Afghanistan: The Death of a Strategy

It is always tempting to ride the headlines and focus on events like the marines urinating on a Taliban corpse, the burning of the Qur’ans, and the attacks on U.S. and International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) personnel that have followed in even the most secure and best-vetted facilities. It has been a truly grim week and one where these events raise questions about U.S. strategy and the value of continuing with the current approach to the war.

This analysis covers the critical weaknesses that have left the United States without an effective strategy in Afghanistan. It has been revised to provide specific force numbers and spending data and to cite additional studies that show the different estimates of military progress and the problems in creating an effective transition strategy.

The Assumptions behind a Strategy that Has Been a Long Time Dying

The reality, however, is that the strategy developed under General Stanley McCrystal has been dying for a long time and for many more reasons than the growing distrust between U.S. and ISAF personnel and the Afghans. It was already clear in 2009 that the odds of success were no better than 50 percent.
The key reasons shaping uncertainty as to whether the mission could be accomplished—whether it would be possible to create an Afghanistan that could largely stand on its own and be free of any major enclaves of terrorists or violent extremists—went far beyond the problems created by the insurgents.
It was clear that there were four roughly equal threats to success, of which the Afghan Taliban, Haqqani, and Hekmatyar were only the first. The second was the corruption and incompetence of the Afghan government. The third was the role of Pakistan and its tolerance and support of insurgent sanctuaries. The fourth was the United States and its allies.

This fourth threat was compounded by years of failing to focus on Afghanistan while the United States focused on Iraq. It was compounded by the weak, underfunded, and grossly undermanned effort to build Afghan forces, by the corrupting flood of unmanaged and unaudited military spending and aid, and by the lack of effective civilian aid workers and well-managed and coordinated efforts.

The response was to hope that the problems in the administration of President Hamid Karzai, and throughout the Afghan government, could be corrected after what was assumed to be an Afghan presidential election where Karzai would glide to power without major incidents. It was also assumed that aid and training to the Pakistani forces, and the growing internal threat they faced from the Pakistani Taliban, would lead Pakistan to clear the sanctuaries held by Afghan insurgents, as much out of their own interest as a result of U.S. and allied prodding.

It was to build up enough U.S. forces to clear and hold the critical populated areas and districts in the south and east, while keeping allied forces at least at their existing level. It was to rush in trainers and advisers in sufficient numbers to build an effective mix of Afghan security forces. It was to reform the aid and spending process to create integrated civil-military efforts and to deploy enough new aid workers to allow the Afghan government to hold and build in the same the critical populated areas and districts that were the focus of the military campaign.

The critical underpinning assumption behind all of these efforts was that they would be properly resourced for as long as it took to determine whether the new strategy could work. It was that the timing of U.S. and allied efforts would be “conditions based” and not subject to some arbitrary deadline.

The Reasons for a Slow Death

The years that have followed have slowly and steadily undercut every one of these assumptions. From the start to the present, a series of problems has steadily reduced the probability of success.

Wounding the Strategy at the Moment It Is Announced

Even before President Barack Obama announced the new strategy, the debates in Washington had moved a long way from what seemed to be candidate Obama’s open-ended commitment to finishing the job in Afghanistan, as in speeches like his July 15, 2008, campaign address on foreign policy. The White House team had split over whether the broad population-centric strategy recommended by the military should be adopted or one focused far more on the use of Special Forces and unmanned combat air vehicles (UCAVs) to attack al Qaeda and threatening insurgent elements.

The result was a set of decisions that cut back on the recommendations of the military and the size of the coming “surge” of U.S. troops to the point where it was uncertain whether there would be enough U.S., allied, and Afghan forces to clear and hold the key districts in both the south and east in a timely manner in a war that was already deeply unpopular.

Moreover, in his first major presidential address on Afghan strategy on March 27, 2009, Obama set the first of a series of politically driven deadlines. His speech called for the United States and its allies to rush the development of Afghan forces to “deploy approximately 4,000 U.S. troops to train Afghan security forces. For the first time, this will truly resource our effort to train and support the Afghan army and police… We will accelerate our efforts to build an Afghan army of 134,000 and a police force of 82,000 so that we can meet these goals by 2011.” This deadline emphasized quantity over quality and rushed the development of Afghan forces and capabilities beyond the level of the United States and NATO to properly train and support it.

