Afghanistan: A Progress Report
September 15, 2010
The Burke Chair has developed a new, three-part analysis of progress in the Afghan War. This analysis uses maps, graphs, and presentations by ISAF and other organizations to track the key developments in the war, and the key challenges that must still be met.
- Part One is entitled the “Afghan War: Shaping the Campaign,” and is available on the CSIS web site at :
It traces the rise of the insurgency during 2002-2009, the steady growth of Taliban and other insurgent control and influence over much of the country, and the US and allied failure to react until a war that appeared to be won was clearly being lost.
It is a warning of the scale of the challenge that the US and ISAF must meet, and the limited base that they had to begin with when the new strategy was adopted in 2009. It also a warning that efforts to rush towards any form of victory before the new strategy has time to work will almost certainly fail. As one high ranking US officer put it, “they have been at war for nine years, we have only really been at war for two.”
- Part Two is entitled the “Afghan War: Meeting the Challenges of 2010,” and is available on the CSIS web site at:
It shows that progress is being made in meeting several enduring challenges, but that this progress is slow.
Major problems still exist in key areas where progress is essential to the success of the US and NATO/ISAF strategy. These include the adaptiveness and resilience of the insurgency, a continuing rise in the IED threat (which has become the Stinger of this Afghan War), the problems raised by Afghan casualties, the continuing failure of the counternarcotics effort, and the lack of effective unity of effort on both the civil and military sides of the ISAF alliance.
- Part Three is entitled the “Afghan War: Implementing the New Strategy,” and is available on the CSIS web site at:
Once again progress is being made, but that progress is slow, still tentative, and has not yet demonstrated it can be scaled up to achieve broad success or achieve success at the rate that the US and its allies are willing to accept. This is partly a result of the fact that it is taking much longer to put the military and civilian elements of the new strategy in place than was initially anticipated when it was formed. Much of the so-called “surge” is just completing deployment, and will take months to become fully effective.
At the same time, the data in this part of the analysis shows that many challenges are proving to be more serious than many had hoped in forming the new strategy. These include problems in building up the US and allied civil and military capabilities in the field needed to implement the new strategy, massive shortfalls in the capability of Afghan governance, problems in winning the “war of perceptions,” serious problems in the effectiveness of the civilian aid effort, and major problems in developing a mix of Afghan security forces that can both fight the war and provide a lasting basis for “transition.”
None of these issues mean the war cannot be won, if winning means creating an Afghanistan with a moderate level of stability and security, and which is not a base for major international terrorist activity. The reports do show progress in many critical areas. It is clear, however, that the US and ISAF have not yet shown that the new strategy is working, or that either the Afghan or outside resources are available to implement the necessary progress on a national scale. It is also likely that it will be at least the end of 2011 before it is clear whether the new strategy has a high probability of success, and actual success will take another half decade – if such a form of victory can be achieved.
There also are too few data to quantify or map two critical aspects of the war. The prospects for any form of political accommodation with elements of the Taliban and insurgency remain unclear, and most of the practical steps necessary to bring insurgents back into Afghan society are still in the conceptual and planning phase. The political dimension of the war is as critical as the military, governance, and civil/economic dimensions, but it is too early to know how such efforts will be approached in any detail, much less whether a given approach can succeed.
The other great uncertainty is Pakistan. Up to date reporting on the Afghan side of the conflict is difficult to obtain, and the distribution of unclassified ISAF reports has been severely restricted by the US National Security Council. There has never, however, been any matching reporting or analysis of the situation in Pakistan. There has been no credible, detailed official reporting on the nature of the counterinsurgency campaign in Pakistan. The focus on Afghanistan’s internal problems has never been matched by equal transparency in reporting on the scale of Pakistan’s overall national security problems.
The same is true of the depth of reporting on the rise of extremism in Pakistan and its internal tensions and divisions. It is also true of issues like corruption and the quality of governance, and the problems created by power brokers and near feudalism in parts of the country. These are now even more critical issues because of the floods that threaten the economy and development of the entire country. There is as yet no way to predict the impact of the flood, but it could prove critical in destabilizing a country that in many ways represents a much higher strategic priority than Afghanistan and is equally at risk.
If all these factors do add up to any key lessons for the future, they are to warn that the war cannot be won in either Afghanistan or Pakistan -- in even the narrowest sense --without attention to all of the key complexities that shape its course. At the same time, effective implementation of any strategy requires a ruthless degree of objectivity, rather than premature pessimism and calls for an “exit,” or a reliance on optimism and “spin” to somehow deal with deep and critical challenges.
A war this uncertain and experimental requires realistic goals and expectations. It requires transparency to ensure it is fought effectively and address each key challenge realistically. It requires an integrated civil-military effort that focuses on creating effective action in the field rather than new concepts and hollow efforts at coordination. It requires a kind of execution that builds trust and credibility by underpromising and overperforming. The extent to which the US and ISAF reports deal honestly with all of the issues and challenges outlined in these three reports in the coming months will be a critical indicator of whether the US has the leadership required to make this happen.
Most importantly, indicator after indicator in these reports provides a warning that success must be “conditions-based.” No one can guarantee victory, or that temporary victory will produce anything like a lasting end-state in either country. No one can yet promise that the war can be won in any sense in either Afghanistan or Pakistan. One can, however, virtually promise that there is no chance of winning under the conditions reflected in currently available data unless the US and its allies set credible goals, and plan for realistic timelines that are adjusted to match the actual capabilities that are demonstrated in the field. If these indicators justify any prediction about the war, it is that the success or failure of the new strategy cannot be decisively demonstrated in 2011. Having enough strategic patience to wait to see if the war can be won is the only alternative to defeat.