The Afghanistan-Pakistan War at the End of 2011

Strategic Failure? Talk Without Hope? Tactical Success? Spend Not Build (And Then Stop Spending)?

The US faces hard decisions in the Afghanistan/Pakistan War that are growing steadily harder as the time before transition runs out, the US faces growing budget pressures, and the situation in Pakistan and Afghanistan becomes more unstable. The Burke Chair has prepared a report that assesses the chances for strategic success based on new US government, UN, and NGO reporting.

The report is entitled The Afghanistan War at the End of 2011. It is available on the CSIS web site at:

A separate annex of detailed charts and maps comparing US, UN and other recent reporting on the war, entitled Afghanistan: Violence, Casualties, and Tactical Progress: 2011 , is available on the CSIS web site at:

The report addresses the grim fact that the US is on the thin edge of strategic failure in two wars: the war in Iraq and the war in Afghanistan/Pakistan. Yet failure may never reach the point of outright defeat in either country.

Iraq may never become hostile, revert to civil war, or come under anything approaching full Iranian control. Afghanistan and Pakistan may never become major sanctuaries for terrorist attacks on the US and its allies. Yet Iraq is already a grand strategic failure. The US went to war for the wrong reasons, let Iraq slide into a half decade of civil war, and failed to build an effective democracy and base for Iraq’s economic development. Its tactical victories – if they last – did little more than put an end to a conflict it help create, and the US failed to establish anything like the strategic partnership it sought.

The US invasion did bring down a remarkably unpleasant dictatorship, but at cost of some eight years of turmoil and conflict, some 5,000 US and allied lives and 35,000 wounded, and over 100,000 Iraqi lives. The Congressional Research Service estimates that the dollar cost of the war to the US alone is over $823 billion through FY2012, and SIGIR estimates that the US and its allies will have spent some $75 billion on aid – much of it with little lasting benefit to Iraq.

The outcome in Afghanistan and Pakistan now seems unlikely to be any better. While any such judgments are subjective, the odds of meaningful strategic success have dropped from roughly even in 2009, to between 4:1 to 6:1 against at the end of 2011. It is all very well for senior US officials to discuss “fight, talk, and build,” and for creating a successful transition before the US and ISAF allies withdraw virtually all of their combat troops and make massive cuts in the flow of outside money to Afghanistan. The US, however, has yet to present a credible and detailed plan for transition that shows that the US and its allies can achieve some form of stable, strategic outcome in Afghanistan that even approaches the outcome of the Iraq War.

Far too many US actions have begun to look like a cover for an exit strategy from Afghanistan, and the US has never provided a credible set of goals – indeed any goals at all – for the strategic outcome it wants in Pakistan. Unless the US does far more to show it can execute a transition that has lasting strategic benefits in Afghanistan and Pakistan well after 2014, it is all too likely to repeat the tragedy of its withdrawal from Vietnam.

Such a US strategic failure may not mean outright defeat, although this again is possible. It is far from clear that the Taliban and other insurgents will win control of the country, that Afghanistan will plunge into another round of civil war, or that Afghanistan and Pakistan will see the rebirth of Al Qaida or any other major Islamist extremist or terrorist threat.

However, the human and financial costs have far outstripped the probable grand strategic benefits of the war. Given the likely rush to a US and ISAF exit, cuts in donor funding and in-country expenditures, and unwillingness to provide adequate funding after 2014, Afghanistan is likely to have less success than Iraq in building a functioning democracy with control over governance, economic development, and security. Worse, Pakistan is far more strategically important and is drifting towards growing internal violence and many of the aspects of a failed state.

Even if Afghanistan gets enough outside funding to avoid an economic crisis and civil war after US and allied withdrawal, it will remain a weak and divided state dependent on continuing US and outside aid through 2024 and beyond, confining any strategic role to one of open-ended dependence. As for a nuclear-armed Pakistan, it is far more likely to be a disruptive force in Afghanistan than a constructive one, and there is little sign it will become any form of real ally or effectively manage its growing internal problems.

Regardless of which outcome occurs, the result will still be strategic failure in terms of cost-benefits to the US and its allies. The Afghan War has cost the US and its allies over 2,700 dead and well over 18,000 wounded. There are no reliable estimates of total Afghan casualties since 2001, but some estimates put direct deaths at around 18,000 and indirect deaths at another 3,200-20,000.  And the war is far from over.

The Congressional Research Service estimates that the dollar cost of the war to the US alone is over $527 billion through FY2012, and SIGAR estimates that the US and its allies will have spent some $73 billion on aid – much of it again with little lasting benefit. Similar cost estimates are lacking for Pakistan, but they have also taken significant casualties and received substantial amounts of US aid.

The key question now is whether the US can minimize the scale of its strategic failure. Can the US move from concepts and rhetoric to working with its allies, Afghanistan, and Pakistan to create a credible transition plan that can secure Congressional and popular support and funding? Can they actually implement such a transition plan with the effectiveness that has been lacking in its efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan to date?