The second deadline came in a speech on December 1, 2009, when the president announced a further “surge of 30,000 troops”—significantly fewer than the U.S. military had initially recommended. He stated that,

The 30,000 additional troops that I’m announcing tonight will deploy in the first part of 2010—the fastest possible pace—so that they can target the insurgency and secure key population centers. They’ll increase our ability to train competent Afghan security forces, and to partner with them so that more Afghans can get into the fight. And they will help create the conditions for the United States to transfer responsibility to the Afghans.

But taken together, these additional American and international troops will allow us to accelerate handing over responsibility to Afghan forces, and allow us to begin the transfer of our forces out of Afghanistan in July of 2011. Just as we have done in Iraq, we will execute this transition responsibly, taking into account conditions on the ground. We’ll continue to advise and assist Afghanistan’s security forces to ensure that they can succeed over the long haul. But it will be clear to the Afghan government—and, more importantly, to the Afghan people—that they will ultimately be responsible for their own country.

It is important to stress that President Obama did take action to try to properly resource the Afghan war for the first time and that the most of the problems the United States and its allies then faced in winning the war would never have occurred if it has been properly managed and resourced under the Bush Administration. It is also important to note that the president emphasized that this sudden new deadline—which had never been part of any of the analysis developing the new strategy—was conditional.

White House officials also said on background that the main rationale for the deadline was the need to win domestic political support from a Congress with a Democratic majority, and the president was careful to say his deadline was conditions based. The fact was, however, that the new strategy triggered fears in Afghanistan and the region of a precipitous withdrawal, as well as expectations in the United States and the West, where deadlines soon became a key part of an exit strategy.

“Conditions based” gradually went by the wayside, and by mid-2011, the political realities shaping U.S. and European efforts became a rush to leave by 2014. The president never made this an official U.S. goal, and U.S. planners and commanders still focus on the role of the United States and ISAF well beyond 2014, The fact is, however, that even spending through 2014 is having to be steadily cut back, allied force commitments keep dropping, and there is far more popular and bipartisan congressional support for an exit than anyone wants to admit in an election year.

A strategy that called for a combination of “clear, hold, and build” and “integrated civil-military operations,” was also described as one that did not involve “nation building.” This was a sop to the Republican side of Congress, just as deadlines were a sop to Democrats. It was also dishonest and absurd.

The president stated that,

“…some call for a more dramatic and open-ended escalation of our war effort—one that would commit us to a nation-building project of up to a decade. I reject this course because it sets goals that are beyond what can be achieved at a reasonable cost, and what we need to achieve to secure our interests. Furthermore, the absence of a time frame for transition would deny us any sense of urgency in working with the Afghan government. It must be clear that Afghans will have to take responsibility for their security, and that America has no interest in fighting an endless war in Afghanistan.”
While the literal test of the speech made perfectly valid points about the need to set limits and conditions for U.S. and allied spending, it was stated following an emphasis on a 2011 deadline and ignored the fact that Afghan stability and security could not be achieved without a major nation-building effort.

It was clear from the start in forming the new strategy that no number of tactical victories could bring security and stability to Afghanistan unless a massive effort in “nation building” gave Afghanistan a more honest political system, far more capability in governance, effective security forces, and a better economy—and did so in the most threatened and conflict-ridden areas, as well as the rest of the country. Without such success, “classic counterinsurgency (COIN)” became a farce that could win temporary control in sparsely populated areas like Helmand—the strategic equivalent of “ink spots”—for a while. It could never win the war.

All of these problems became far more serious when President Obama gave a new speech on Afghan strategy on June 22, 2011. He stated then that,

“…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.”

The president faced hard choices in terms of budget pressures, a war that polls showed had lost the support of the American people, as well as the populations of most of United States’ allies, and the need to reshape U.S. national security policy around fewer expenditures and resources. He also faced the reality that the Afghan government had not made the necessary reforms and improvement in governance and that Pakistan had already become an even more problematic ally.

Nevertheless, this set of force cuts meant the United States would lack the forces to execute its current campaign plan in both the east and the south in 2012, while it now had to rush toward a political deadline at the end of 2014 for which there was no transition plan or supporting analysis. As the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) FY2013 budget request later made clear, the U.S. average force level, which had risen from 33,000 in FY2008 to 44,000 in FY2009 to 84,000 in FY2010 to 98,000 in FY2011, would now drop from 90,000 in FY2012 to only 68,000 in FY2013—about 70 percent of peak manning, which was too low to support the strategy in the first place.

It also meant that the United States had effectively told the Taliban and insurgents that they would only need to wait out the fight for another three years. It told Afghans and the region that Afghanistan was losing U.S. support. And it signaled U.S. allies that they could now plan on leaving.

