Afghanistan: The Real World Choices in Staying or Leaving

The United States cannot afford to blunder its way into staying in Afghanistan, or to blunder its way out by making the wrong decisions about whether and how to stay. However, blundering seems to be the present option, complicated by long delays in time-sensitive decisions, debates over whether resources should go to other strategic priorities or domestic programs, and sub-debates over the priority for counterinsurgency versus counterterrorism.

At a time when the Obama administration is being attacked in a pointless witch hunt over Libya, no one seems to really care about—or be in charge of—the war we are actually fighting. Congress seems to have abdicated its responsibility to demand real-world plans and justifications for funding the war, and most of the U.S. public and media are treating the issue with indifference. The end result is that the United States is moving forward toward a self-imposed deadline at the end of 2014 without any effective plan for shaping what comes next.

The U.S. military is trying to sell the mission by exaggerating success. The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) wants pretend the war and Afghanistan’s financial crisis don’t matter, and it instead focuses on development as if the fighting and need for stability don’t matter. And the State Department is again talking about creating a “normal” embassy after 2014, when the war is certain to continue and Afghan politics and economics are certain to be anything but “normal.”

Part of the reason may be the fact that the situation is so uncertain that there is no clear case for either staying or leaving. The strategic value of the U.S. commitment is marginal, and the choice of staying in Afghanistan is optional.

Leaving Has Its Costs

Leaving has its costs. One can argue that the size of past, or “sunk,” costs are no reason to stay, but the United States has sacrificed well over 2,000 dead and 18,000 wounded and our allies have lost nearly 1,100 dead. The cost of the war to the United States is well over $600 billion in existing expenditures and will ultimately exceed $1 trillion even if the United States totally leaves the country at the end of 2014 because of the legacy costs of pensions, medical treatment, death benefits, the need to replace equipment and supplies, and the transportation costs of leaving.

This is an immense sacrifice to walk away from if there is a chance of creating a stable Afghanistan at a reasonable cost. It also seems likely that annual costs are likely to drop from a peak annual direct cost for Overseas Contingency Outlays (OCO) of $186.9 billion in FY2008 for both the Iraq and Afghan wars to $87.2 billion for the Afghan war alone in FY2013 and to levels that are likely to be under $20 billion from FY2016 onward.

Depending on the aid and troop contributions from our allies, the actual costs could be much smaller than $20 billion a year, although the United States should not plan on sustained allied funding at the Chicago or Tokyo levels. It should allow for the possible need to make up any allied shortfalls at levels up to contingency military ($5.1 billion) and civil ($5 billion) aid costs of up to a year for at least the initial period from FY2015 to FY2018 and the cost of both maintaining a significant U.S. military and civil presence and contingency costs for emergency U.S. reinforcements. Costs could go well below $10 billion a year under best-case conditions, but no one should ever plan for the best case.

Afghanistan, and especially its leaders, may not be the perfect ally. At same time, the future human cost of leaving affects the lives of at least 26 million Afghans and probably well over 30 million. Of all the arguments for staying, the welfare of the Afghan people has the most moral and ethnical meaning. Nations may not have permanent interests, but they do have responsibilities that go beyond their permanent interests. It also, however, is only an argument if the United States can actually benefit the Afghan people by staying. Half measures that prolong the agony is not a rationale. A meaningful commitment of time, personnel, and money may be.

A quicker and near total end to the Afghan War will also affect the global reputation of the United States, although such costs should not be exaggerated. Most countries—including the populations of most of our European allies—do not support the war, do not believe it is winnable, and have already discounted the impact of U.S. withdrawal because they felt that the U.S. decision to withdraw most of its combat forces by the end of 2014 was a de facto decision to cut U.S. losses and leave.

Leaving Has Its Benefits

Leaving also has mixed benefits. The most obvious benefit is that leaving frees U.S. political, financial, and military resources at a time when the United States has many other higher priorities in the world.

