Afghanistan: Can Meaningful Transition Succeed?

It is easy to talk about transition in Afghanistan in broad conceptual terms. It is far harder to provide anything approaching a realistic set of strategic goals for such transition, and meaningful, detailed plans for accomplishing it. President Obama’s speech of July 21, 2011 did not provide any analysis of his plans for transition or their cost.  He did little more than announcement an accelerated pace for troop withdrawal without any analysis of the risks involved, and without any details on the relative successes and failures of the strategy that the US and its allies are pursuing.

The Burke Chair t CSIS has prepared an overview of some of the recent official reports from ISAF, the US government, and other sources that shed light on whether a credible transition is possible, and some of the key issues and requirements for such a transition. This paper is entitled   Afghanistan: Can Meaningful Transition Succeed?  It is available on the CSIS web site at:

Too Few US and Allied Troops to Succeed?

The paper shows that ISAF is making serious progress both in defeating the Taliban and in building up Afghan forces. At the same time, it raises critical questions about the ability to sustain military progress if the US rushes forward to make the reductions the President has called for: “As a result, starting next month, we will be able to remove 10,000 of our troops from Afghanistan by the end of this year, and we will bring home a total of 33,000 troops by next summer, fully recovering the surge I announced at West Point.  After this initial reduction, our troops will continue coming home at a steady pace as Afghan security forces move into the lead.  Our mission will change from combat to support.  By 2014, this process of transition will be complete, and the Afghan people will be responsible for their own security.”

Secretary Panetta’s staff has since said that this means a reduction to some 70,000 men in 2012, and key countries like Canada have already withdrawn their combat forces. It seems likely that a combination of US and allied force reductions will sharply delay the ability of ISAF and Afghan forces to make the military progress that the briefing shows that ISAF had planned to make by the end of the 2012 campaign season. 

ISAF may well have the force levels needed to continue to do grade damage to the Taliban and other insurgents, but not the kind of damage that can be decisive during 2012-2013 or 2012-2014 --  a critical uncertainty in timing that the President’s speech left ambiguous.

Half, or Less, the Resources Needed for Afghan National Security Forces?

Similarly, it is unclear that the US and its allies will provide the number of qualified trainers that are needed at anything like the scheduled required, or the funds that ISAF and the Afghan government need to create Afghan forces that can actually move into the lead at the levels of quality and endurance that are needed.

As our report shows, it is unclear that even the US will provide anything like the levels of training and advisors needed after 2014.  Nor is the US likely to provide the $6 billion to $9 billion a year that ISAF, in the spring of 2011,estimated was needed to pay for Afghan forces from 2012 to some period after 2014 when the insurgents could be decisively defeated.

The shortfall in trainers was smaller in July 2011 than is shown in the charts in this brief, but still include 490 absent and 700 pledged. This meant that only 1,610 of 2,800 foreign trainers were actually in place (58%). Shortfalls of critical trainers still includes 84 for the Air Force, 168 for the police, 41 medical, 10 logistic, 196 Army – for a total of 490. Moreover, a significant number of those  actually assigned had no previous experience in training foreign troops.

Department of Defense experts indicate that ANSF funding during FY2012-2014 will probably not exceed $4 billion a year, and will be significantly lower from FY2015 onward. Unless the Taliban collapse or the insurgents are willing to negotiate a role in the government, future funding of the ANSF may well be at most 60% of what was planned before the President’s speech and drop off sharply after 2015.  ISAF has yet to release plans that take into account these newly lowered funding numbers.

No Hope of Meeting Past Development Goals and Uncertain Hope of Funding “Afghan Right”

The challenges on the civil side are far greater. The charts in our brief show all too clearly that the goals for development set after the fall the Taliban are unaffordable and can never be met, and that some of the claims for success in improving governance and development have been grossly exaggerated. It is also clear from the brief that Afghanistan has been flooded with outside money it could not absorb, and that a failure to manage the follow of aid and military contract funding has been the driving force in raising corruption to unacceptable levels, and breeding the distrust many Afghans have of the central government.

Some argue that mines and a “New Silk Road” can give Afghanistan the economic development it needs, but such arguments often ignore the real world lead times involved, and ignore so man of the actual problems and risks involved that they are little more than a triumph of hope over experience. Many experts now feel that cuts in aid over the period between 2012 and 2014 will create a major crisis in a country that already has massive unemployment and where nearly a third of the population is dependent on the UN World Food Program for basic sustenance. The end result is that the real world strategy the US is pursuing may fall short of “clear, hold, and build,” and become “withdraw, ceasing funding, and create a national depression.”

No Ability to Ensure a Stable or Favorable End State for Any Significant Period of Time?

Improvements are taking place in many aspects of provincial, district, and local governance, but it is far from clear they will be sustained and expanded at the level required. More importantly, it is far from clear that a unified, viable political structure will emerge by 2014 that can defeat the Taliban in a war of political attrition and create a stable, friendly partner in the years that follow US military withdrawal and funding cuts.