The end result is that the United States, its allies, the Afghans, the Pakistanis, and the rest of the region are now facing the need to plan and execute a “transition” by 2014 that is quite clearly dependent on “nation building” and negotiating peace with an enemy that feels it only has to wait out the U.S. and ISAF departure. “Transition” must also somehow rush in tens of billions of dollars of aid each year to keep the Afghan government, Afghan forces, and Afghan economy alive. It is a “transition” that is now all words and concepts and few plans and resources, where pledges at conferences do not shape realities, and where growing war fatigue—mixed with a lack of credible options—threatens to make “exit” the key focus of the “strategy.”

Failing to Deal with Afghan Politics and Governance

The mistakes in shaping and announcing the new strategy, however, were only the start. The key problems shaping its failure came from many directions. One was the fraud in the Afghan presidential election, the surprising level of popular opposition to Karzai, and the steady buildup of distrust between the Karzai government and the United States and ISAF.

Cycles of limited improvement in relations between the United States and the Karzai government have been followed by new crises and incidents ever since. There has been far too little meaningful reform of the Afghan political structure, and only token, scapegoat-ridden efforts to deal with corruption. Improvements in the civil service and some aspects of governance at the center have not been matched by the necessary improvements in the size, capability, and taxing and spending power of governance at the provincial, district, and local levels.

Key provincial and district officials are not elected, remain tied to power brokers, and are often quite corrupt. Improvements in the Afghan government’s ability to spend aid and other money have not been matched by improvements in the ability to spend it wisely and honestly, and where it is needed most. Polls show that the Afghan government and military forces are still more popular than the Taliban and other insurgents, but they also show anger at one of the world’s highest levels of corruption, nepotism, and favoritism centered on various power brokers.

Failing to Create Effective Civil Partners and Aid Efforts

Individual aid workers and aid efforts did make great progress in the field, often at considerable sacrifice. However, the “surge” in U.S. aid workers and civilians came too slowly, involved far too many people with far too little core competence and experience, and was concentrated far too much in the U.S. embassy and headquarters rather than out in the field.

The U.S. State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) did not demonstrate the ability to create meaningful integrated plans, tie their overall activities tightly to a plan to support clear, build, and hold, or really begin to plan for a serious transition until the president announced a new 2014 deadline in 2011.

Allied aid efforts showed even less coordination and continuity than the U.S. efforts, and the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA)—which reports on drugs, human rights, and casualties—has never shown any serious ability to coordinate the international aid effort, develop effective plans and requirements, or do any more to ensure that aid money is spent honestly and has real measures of effectiveness than the United States and its allies.

Moreover, the leaders of the U.S. aid efforts, their allied counterparts, and the U.S. and allied militaries showed so little interest in effective contracting and control of money, validating the programs they started, and measuring the effectiveness of these programs, that General David Petraeus was forced to create a new task force just to deal with the contracting problem.

The key question now is what core mix of U.S., allied, and Afghan civil and military efforts can actually carry out the civil side of transition. In theory, 2014 will be an election year in Afghanistan, and in theory, Afghanistan pledged a long series of reforms in the paper it circulated at the Bonn Conference in December 2011. No one, however, now has any clear picture to indicate that the needed progress will occur at the Afghan level.

There are no clear indications that the United States and its allies have the ability plan and execute their side of transition. It is even less clear that anyone will pay anything like the level of $10 billion to $20 billion a year in aid through 2020 that the World Bank calculates is needed to keep the Afghan government and security forces viable as outside military spending ends and Afghanistan seeks to find some way to create a stable economy and structure of governance. The Afghan government does not even possess the ability to calculate its own needs after 2014—it simply copied the World Bank estimate in its request for aid at the Bonn conference.

The seriousness of the problems this creates for any form of strategy in Afghanistan is illustrated by the DOD budget request for FY2013. The Obama administration had previously corrected the years of massive underfunding by the Bush administration that had done so much to allow the Taliban and other insurgents to recover.

The military funding for the Afghan war had risen from $39 billion in FY2008 (versus $148 billion for Iraq) to $52 billion in FY2009 to $100 billion in FY2010 to a peak of $114 billion in FY2011. It had then dropped to $105 billion in FY2012, and the current budget cuts it to $86 billion in FY2013—while providing a place holder sum of $50 billion a year for FY2014 and beyond.