As soon as the United States leaves, the pressures that more than a decade of war have imposed on the U.S. military will be reduced. There will be somewhat fewer casualties—although the number of U.S. and allied casualties is already minimal. With luck, the U.S. military will have time to recover from a decade of overdeployment and concentrate on actually implementing the new strategy announced in early 2012.

The actual savings in dollars and blood will be limited in terms of their impact on total U.S. national security spending and total federal spending. As a rough guess, they will be well under $200 billion for the period between 2014 and 2018 and could easily be under $125 billion. There is no way to be sure because the Obama administration and its critics in Congress have done nothing to create credible plans for the future with credible costs and credible analyses of the risks and benefits.

However, even marginal savings could be more important given the pressure on national security spending. There is an inherent absurdity in U.S. budget plans that assume the United States will not have to spend on new overseas contingencies during the entire next decade. There is also an inherent absurdity in assuming that anyone can predict the future 10 years ahead and that any of the budget plans now being debated can shape federal spending that far in the future.

Setting the Right Strategic Priorities

Ever since al Qaeda was driven out of Afghanistan in late 2001 and early 2002, Afghanistan has been an optional war. Today, Afghanistan is no longer a major center of the international terrorist threat to the United States. Iran, North Korea, and the wide range of violent extremist movements in other countries (including Pakistan) all have far higher priority.

The United States has no critical strategic interests in Central Asia that it can serve by staying in Afghanistan. If anything, its departure will force Russia and China to fill the gap in Central Asia and force local states to be more realistic in dealing with their own populations and needs. The New Silk Road may exist someday, but it will not exist for the coming decade, and if it does, it will be of marginal value to U.S. businesses and the U.S. economy.

The impact of staying in Afghanistan on U.S. interests in South Asia is equally limited. As the Pakistani election has just shown, the U.S. presence in Afghanistan has done more to alienate Pakistan than make it into an ally, and the two parties that seem to have won the election won by making tacit alliances with Islamists and opposing crackdowns on the Pakistan Taliban and drone strikes.

Staying in Afghanistan will not help bring security to Pakistan, stabilize it, or somehow protect its nuclear weapons. As for India, its actions have already made it clear that it will act in its own interests and not become a military ally. While the United States should do everything it can diplomatically to prevent another India-Pakistan conflict, this effort is far better served by a United States that works equally with both states and does not provide military aid that will be seen as favoring one side in ways that could affect a future conflict, or arming both sides in ways that could make such a conflict worse.

In short, the new strategy the United States announced in early 2012—that stated we should not fight counterinsurgency and nation-building wars on the scale of Afghanistan and Iraq, gave equal priority to supporting vital U.S. strategic interests in the Middle East and Asia, called for a limited rebalancing of U.S. forces from Europe to the Pacific, and called for new partnerships in Africa and Latin America—represents our real strategic military and economic priorities. As other powers have learned over the last few thousand years, the best way to win the Great Game in Asia is often to stand aside and force regional states to play it.

Making a Realistic Assessment of the Conditions in Afghanistan

It is time to strip away all of the vacuous rhetoric about what we can and cannot do in Afghanistan. Afghanistan is not the key to some meaningful and enduring strategic or economic role in Central Asia. It is not an economic success or close to some form of quick and easy victory. Afghanistan is a U.S. strategic interest but a moderate and fading one at best in a future where the United States needs to be far more careful about setting priorities and using its resources.

In practice, this means the United States needs to take a far more realistic approach to what is happening in and around Afghanistan if it is to accurately assess the cost-benefit ratio of staying or leaving. This is not the time to overhaul the mission or promise too much. It also is not the time to say a useful mission cannot be accomplished.

