Afghanistan: Remembering the War We are Still Fighting
September 16, 2013
As Americans have been debating Syria, and amid almost endless polls about war fatigue and US reluctance to engage in military action, we continue to fight a war in Afghanistan. That war has continued to kill and wound American soldiers at a time when a July 2013 ABC poll finds 67% of Americans feel the war was not worth fighting and split sharply on whether we should continue to fight in Afghanistan – with 43% opposed and 53% in favor – of a continued American presence in the war.
A War Without Transparency, Coherent Plans, Meaningful Budgets, Cost Analysis, or Credible Measures of Effectiveness
The price in blood and treasure remains high. The rate of US and allied casualties has dropped sharply as NATO/ISAF has pushed Afghan forces into doing most of the fighting – with almost all US and allied combat troops to depart by the end of 2014. Nevertheless, the US casualty totals remain grim and continue to increase – even if we ignore the sacrifices of the Afghan forces and those of our allies. As of September 12th, a total of 2,136 US soldiers had died, 1,771 had been killed in action, and 19,287 had been wounded. This is roughly half the total cost in blood of the shorter but more intense fighting in Iraq.
At a time when we are debating spending hundreds of millions of dollars on Syria, the Department of Defense’s OCO budget – now dominated by the Afghan war – has dropped from a post-Iraq peak level of spending of $115.1 billion in FY2012 to $88.5 billion in FY2013. The President has requested another $85.5 billion for FY2014 – the last year in which US combat troops in Afghanistan will be present in any numbers, and he seems likely to get at least $80 billion, and probably more.
Somewhat ironically, these is no real way to know how much the war has really cost to date in terms of either the full military or civil expenditures, and even less ability to guess at what it may cost in the future. There is no official government reporting or break out of the total interagency, government-wide cost of the Afghan War alone to date.
In the military case, there has been no official attempt to estimate the future cost of medical treatment, replacing equipment, and reconfiguring and reshaping forces. In the civil case, the closest to a spending analysis has been the limited work of the Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction (SIGAR) and GAO to get top line figures without producing clearly defined totals and data that provides any clear overview of what has actually been spent in country and what it did or did not accomplish. In both cases, there has been no public effort to project the future cost to the end of calendar 2014 – much less any effort to project a total cost from 2015 onwards.
Bipartisan Profiles in Neglect, Incompetence, and/or Cowardice
This is not a partisan failure. The Bush Administration never issued any reports on the total cost of the Iraq or Afghan Wars. Aside from rhetoric, empty annual topline figures, and PowerPoint levels of summary narrative, neither Bush nor Obama have ever presented a clear plan or set of past of projected costs for the war, and no secretary of State or Secretary of Defense over this era has done any better. The Department of Defense – and two respective Inspector Generals for Iraqi and Afghan reconstruction (SIGIR and SIGAR) – have provided regular reporting on the war but never reported on plans or total costs. The GAO has called for better planning and reporting efforts, and the Congressional Research Service did attempt to cost the wars for a while. The State Department and USAID, however, have never issued a single meaningful report on the overall civil effort in either the Afghan or Iraq conflicts.
As for the Congress, some members and committees did try to obtain meaningful plans, costs, and measures of effectiveness. The Congress as a whole – acting with one of its few truly bipartisan and consistent efforts in recent times – never bothered to ask for the costs, a plan, an estimate of future costs, or measures progress and effectiveness. Executive Branch or Legislature, fingers can point in every direction as long as they end up pointing at the mirror.
The Need to Come to Grips with Reality
This might not matter if we were either decisively winning or if we were clearly leaving. The fact is, however, that the latest Department of Defense semi-annual report on the war does not provide a single metric to show the “surge” did anything more than reverse the Taliban momentum and make temporary gains in some areas while the Taliban and other extremists shifted to others.
We are still planning for a transition where Afghanistan cannot manage or fund its military and security forces, or operate them without US and allied military support through at least 2016, and probably to 2018. The Afghan government is equally unable to manage or fund its civil sector and economy as it undergoes the impact of losing significant amounts of aid and military spending.
We and our allies have made vague pledges to continue military support at the Chicago conference in May 2012 and the Tokyo Conference in July 2012. But, there has been no effort to provide public plans in meaningful detail, no serious presentation of probable US costs relative to allied contribution and Afghan capabilities to manage and spend.
The NATO/ISAF body that is responsible for planning the training and equipping of the Afghan National Security forces (ANSF) has made solid examination of what can and should be done, but none of it is public or being debated. The US, which given the lead times involved should have made key decisions last fall, is still undecided and leaving the effort in limbo at a time when we, the Afghan and our allies need clear and decisive leadership.
State and USAID have never provided a public assessment and plan for Afghan Transition in terms of governance and economics, and their public statements seem to leave such planning to the World Bank. No meaningful US public assessments emerged in their reporting before or after a July 2013 conference in which the Afghan government failed to show it could deal with the governance and and economic aspects of Transition and that it had made real progress towards the critical reforms needed to deal with these tasks that it had pledged to make at the Tokyo Conference a year earlier.