For all the talk about the immense cost of foreign aid and “nation building, the Congressional Research Service estimates that the entire State Department and USAID budget for Afghanistan—where the major expenditure is administrative costs and security for U.S. personnel—averaged well under $2 billion a year from FY2002 to FY2007, was $2.7 billion in FY2008 and $3.1 billion in FY2009, peaked at $5.7 billion in FY2010, and declined to $4.1 billion in FY2011 and $4.3 billion in the FY2012 budget request. The total State-USAID expenditure from FY2001 through FY2012 was $29.4 billion—only part of which was spend on aid—or less than 6 percent of the $523.5 billion spent by DOD.

The State-USAID request for all wartime spending for FY2013 is $8.2 billion, but only $3.3 billion is for Afghanistan; $1.0 billion is for Pakistan, and $4.0 billion is for Iraq. This is a 24 percent annual cut in a critical transition year, and there is no projection for FY2014 and beyond.

These budget requests were made without any meaningful transition plan or clear picture of what would happen as the United States and its allies cut outside spending that the World Bank estimated was equal to the entire domestic GDP of Afghanistan and that funded most of the Afghan government budget and virtually all of the Afghan security forces. Aside from conceptual papers and back of the envelope calculations, the United States had no real funding strategy and no clear picture of how Afghanistan could make it through the coming massive cuts in spending and hold together in the face of the resulting economic shock.

Given the time it takes to act in Afghanistan, and the steadily declining support for the war in the United States and allied countries, credible plans were needed last fall. Moreover, given the lead times involved in the U.S. budget cycle, the request for such a program should have been in the FY2013 budget request—in spite of spending debates and the fact this is an election year. So far, there is no hint of such a plan or coherent funding effort.

Wasteful and corrupt as much of the Afghan government and spending in Afghanistan may be, it cannot suddenly adjust to the coming shock without aid and clear plans to cut spending. Moreover, the only near-term source of major income becomes narcotics, and the combination of sudden funding cuts and lack of security is an invitation to capital flight and brain drains for those who can leave, while forcing power brokers into even more competition and efforts to grab what they can if they stay.

Peace Negotiations as an Exit Strategy or Extension of War by Other Means

This lack of effective Afghan governance and real transition planning—especially outside the north and far west and the limited area of “Kabulstan”—has serious implications as peace negotiations become a larger and larger part of what the United States and its allies now seem to be treating as a de-facto exit strategy.

As noted earlier, it is not clear why the Taliban should take the peace negotiations seriously. There is a bitter covert debate within the U.S. intelligence community over whether the Taliban are “tired,” lacking in effective leadership, divided and seeking peace, or have simply shifted away from clashes with ISAF forces to efforts to control the Afghan population and ride out U.S. and ISAF withdrawal.

The insurgents may not be able to take over the country, but the combination of steadily more real deadlines, U.S. and allied cutbacks, and Afghan government failures make peace talks a serious risk. The Taliban’s statements already show it knows how to game such negotiations to gain status and claim victory.

While the United States focuses on getting the Taliban and Afghan government to the table, and keeping Pakistan from trying to exploit the negotiations, the insurgents focus on winning. One has only to consider how this worked out in past cease-fires in Afghanistan and Pakistan—and in peace negotiations in Vietnam, Nepal, and Cambodia—to see how dangerous this process can be.
Real peace negotiations are by far the best possible answer. Real negotiations, however, involve a willingness to negotiate on both sides, and success requires our side to be strong and credible enough to seriously negotiate.

The Problem of Pakistan

The same bitter internal disputes within the intelligence community over whether ISAF is “winning” against the Taliban also affect some aspects of its assessment of Pakistan. Some feel that Pakistan is the real strategic center of the war and that it is still possible to build effective relations. Others feel Pakistan will play its own game in trying to win influence over the Pashtun areas in Afghan’s south and east even if this means working with the insurgents.

What is clear is that both the United States and Pakistan have made serious mistakes in shaping their relationship, that relations are in a near continuous crisis, that it is highly uncertain that Pakistan will or can put an end to the insurgent sanctuaries in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and Baluchistan, and that cooperation will be limited and shaped by both the security concerns of the Pakistani military and an extraordinary level of popular anger against the United States.

The U.S.-Pakistan relationship is too important not to try to salvage. The chances the United States can do so in ways that will seriously help it win, conduct a successful transition, and/or help the Afghans reach a meaningful peace are uncertain at best—and significantly less probable now than was calculated in shaping the new strategy in 2009.