The United States needs to be far more honest about what strategic patience and staying in Afghanistan really mean:

  • There is no securable “end state.” No matter how successful we are during the transition and in the near term, there are too many pressures and uncertainties for the United States to achieve a clearly definable end state. The United States may be able to help create the conditions for Afghan progress, security, stability, and development, but it cannot guarantee or control the future. In fairness, the very concept of an “end state” is almost always a national security myth. No matter how successful a U.S. military effort may be in the short term, the United States can only influence the future, never predict or control it.
  • Pakistan is not going to change and tensions with Afghanistan and India will continue. Pakistan and India are going to pursue their own narrow interests in Afghanistan. They are going to do so competitively, and Pakistani-Afghan tensions are going to remain over the Durand line, Pakistani ties to the Taliban, and interests in any peace settlement. The United States should continue to seek to resolve these issues through diplomacy.

However, the United States should also understand that the overwhelming probability is that it will make no meaningful progress in doing so during the critical transition period from 2013 to 2016 and that Pakistan will not change its policies until it sees an Afghanistan stabilized and strong enough to make Pakistan negotiate.

  • The Afghan government remains weak and corrupt. Its powerbrokers determine its future rather than its legislature and elected officials. Hamid Karzai continues to pursue his own personal agenda in government with a weak and self-serving legislature whose president appoints all minsters and most key provincial and district officials and commanders. Many districts still lack effective governance and rule of law.

No clearly capable leaders have emerged as candidates for the 2014 election, and talk about efforts at national consensus remain talk. While the central government has improved its ability to spend money, it has not shown that it has improved its ability to spend honestly, effectively, and to meet valid requirements.

A narco-economy remains a key and growing part of its agricultural economy and a significant amount of its total GDP, and criminal networks have become a major subset of power brokers. While the government has talked about progress in anticorruption and reform, it has yet to make more than token headway.

(For a detailed analysis of the issues involved, see The Afghan War in 2013: Meeting the Challenges of Transition--Volume I: The Challenges of Leadership and Governance.)

  • The Afghan government and the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) are not losing populated areas, but the insurgents still control or influence major areas and any progress between now and the end of 2014 is uncertain and will probably be very limited. ISAF stopped reporting metrics for progress in the fighting in March 2013 once it became clear that its primary metric—enemy-initiated attacks—showed a decline in the security situation and not progress. None of the other metrics dealing with combat performance in the most recent Department of Defense semiannual report showed a meaningful improvement in the security situation between 2008 and 2012.

Moreover, the so-called transition of responsibility does not mean security in the areas transferred, and NATO experts assess that the later tranches of transferred territory will not be under control of the Afghan government for years after 2014.

At the same time, there are no unclassified measures of the trends in areas controlled or influenced by the Taliban and other insurgents. Unclassified metrics and maps show that Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) and ISAF are still in control of most population centers and most of the country, the Afghan Army is increasingly in the lead at the battalion level, and Afghan local forces are making gains.

The end result is that the Afghan forces may be able to hold most populated areas if the Afghan government elected in 2014 has broad support from all major ethnic and sectarian groups and the Afghan forces are funded from the outside, but Afghanistan is likely to have an ongoing insurgency occupying significant—if less populated—parts of the country well beyond 2016. Afghanistan will be a nation at war long beyond 2014.

(For a detailed analysis of the issues involved, see The Afghan War in 2013: Meeting the Challenges of Transition--Volume III: Security and the ANSF.)

  • Elements of the Taliban and other insurgents may negotiate if they have a narrow and selfish reason to do so. However, assertions that insurgents are tired or less willing fight are not a substitute for evidence, indicators, and analysis, and the insurgent leaders feel they are winning and can wait out the departure of U.S. and other ISAF forces. There is no credible unclassified evidence that the Taliban’s top leaders feel they are defeated and will do anything more than use peace negotiations for propaganda and divide-and-conquer purposes until they see a post-2014 Afghan government and security forces emerge that is strong and stable enough to make them negotiate.

They will continue focused offensive action in an attempt to push out the United States and its allies more quickly and decisively, try to challenge the legitimacy of the Afghan government and election, and continue targeting Afghan officials and security forces. Peace in piece may be possible, but for the top insurgent leadership, peace negotiations will remain an extension of war by other means.

