Administration now seems committed to providing the proper level of funds, trainers, and mentors. The Department of Defense has already said that it will provide an updated report on April 28th, and the new team should not be judged before that report is available. Moreover, the Report on Progress toward Security and Stability in Afghanistan that has just been issued finally makes it clear that the readiness categorization system the US has used for both Iraqi forces and Afghan forces has never reflected actual military or police effectiveness in the field – a breakthrough in the integrity of reporting that is long overdue.
The best team in the world, however, cannot function if it is rushed to produce force quantity to meet a 2011 deadline in ways that sacrifice force quality. Military history is often the history of the fact that a focus on numbers per se is a proven way to lose a war. A smaller but effective ANSF is much preferable to a large, incompetent, corrupt and brutal ANSF. One does not need bureaucratic experience to guess how much pressure some will try to put on the ANSF expansion effort to pander to the President’s desired timetable.
Moreover, creating effective forces requires experienced trainers, mentors, and partners—not simply warm and sometimes unwilling bodies. DoD still has not made being a trainer or mentor part of an attractive career track, thus sending our best and brightest officers to jobs far less relevant to the war. Developing the ANSF requires a change in both the ANSF and ISAF ethic that has tended to pass virtually anyone who entered training regardless of performance. It requires transparent attention to corruption and incompetence.
It also requires a change in US and ISAF military culture in four areas, several of which General McChrystal has stressed in shaping his new strategy:
- First, the key to creating effective Afghan forces is not in formal training, but in providing the mentoring and partnering they need to be effective in the field. ANA and ANP forces and units need far more than formal training. They need to be brought to operational readiness in actual operations, and they need to be rated on the basis of their actual performance in the filed—not metrics like personnel numbers, equipment and supplies, or length of formal training.
- Second, it is time to put an end to talking about authorizing strength and total personnel who have been trained. This is little more than bullshit accounting. The issue is actual on-hand strength—reflecting attrition, AWOLs, and personnel on leave. It is also the number of people train who are actual still present—not the number that went through training—which ignores large numbers who then left. Moreover, the reasons for serious attrition problems – such as past pay issues—need to be addressed and solutions need to be presented. ISAF also needs to be more honest about how many trainers and mentors it needs.
- Progress in partnering is the key to creating independent and capable forces, and ones that can take over from the US and ISAF over time. Describing the true level of partnership, and honestly describing ANSF capabilities for independent operations are part of an absolutely essential change in the way the US describes ANSF force development.
- The description of the various elements in the ANP must be far more explicit in addressing both the problem of corruption, and how the ANP interact with the formal and informal justice system and the rule of law. Much of the past US official reporting on the ANP has been little more than rubbish in both areas, and has decoupled the assessment of the ANP from any assessment of the population centers and areas where they are active, where they are linked to courts and jails, or where they operate in some way with the informal justice system. The control of prompt justice has been a key source of power and influence for the Taliban, and any assessment of the ANP and Afghan rule of law must address this in net assessment terms.
Afghan Government Capacity and Legitimacy at the National, Regional, Provincial, District, and Local Levels
Virtually everyone who worked on the new strategy agreed that the corruption and lack of capacity in the Afghan government at every level was as much of a threat to success as the Taliban and other insurgents. Nothing that President Karzai has done as of yet has indicated that this situation has changed at the top. Assessments of the situation in Kandahar have spotlighted how serious a threat it is at the provincial and local levels, and Marja is a warning that far too little has changed in the field.
US reporting should not directly confront Afghan officials, but it must show that that the new strategy can work. It must be clear where Afghan officials are competent and honest enough to be effective, where credible improvements are underway, and where corruption and lack of capacity threaten the ability to win. This will take considerable care, but simply ignoring the fact that some elements of the present GIRoA are as much or more of a threat than the enemy is not a basis for winning any form of credibility or sustained support. It also fails to put the level of public pressure on GIRoA that can be constructive.
At the same time, Afghanistan is not the West. “Good enough to function” in a way that performs the mission and meets the expectations of the Afghan people should be the standard. Moreover, US reporting should make it clear when Afghans face an almost existential need to get anything they can, while they can, because there is no credible career structure or belief in victory. It should be equally clear when the black market economy offers far more money and usually at far less risk. A US strategy based on Afghan martyrdom is not going to work.
Creating an Effective, Integrated, and Operational Civil-Military Effort by
ISAF, the UN, Other Countries, and NGOs
If there is a third problem that poses a threat equivalent to the Taliban, it lies in the mix of stovepiped and half-administered US efforts that are not part of a truly integrated civil-military action plan, and an even more serious lack of civil-military coordination within and between the allied countries operating in Afghanistan.
Unity of effort in the alliance is little more than a sick joke, and the impact of the national caveats affecting military forces are matched or exceeded by the number of countries that run civilian aid efforts decoupled from the reality of war, and which respond to national policies or “branding” rather than real world needs. This is compound by the failure to validate requirements, manage the flow of aid money, control corrupt and ineffective contractors, and establish meaningful measures of effectiveness linked to Afghan perceptions. No one can quantify the scale of the problems that now exist, but few doubt that Oxfam was correct in warning that some 40% of the civil aid going to Afghanistan never reached the actual aid effort and is wasted in corruption, out of country efforts, and overhead.
The US cannot change many aspects of allied military and civilian behavior, or compensate for the UN and UNAMA’s failure to make more than token efforts to both make aid relevant to real-world Afghan needs in a war zone and report on the effectiveness and honesty with which aid is used. The US can, however, openly address the key problems involved and their costs. It can make clear that it is not enough to deploy, pledge, or spend. Resources have to be used effectively.
As for NGOs, the US needs to start setting standards. The NGOs that use resources effectively take risks and serve the Afghan people deserve recognition. Those that raise funds and waste them, or start projects that they rarely finish with any effectiveness, need to be named and pushed out of the country.
Dealing with Pakistan, Iran, and other states Critical to Success in Afghanistan
US reporting needs to end the compartmentalizing that largely decouples any assessment of the Pakistan side of the war from the situation in Afghanistan, and make it clear how other neighboring states impact on the war. The US has never addressed the war in real world terms that report on both key countries. The discussion of Pakistan in the Report on Progress toward Security and Stability in Afghanistan is all of three paragraphs long and refers to a classified annex. This is a sensitive area, but US and Pakistani cooperation is steadily improving and zero meaningful reporting does not make a case for the war or for sustained aid to Pakistan.
The same report seems undecided as to whether Iran is an asset or a malign enemy, and says far too little that is useful about the role of the states that are critical supply routes.
Setting the Context in Terms of US Strategic Interest and the Broader Struggle Against Terrorism
Finally, the Administration needs to stop waving the “bloody flag” of generic terrorism, and explain the strategic rationale for the war in both an assessment of its impact on the overall terrorist threat to the United States and its allies, and on other US strategic interests. At present, it makes little or no substantive effort to describe the cost of losing or how this effort relates to the other aspects of the terrorist threat.
Simply citing the existence of Al Qa’ida is not a strategic rationale for the war. Talking about the threat posed by a Taliban-controlled Afghanistan in some depth, explaining how the war attacks the Al Qa’ida hierarchy and influence in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and describing the risks of a destabilized nuclear Pakistan would be a very different—and much more convincing—story.