It is unclear whether the US and other ISAF states are willing to sustain the levels of economic and governance aid necessary to persuade Afghans that they will not be abandoned in the period of transition or shortly afterwards. Moreover, it is far from clear that Afghanistan will have a stable government by 2014, or what will happen in the election Afghanistan must hold that year, in which President Karzai cannot run.

More generally, efforts to shape a stable “end state” under anything like these conditions have consistently proved to be a historical oxymoron. No one can predict or shape a stable post-conflict outcome in cases like Afghanistan and Pakistan. Both countries are far too complex, and have too many sources of instability and internal conflict. Both states, and their neighbors, will also have far less reason to care about US and European views after the US and ISAF withdraw forces and most spending, and far more reason to focus on their neighbors, China, India, and Russia.

The New Silk Road: A Triumph of Hope Over Experience?

Conceptual talk about economic development based on Afghan funding and non-US aid, and a “New Silk Road” economy based on trade flowing through Afghanistan and Pakistan, seems largely an exercise in hope and analysis designed to support it. The same is true of Afghan minerals and other potentially productive areas of development which almost certainly cannot offset the impact of massive cut in foreign military and aid spending, Afghan security and infrastructure problems, population growth and lack of training and education, in anything like the timeframe necessary to meet minimal Afghan needs.

Political Accommodation at the Cost of Letting Insurgents Win a War of Political Attrition?

President Obama’s speech understates the very real risk that the Taliban may exploit any negotiations to its own advantage. The President states that,

“We do know that peace cannot come to a land that has known so much war without a political settlement.  So as we strengthen the Afghan government and security forces, America will join initiatives that reconcile the Afghan people, including the Taliban.  Our position on these talks is clear:  They must be led by the Afghan government, and those who want to be a part of a peaceful Afghanistan must break from al Qaeda, abandon violence, and abide by the Afghan constitution.  But, in part because of our military effort, we have reason to believe that progress can be made.
The goal that we seek is achievable, and can be expressed simply:  No safe haven from which al Qaeda or its affiliates can launch attacks against our homeland or our allies.  We won't try to make Afghanistan a perfect place.  We will not police its streets or patrol its mountains indefinitely.  That is the responsibility of the Afghan government, which must step up its ability to protect its people, and move from an economy shaped by war to one that can sustain a lasting peace.  What we can do, and will do, is build a partnership with the Afghan people that endures –- one that ensures that we will be able to continue targeting terrorists and supporting a sovereign Afghan government.”

This is reassuring rhetoric, but little in the Taliban and other insurgent behavior to date indicates these goals are “achievable” or “simple” without very clear US and allied commitments to a much larger and longer effort that the they currently seem likely to provide. 

Even if the Afghan War is Winnable, Will It Matter to the US, Given the Problems in Pakistan and Limited Strategic Importance of Central Asia?

As the brief shows, it is uncertain that any stable relationship can be created with Pakistan, or that the forces and capabilities the US will leave in Afghanistan will help stabilize Pakistan and end the present process of growing alienation. 

President Obama said on June 21, 2011 that, “…our efforts must also address terrorist safe havens in Pakistan.  No country is more endangered by the presence of violent extremists, which is why we will continue to press Pakistan to expand its participation in securing a more peaceful future for this war-torn region.  We'll work with the Pakistani government to root out the cancer of violent extremism, and we will insist that it keeps its commitments.  For there should be no doubt that so long as I am President, the United States will never tolerate a safe haven for those who aim to kill us.  They cannot elude us, nor escape the justice they deserve.”

This is fine rhetoric, but if there is any real world plan to deal with Pakistan and give the Afghan War broad strategic meaning, it remains unclear.” As another study by the Burke Chair on Pakistan makes clear (“Pakistan: Violence vs. Stability, available on the CSIS web site at:

If anything, it seems more likely that Pakistan will become more hostile with time and become a far more serious challenge to the stability of the region than Afghanistan.
More broadly, it is unclear that the US can maintain a level of strategic influence in Central Asia and South Asia as a whole that justifies pursuing the war in Afghanistan, particularly if the US and its allies are not is not willing to make the necessary sustained commitment of resources through and beyond 2014.

There are not definitive arguments against the war. Many ISAF officers and diplomats believe that the US and its allies can achieve some form of victory close to the kind the President set forth in his speech of June 21, 2011. What is not clear is that the US or its allies are willing to pay the cost of that victory, or that they can overcome the risks created by Afghanistan’s political weakness and instability and the growing instability and hostility of Pakistan.

If the Administration is willing to make the necessary commitment of resources well beyond 2014, and has plans that can credibly achieve its goals, it is time to make them clear in very specific terms and to tell the American people and the world that it is willing to provide well-defined levels of resources through 2014 and beyond.  We have already had a decade, and two Administration’s worth of vague promises, new concepts, and a failure to effectively manage the war. As the material in the brief makes all too clear, words and broad concepts are not enough. The President has not set forth a credible case for his strategy or a credible plan for the future. The nation cannot afford these failures.

Anthony H. Cordesman

Anthony H. Cordesman

Former Emeritus Chair in Strategy