(For a detailed analysis of the issues involved, see The Afghan War in 2013: Meeting the Challenges of Transition--Volume III: Security and the ANSF.)

  • Afghanistan will not move toward significant development and full self-sufficiency until the transition is over. The World Bank has found there is no credible probability that either a “New Silk Road” or natural resources like mines are going to provide anything like the revenues necessary to stabilize the Afghan economy before 2018. The CIA estimates that government revenues were $2.243 billion versus expenditures of $3.963 billion in 2012 and that the country received $15.7 billion in outside spending and aid with a GDP of only $19.95 billion at the official exchange rate and $33.55 billion even in PPP terms.

Claims about high average GDP growth ignore the fact that such measurements are speculative and have depended largely on agricultural growth and rainfall over the last five years. Afghan per capita income, even after years of aid and military spending, ranks 219 out of 229 countries in the world according to CIA estimates as of May 2013. Estimates of the poverty level and unemployment are now badly dated, but the CIA lists the former at 36 percent (2008) and the latter at 35–40 percent (2005, 2008).

(For a detailed analysis of the issues involved, see The Afghan War in 2013: Meeting the Challenges of Transition--Volume I: The Challenges of Leadership and Governance and The Afghan War in 2013: Meeting the Challenges of Transition--Volume II: Afghan Economics and Outside Aid.)

  • The Afghan National Security forces will not be fully ready to assume responsibility until well after 2016. The Afghan Army and elite paramilitary elements of the Afghan police are making real progress at the brigade and battalion equivalent levels but still lack adequate leadership and noncommissioned officers and have a serious attrition problem.

The rest of the Afghan Army is being rushed toward self-sufficiency at rates that are driven by deadlines and not objective assessments of risk. The presence of sufficient U.S. and allied advisers and partners to reach down to the brigade level and through the command and enabling/sustainability/logistic will be critical, until at least 2016.

The Afghan Air Force is not supposed to be even minimally self-sufficient until 2016 and has fallen behind schedule.

The bulk of the various elements of the Afghan police will remain corrupt and ineffective. They lack the support of local governance and the other elements of a functioning justice system in many areas. They will not be an effective counterinsurgency force and will not be able to hold or build without Afghan Army support.

The Afghan local police and other local forces may be a key line of layered defense, but a limited number of positive indicators do not yet show this will be the case unless they are supported by the Afghan Army and effective outside support and advisers. Other paramilitary elements like the Afghan Public Protection Force (APPF) have fallen far behind schedule and present serious problems.

(For a detailed analysis of the issues involved, see The Afghan War in 2013: Meeting the Challenges of Transition--Volume III: Security and the ANSF.)

  • Our allies will take a very divided and uncertain post-2014 stand unless there is a clear and decisive U.S. commitment to stay. Key allies like Germany and Italy have shown they will support the post-ISAF with some 2,000 to 2,500 personnel in the west and the north post-2014 if the United States provides clear leadership and support. Nations like Britain, Croatia, and Australia will provide strong support as well but only if the United States backs its word about commitment with a convincing presence and aid resources.

Leave, Blunder Indecisively On, or Make a Real, Enduring Commitment?

At this point in time, the United States has three choices. It can leave, it can blunder indecisively on and hope for the best, or it can take the steps necessary to give the transition after 2014 the highest probability of success it can at a cost that is reasonable in terms of Afghanistan’s limited strategic value and all of the uncertainties involved.

The United States can leave by using any of the many reasons and excuses for leaving that Karzai and the situation in Afghanistan constantly give the United States to leave. This would effectively replace Senator George Aiken’s call for the United States “declare victory and leave” in Vietnam with “declare a failed ally and leave”—a strategy perilously close to what it has already done in Iraq. The United States also does not have to make it choice to leave openly or explicitly. It can underresource its efforts in Afghanistan and let the Afghan conflict die a slow death, progressively stepping up its complaints about Afghan failures and reducing its level of effort.