A Time to Dither, a Time to Ignore and Remain Silent, a Time to Avoid Any Meaningful US Government Transparency and Responsibility, and a Time to Act
This is nearly November 2013. The US has less than a year in which to take the kind of decisive action necessary to develop, lead, and persuade the American people, the Afghans, and our allies to create the kind of Transition that can really succeed. By some point in mid-2014, most of our civil effort will have left the field, and most of our military will be leaving or focused solely on retrograde.
We will still be in a major national budget crisis, spending at levels which threaten our ability to meet our strategic responsibilities throughout the world, and have submitted an FY2015 budget that will have defined our further real-world Transition spending at what is likely to be its maximum level. We will be acting in an Afghanistan where virtually everything meaningful has lead time that takes 12-18 months to become real – even when a new government has not just been elected.
In practice, we will either be dealing with an unknown government with undetermined leaders operating in a very different political climate, or a failed election which will probably cost us any hope of really achieving a stable and secure Afghanistan. We will either be dealing with an incredibly uncertain ceasefire agreement with the Taliban and other insurgents, or years in which politico-military warfare goes on as insurgents test whether the departure of US and allied forces means they can win or divide the country, while the risk of breakaway elements of Afghan warlords and power brokers presents the prospect of a divided country.
We will be acting in a region where our relations with Pakistan and the other countries we need for transit and overflight are already tenuous, and Pakistanis see the US as even more of a threat than India. We will need key allies like Germany and Italy to keep troops in the north and west, and every other form of allied and donor support possible. We will need to have shaped new NATO institutions to takeover from ISAF and NTM-A at the end of 2014.
We will have had one last opportunity to replace UNAMA with a UN effort that can bring outsider countries together in a meaningful aid effort and to multilateralize the aid and planning effort in ways that will eventually allow the Afghan government to take control of its own civil sector and economy and replace the presence of outside military and aid donor with real Afghan governance at the national, provincial, district, and local levels – an effort which every US and outside planning effort to date shows will take at least half a decade of outside support.
What Must Be Done
Any real world efforts to deal with these issues must largely focus on preserving the best elements of what is already underway, and dealing with Afghanistan as it is on its own terms – rather than trying to turn “Transition” into “Transformation.” The time, money, and political will have run out for any efforts to reinvent the wheel. Calling for major and rapid changes in the real world character of the Afghan government, role and behavior of neighboring states, current plans for developing the Afghan forces, and radical outside efforts to reshape Afghan governance, and the Afghan economy will be worse than pointless – they will further delay what may already prove to be a fatally delayed decision making process.
What is needed now – in fact what was needed last fall – is a coherent effort to build on the existing progress and realities on the ground. In practice, this should involve the following steps:
- Debate whether the US should remain committed to Afghanistan – accepting Afghanistan as it is if the US remains committed. If Syria warns of nothing else, it is that the Congress and American people, as well as the US media and analysts outside government, will not sustain the US commitment to the war without far better arguments, plans, and credible statements of the probable costs and benefits. It seems equally clear our allies will not follow where our leadership is not defined or credible, no one in the region will trust us, and the Afghans will have no reason to do so.
There is a reason democracies depend on credible leadership, transparency, and checks and balances. In today’s partisan world, mix of public doubts, budget debates, and competing strategic priorities, the ongoing US military effort in Afghanistan is an optional war in a world where there are many potentially better uses of US resources. If we are to continue in any serious way after 2014, rather than leave as our facade gradually collapses; we need real leadership, real plans, and enough real national consensus to matter.
- Legislate the requirement for a detailed civil-military plan, projected costs, and measures of effectiveness and tie the ability to spend to full compliance. Twelve years of failed efforts to develop integrated civil-military planning, programming, and budgets with no real transparency and public accountability and measures of effectiveness is enough. Two Administrations have failed to do their job; it is time for Congress to force the issue, get proper internal and public transparency, and make the Administration focus on making the future work rather than reporting on past events, past spending, and past mistakes.
- Do not focus on the legitimacy of the election; instead focus on the resulting quality of leadership and governance. The election does need to be credible on Afghan terms. The real issue, however, is getting leadership that can unite the country enough to work, focus on effective governance and security, and make effective use of outside aid. This is not the kind of debate Afghans are likely to have on their own. The US and outside nations should choose candidates or parties, but they should emphasize strong, stable leadership and make it clear that continued support will be contingent upon a common security understanding and security agreement.
- Make all continued US support conditional now, including the terms for a Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA). We do not need to sign a BSA now, but we clearly need to define our conditions for a BSA, for continuing aid, and to make it clear we will actually enforce them in time to shape Afghan politics and find out whether there will be the kind of leadership that merits such an effort.