Rushing Development of the Afghan National Security Forces into an Expensive Failure

These issues do not make the current round of problems between the United States and ISAF and the Afghan government, military, and people any less significant. They do, however, put them in a much broader context and show they are only a fraction of the challenges the United States and its allies face. This week’s headlines should not dominate the debate over what is wrong and how to fix it—whether this means staying or accepting the reality of an exit strategy.

It is important to note, however, that there is yet another series of debates within the U.S. government over the level of unpopularity of U.S. and ISAF troops, how many Afghans see them as a key factor in Afghan violence or resent a foreign presence, and how many Afghan forces present problems in terms of loyalty. This is not a dispute over the fact that many Afghans and Afghan forces still strongly support the U.S. and ISAF presence and the role of outside powers, but it is a dispute over the level of support in conflict areas and over the level of resentment and infiltration in Afghan forces.

More broadly, however, there are critical policy disputes over how to deal with the future of Afghan forces that go far beyond their loyalties:

  • Building up a force of military and police of over 300,000 men has been the most expensive aspect of the U.S. aid program. The force goals and funding levels set in early 2011 are now clearly unaffordable, but there is no real plan for the future. At the same time, the United States and ISAF are rushing toward transfer to an Afghan force that is not ready and doing so at a pace of training and partnering that U.S. experience in Vietnam and Iraq indicates is far too quick. The NATO Training Mission for Afghanistan (NTM-A) has ceased any meaningful public reporting on what is happening, and the data that the United States and ISAF do provide on Afghan readiness is tied to past spending levels and has little to do with effectiveness and future capability.
  • The United States and ISAF are talking about creating Afghan forces than can stand on their own after U.S. and ISAF troops leave by embedding advisers. This requires the equivalent of highly trained Special Forces with linguistic and cultural skills that are in very short supply. Such advisers become vulnerable and need protection from Afghan forces, and a willingness to take casualties in the face of inevitable clashes driven by culture and religion and the fact the insurgents see advisers as a key target.
  • Success requires massive funding indefinitely into the future. The FY2013 funding request is $5.7 billion vs. $11.2 billion in FY2012—roughly a 50 percent cut in one year—while DOD projects maintaining Afghan National Security Forces at a 352,000 end-strength through October 2013. The cut in spending for the Afghan military forces is from $6.5 billion in FY2012 to $3.7 billion in FY2013 (a 43 percent cut), while the force level is supposed to rise from 173,000 in October 2011 to the current final end-strength goal of 195,000 before the end of FY2012. The cut in spending for the Afghan police is from $4.6 billion in FY2012 to $2.0 billion in FY2013 (a 64 percent cut), while the force level is supposed to rise from 139,000 in October 2011 to the current final end strength goal of 157,000 before the end of FY2012. All of these cuts are taking place in spite of the fact that no one now has a stable funding plan for Afghan forces, and this critical aspect of transition planning is as unstable or missing as panning on the civil side.
  • The previous Afghan military plan had elements like an air force that were not scheduled to operate on their own until 2016 at the earliest. There is no clear plan now for the Afghan military.
  • The mix of Afghan regular police, local police, and security forces is totally unstable. Cutbacks in the Afghan regular police seem inevitable given their present cost, but it is unclear what will happen. Moreover, the present Afghan courts, jails, and legal system are far too small and insecure to support transition or to allow the police to function properly.

It is now clear that withdrawal timetables will continue to accelerate, cutbacks will continue to grow, and political and popular attention will continue to shift away from Afghanistan. By 2014, the United States will be largely alone fighting in Afghanistan. The Afghan government will not miraculously rid itself of corruption. Afghan military and police forces will not miraculously become competent. Insurgent forces will not miraculously evaporate. While varying levels of progress may occur in all of these areas, events are unlikely to shift dramatically in our favor.

The most likely result at this point is not an Afghan “transition,” but rather an Afghan “muddle through.” What is not clear is what, exactly, this “muddle” will look like and whether its outcome will be one that the United States can accept. What is clear is that this means the past strategy is dead, and we desperately need either to decide on a workable “transition” strategy for the future and then actually fund and implement it or develop an honest exit strategy that will do minimal damage to the Afghan people and our national interest.

Anthony H. Cordesman holds the Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies 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).

© 2012 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.

For additional analysis see:

Anthony H. Cordesman, “Afghanistan: The Failed Metrics of Ten Years of War,”

Anthony H. Cordesman, “Transition in the Afghanistan-Pakistan War: How Does This War End?”