The United States has already shown it can be indecisive and blunder on with uncertain and underresourced efforts. The previous assessments of the problems now developing in the war in Afghanistan may be more negative than the conceptual PowerPoint fantasies and mission oversell that shape the content of far too many NATO, ISAF, and U.S. government statements about Afghanistan. But they do not mean that even a limited and half-formed U.S. effort through 2018 and beyond cannot produce a relatively stable Afghanistan that will not be dominated by the insurgents and will offer the Afghan people real hope.

Still, the Taliban and other insurgents may be too weak to do more than hold on to limited areas outside the main population centers, and an Afghanistan that devolves into power brokers and ethnic/sectarian areas may remain weak and impoverished but still avoid being any kind of strategic threat.

At the same time, more realistic and decisive U.S. polices can probably sharply raise the probability of a successful Afghan transition—and achieve the kind of U.S. “victory” that is achievable—at a marginal increase in cost. Setting impossible standards and benchmarks does not help either the Afghans or U.S. policy. Setting realistic standards and benchmarks may.

However, if the administration and both sides in Congress are to correct this situation, they need to make the following changes in U.S. policies and actions:

  • Admit that Afghanistan lacks effective leadership and governance, has a weak economy that faces critical future shocks as aid and military spending drop, and will remain at war at least through 2016–2018. Best cases do happen but very rarely, and denial that problems exist almost always becomes a road to failure.

No U.S. policy can succeed if it does not reflect the reality that Afghanistan will still be at war after the end of 2014, that it may lack an effective leader and functional national consensus, and that its economy could be in crisis or recession. Afghanistan is not in transition to success; it is still an exercise in armed nation building.

  • Do not try to choose a future Afghan leader, but focus on the quality of leadership and unity of Afghanistan in 2014 and not only the legitimacy of the election. It is absurd to focus on the legitimacy and security of a presidential election versus quietly encouraging competent candidates to run, pushing for enough unity among top power brokers to ensure the country holds together, and ensuring Karzai does not manipulate the election to produce an ineffective leader or to serve his own interests.

Afghanistan is not a stable, normal country where the quality of elections is the critical issue. Leadership and unity are critical, and the Afghan people will respond accordingly, but the best election in the world and failed leadership will be an exercise in futility.

(For a detailed analysis of the issues involved, see The Afghan War in 2013: Meeting the Challenges of Transition--Volume I: The Challenges of Leadership and Governance.)

  • Don’t pursue goals like giving the Afghan central government control over 50 percent of aid without tying all aid to effective governance and use of the money. The United States cannot make the Afghan legislature a meaningful body this late in the game or push for a restructuring of the presidency and the election of real representative legislators or elected top provincial and district officials. However, it can work with its allies to make it clear that keeping the grossly corrupt and incompetent officials in office will mean that they are publicly outed and that no aid money comes while they remain in office. More anticorruption bodies and laws will not help in time to matter, if ever. Making money clearly conditional will.

(For a detailed analysis of the issues involved, see The Afghan War in 2013: Meeting the Challenges of Transition--Volume I: The Challenges of Leadership and Governance and The Afghan War in 2013: Meeting the Challenges of Transition--Volume II: Afghan Economics and Outside Aid.)

  • Focus on economic stability in wartime conditions and not on development until Afghanistan has made it through the critical transition years. There is no consensus on just how serious Afghanistan’s economic problems will be as aid and military spending phase down during 2014–2018, and particularly in the critical 2015–2016 period. The World Bank study has sufficient caveats so it may badly understate the risks, and the State Department and USAID seem to deal with the problem though a mix of denial, exaggerated estimates of economic progress, and assuming a de factoend to the fighting.

The reality is that no one knows how many aid pledges will be kept or how much aid is needed simply to provide economic stability for the elite that governs and provides security, to meet popular expectations in heavily populated areas, and limit the ability of the Taliban to take advantage of the situation and return to exploiting the narco-economy. The United States, its allies, and the Afghan government all need to honestly assess the risks involved, be ready to provide aid to help Afghanistan through the transition, and focus on building stability and popular support in a wartime economy.