Some form of success (or limited failure) may still be possible, but the analysis in this paper warns that nothing the US government has said to date raises a high probability that this will be the case, and that much of the progress it has reported may be misleading. There are four critical areas wherein any lasting level of success is now unlikely:

  • Strategic failure? The US has not shown that it can bring about enough of the elements required to create Afghan security and stability in a way that creates more than a marginal possibility that Afghanistan will have a successful transition by 2014, or at any time in the near future. It has never announced any plan that would make this possible. It has no strategic plans or clearly defined goals for Pakistan, although it has far more strategic importance than Afghanistan.
  • Talk Without Hope: It is far from clear that any major insurgent faction feels it is either losing, or cannot simply outwait, US and allied withdrawal. Nor is it clear that Pakistan will ever seriously attempt to eliminate insurgent sanctuaries within its borders. If insurgents do chose to negotiate it may well be because they feel the US, allied, and GIRoA position is becoming so weak they can use diplomacy as a form of war by other means and speed their victory through deception and by obtaining US, allied, and GIRoA concessions. They have already used similar tactics in Helmand and Pakistan, and Nepal and Cambodia are warnings that “talk” may do little more than cover an exit.

  • Tactical Success? The very real gains the US and ISAF have made in the south may not be possible to hold if the US move forces east, and the US and ISAF are cutting forces so quickly that it is doubtful they can achieve the goals that ISAF set for 2012. ANSF development is being rushed forward as future resources are being cut, and it is far from clear that the insurgents cannot outwait the US and ISAF and win a war of political attrition without having to win tactical battles in the field. The ISAF focus on significant acts of violence is a questionable approach to assessing both tactical and strategic progress, and ANSF transition has been little more than political symbolism.

  • Spend Not Build? The latest Department of Defense and SIGAR reports do little to indicate that US and allied efforts to improve the quality of government, the rule of law, representative democracy, and economic development are making anything like the needed level of progress. They are a warning that Afghanistan and the Afghan government may face a massive recession as funding is cut, and the dreams of options like mining income and a “new Silk road” are little more than a triumph of hope over credible expectations. Once again, the very real progress being made in the development of the ANSF is being rushed as future funding is being cut, and it is unclear that current gains will be sustained or that the US has sufficient time left in which to find credible answers to these questions, build Congressional, domestic, and allied support, and then to begin implementing them. It is now entering the 11th year of a war for which it seems to have no clear plans and no clear strategic goals. The new strategy that President Obama outlined in 2009 is now in tatters.

There are no obvious prospects for stable relations with Pakistan or for getting more Pakistani support. The Karzai government barely functions, and new elections must come in 2014 – the year combat forces are supposed to leave.  US and allied troop levels are dropping to critical levels. No one knows what presence – if any – would stay after 2014. Progress is taking place in creating an Afghan army, but without a functioning state to defend, the ANSF could fragment. Far less progress is taking place in creating the police and justice system. Massive aid to Afghanistan has produced far too few tangible results, and the Afghan economy is likely to go into a depression in 2014 in the face of massive aid and spending cuts that will cripple both the economy and Afghan forces.

It is time the Obama Administration faced these issues credibly and in depth. The US and its allies need a transition plan for Afghanistan that either provides a credible way to stay – with credible costs and prospects for victory – or an exit plan that reflects at least some regard for nearly 30 million Afghans and our future role in the region. It needs to consider what will happen once the US leaves Afghanistan and what longer term approaches it should take to a steadily more divided and unstable Pakistan.

In the case of the US, this also means a detailed transition plan that spells out exactly how the US plans to phase down its civil and military efforts, what steps it will take to ensure that transition is stable through 2014, and a clear estimate of the probable cost. The US needs a meaningful action plan that Congress, the media, area experts, and the American people can debate and commit themselves to supporting. If President Obama cannot provide such a plan within months, and win the support necessary to implement it, any hope of salvaging lasting success in the war will vanish.

Even if the US does act on such a plan and provide the necessary resources, it may not succeed, and Pakistan may become progressively more unstable regardless of US aid and actions in Afghanistan.  Any de facto “exit strategy” will make this future almost inevitable.

The most likely post-2014 outcome in Afghanistan, at this point in time, is not a successful transition to a democratic Afghan government in control of the entire country.  Nor is it likely that the Taliban will regain control of large parts of the country.  Rather, the most likely outcome is some sort of middle ground where the insurgents control and operate in some areas, while others are controlled by various Pashtun groups. Some form of the Northern Alliance is likely to reappear, and the role of the central government in Kabul would be limited, or caught up in civil conflict. 

This would not be what some US policymakers call “Afghan good enough,” but would rather be “Afghan muddle through.” What, exactly, such an “Afghan muddle” would look like, and how divided and violent it would be, is nearly impossible to predict.  But it is the most likely outcome at this point and the US needs to start now to examine the different options it has for dealing with a post-2014 Afghanistan that is far less stable and self-sufficient than current plans predict, and make real plans for a Pakistan whose government and military cannot move the country forward and contain its rising internal violence.  As is the case in Iraq, strategic failure in the Afghanistan/Pakistan War cannot end in a total US exit. The US must be ready to deal with near and long term consequences.