More broadly, the United States needs to turn to the World Bank to compensate for USAID and the State Department’s inability to assess the Afghan economy and carry out meaningful economic and development planning. More than a decade of failure by the State Department and USAID to create meaningful economic analysis and plans and cope with the reality of war, and the total failure of the Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review (QDDR) to improve any aspect of the Afghan aid program, means the administration and Congress need to honestly face the lack of U.S. core competence in these areas and try to build on the one international institution that has shown some competence.

The United States must be prepared to fund Afghan economic stability, to tie such aid to the Afghan promises of reform made at the Tokyo conference, and to compensate for failures by some countries to meet their pledges on a timely or useful basis or at all. It needs to seek some form of effective international coordination to replace the present near chaos in national efforts and work with the Afghan government to develop competence to plan and manage its use of aid more effectively.

(For a detailed analysis of the issues involved, see The Afghan War in 2013: Meeting the Challenges of Transition--Volume II: Afghan Economics and Outside Aid.)

  • Support a country team effort that recognizes Afghanistan is still a dependent failed state that is at war, is sized accordingly, and has enough facilities in Afghanistan to cover the key parts of the country. Afghanistan is making real progress in many areas, but it is at least half a decade away from being a “normal” country.

A “normal embassy” and limited State Department and USAID roles in country will fail to meet critical needs that require a fully civil partner to the military, an effective U.S. aid presence in the field, and enough support for the Afghan government to ease it through transition in the years beyond 2014. There needs to be a clear U.S. plan and budget to support this kind of State-USAID civil presence and activity.

  • Structure the post-2014 military aid effort to effectively support security and stability—stop trying to downsize the effort to the point of unacceptable risks. Far too much of the U.S. and ISAF effort now oversells the level of progress in the Afghan National Security Forces, underestimates the possible costs of supporting them, and leaves the level of U.S. military forces and advisory support that is needed unaddressed.

As is the case with every aspect of U.S. “plans” for economic and governance aid, there are no public plans, and there is no credible transparency as to how well developed given elements of the ANSF really are, what force levels are required (particularly by force element) and what levels of aid in terms of money, advisers, partners, enablers, and emergency reinforcements are needed.
Moreover, there is far too little realism as to how quickly Afghan forces have been built, their lack of experience and structure—particularly in combat and service support, sustainability/logistics, higher command and intelligence. There has been real progress in all of these areas, but the ANSF was not effectively funded until FY2008, its development has been in constant transition, and it is years away from proper readiness.

NATO Training Mission–Afghanistan (NTM-A) and USCENTCOM experts indicate it would take between 10,000 and 13,600 U.S. military personnel and contractors to provide adequate advisers and support at the corps to brigade level, the enablers the Afghan Army will need until the rest of its force structure matures, protection and mobility for U.S. and allied advisory teams, emergency medical support, military support on a limited contingency basis, and air support to compensate for the fact the ANAF will not be ready until after 2016 at the earliest.

They also indicate that the initial annual cost is almost impossible to determine but is more likely to be between $5.1 billion and $5.7 billion for a fully adequate force than the $4.1 billion that is generally used in planning. However, it is clear that neither personnel nor aid requirements really have the kind of planning documentation necessary to justify them, and that time and cost pressure have dictated much of the current planning effort.

The United States and its allies need to be ready to provide all of the support the Afghan Army and key paramilitary elements of the police need during critical transition years of 2015–2016 and to ensure they become fully able to take the lead in all of the missions in all of the areas required.

There needs to be enough U.S. and allied personnel operating at enough different levels in the Afghan National Army and Afghan Air Force to make sure the country can complete the transition after 2014. The cost may or may not exceed the nominal figures of $4.1 billion a year, but providing adequate financing during what may by the “perfect storm” years of 2015–2016 is critical.

A zero-based review is needed of the other elements of the Afghan police to deal with their corruption, effectiveness and limitations, lack of a supporting justice system, and the severe limits in support from Afghan civil governance. The present plans for the police imply more warfighting capability than they are likely to obtain and tend to ignore the fact that police are a component of the overall structure of governance and justice system in both the “hold” and “build” phase of armed nation building and counterinsurgency.

More broadly, there need to be clear assessments and plans that show how the mix of Afghan National Army, Afghan National Police, Afghan local police, and local anti-Taliban forces are progressing in providing security and stability and a layered defense of key population centers and logistic routes. The Afghan local police seem to be making real progress, and local anti-Taliban forces seem to be increasing.

Finally, the present U.S.-ISAF compartmentalization of assessments for the ANSF and insurgent forces needs to be replaced by regular updated and both classified and public net assessments of their relative effectiveness and the overall trends in fighting between the government and the insurgents. There will never be a magic set of metrics or analytic tools that fit the entire country, but planning and assessment can focus on net assessments using a wide range of measures in key combat areas and the priorities for further U.S. support and aid.

All of these tools have one practical goal: To ensure that the overall mix of the ANSF forces can support an effective security and stability effort, become fully capable of operating on their own within a reasonable time, get the mix of outside funding and personnel they need during transition, and that resource levels are not provided under ceilings that almost ensure failure over time.

(For a detailed analysis of the issues involved, see The Afghan War in 2013: Meeting the Challenges of Transition--Volume III: Security and the ANSF.)

  • Make it openly clear that the U.S. commitment to Afghanistan is limited and conditional. If the United States is to stay, and encourage its allies to stay, it should make it unambiguously clear to the Afghans that it will only stay if the 2014 election produces a meaningful leader and degree of national unity, if Afghanistan is beginning a meaningful process of economic reform and planning, if corruption and the abuse of power brokering it is kept within the limits that can win popular support, if the government takes the steps necessary to make the ANSF and local resistance movements effective, and if the government gives the United States and its allies a strategic framework agreement that allows them to be effective.

These conditions should be set in ways that clearly meet Afghan needs and deal with Afghanistan on terms that suit its culture and values, rather than make impossible demands for progress, anticorruption, and improved effectiveness. They should be real, transparent, and make it clear that staying is conditional, no vital U.S. interests are involved, and the United States can and will leave if the Afghans fail to do their part in any critical area.

(For a detailed analysis of the issues involved, see The Afghan War in 2013: Meeting the Challenges of Transition--Volume III: Security and the ANSF.)

  • Set clear requirements for a Strategic Framework Agreement that allows the United States to be effective. As part of this process, the United States should make its conditions for keeping U.S. forces in Afghanistan unambiguously clear to the Afghan government and that it will withdraw if the proper facilities, legal conditions, local support, and rules of engagement are not met.
  • Openly and publicly assess and debate the cost-benefit ratio of staying under these real-world conditions and the level of military and civil resources the United States will provide if it stays. If the United States is to do more than blunder on, blunder out, or fail through half measures, there needs to be a clear plan for the future that honestly addresses the whys and ifs in staying, the conditions for staying, the tasks the United States and its allies must perform, and the probable costs.

The conditions that shape these assessments and plans will change with time, and this exercise should be annual, open to outside review and comment, and subject of congressional review as part of an integrated budget request and plan that includes all federal agencies and does not split the Department of Defense, Department of State, USAID, and other agency roles.

The United States, the Afghans, and our allies have needed such analyses, integrated plans and budgets, and transparency throughout the Iraq and Afghan Wars. If the Obama administration cannot provide them now and if Congress cannot play a bipartisan role in reviewing them, staying on is almost certain to be an expensive and damaging failure.

This is not an easy list of requirements to meet and the legacy of failure over the past decade is a warning of the difficulties involved. At the same time, many of of the necessary elements already exist in some form, and the United States can draw on existing efforts. After more than a decade, the time has come for far more realistic assessments, competent plans with well-defined costs, meaningful congressional and public debate, and hard choices.

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).

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