If nothing else, Afghans need to realize that past US rhetoric about our alliance and their strategic importance is just that. They need to understand that a future US role is conditional at a time when Afghanistan no longer is a major aspect of the war on terrorism, neighboring powers have far more strategic interest than the US, and the US has many competing strategic priorities that now make Afghanistan a tertiary strategic priority.
- Make sustained support dependent on Afghan performance, given projected troop numbers and plans developed by General Dunford and NTM-A. There are many problems and uncertainties in the ANSF, ranging for transforming the Army into a truly self sustaining force, dealing realistically with the limits to the Afghan police, and the risks of depending on layered defense involving the Afghan Local Police and militias.
The fact is, however, that if we are to continue we must accept these risks, and go with the plans developed by General Dunford and NTM-A. It is too late for dramatic changes. Moreover, the cost and size of the US and allied contributions ISAF and USCENTCOM have recommended has already been downsized to the point of risk. Any major further cuts and uncertainty is going to present a serious risk of failure during 2015-2016, and of wasting the remaining civil and military effort.
What is needed now is a clear ISAF plan with clear milestones, projected costs, and measures of effectiveness that show how each element will interact to create a layered defense and established clear roles of mission for the US and allied forces that stay, and clear conditions in terms of Afghan support and performance for staying. It is also an effort that is fully unclassified and transparent, and can test the ability to win true Congressional, allied, public, and Afghan support.
- Creating a clear US plan for future aid and Afghan reform with clear funding levels, milestones, and accountability. The US State Department, and USAID need to develop public plans and provide regular updates on progress to show what is happening to Afghan governance and the Afghan economy, provide a basis for evaluating both Afghan efforts and what aid does in terms of their overall impact on Afghan stability and security. and not in terms of given programs the leadership and competence to perform the necessary evaluation and planning with any credibility. Progress, changes to these plans, expenditures, and evaluations of their effectiveness should be part of public reports made on a semi-annual basis and used to highlight key Afghan failures and areas of corruption as well as Afghan successes.
- Seek to create some form of UN body to replace UNAMA that can actually work; multilateralize the aid and reform effort as much as possible. It may not be possible, but the civil effort badly needs international coordination and direction. If the UN effort to work with the Afghan government and donors can be fixed, it should be.
If the UN can’t be fixed, creating some form of joint World Bank and Afghan government effort may be the only alternative. The US military can play and effective lead role in coordinating the national security effort. Twelve years of failure by State and USAID to get beyond stovepipes and project aid, and making the ability to spend the dominant test of performance, and the failure of the QDDR reform effort, all indicate that another institution will be needed to do the job.
- Fund a robust US diplomatic presence on a national level. Creating a US diplomatic presence that can carry out a meaningful mandate means funding multiple consulates, adequate personnel, and mobility in the field. It also will almost certainly mean civilian casualties. The US needs to accept this now, and realize that underfunding the effort, having too few posts, and vilifying the innocent for valid risk-taking ensures the US effort will fail and other expenditures are likely to be wasted.
- Negotiate with the Taliban and other Insurgents on real world terms. If the US wants to pursue an exit strategy, then any peace or negotiation will do as long as we do not try to reverse course once thing start to go sour. If the US actually continues to care about Afghanistan, the US cannot afford to see any ceasefire or successful negotiation as anything than an extension of war by other means until time has conclusively provide the result is a viable structure of security and stability. Nepal and Cambodia are relatively benign examples of what can happen, and relying on hope and good intentions is a recipe for disaster.
In many ways, the first recommendation is now the most important. If we are to continue, we need public, Congressional, and media support. We need to show we can lead our allies and that we have available Afghan partners. We need to show that we have credible plans and resources, and that we actually have a credible probability of actually staying the course.
Anyone who deals with Afghanistan in real world terms can see that those still assigned to the mission are making constant efforts to move forward at time American politics and the American people are steadily dealing with the war by forgetting it, finding their own government lacks transparency and integrity in dealing with it, and moving towards what Senator Aiken is falsely reported to have said about Vietnam: declare victory and leave.* They can also see the gradual burn out of those directly engaged as they begin to realize that they do not have the real support of their country.
We cannot change this unless we honestly and credibly plan for future action and spending, debate the cost-benefits of staying, set meaningful conditions for the Afghans, and show both them and our allies whether or not we are committed to the level of support required. We can, of course blunder on as smaller and smaller numbers of those engaged try to make the impossible work, and then use almost any excuse in terms of Afghan mistakes and failures or some hollow peace agreement as an excuse to leave.
The end result, however, will be to waste billions, default on those allies who try to continue, and make things even worse for the Afghans. One also has to wonder if anyone really wants to have a section at Arlington Cemetery where the inscription on the tombstone reads, “served in Afghanistan, died of strategic hypocrisy, indifference, and neglect.”
The Burke Chair in Strategy’s comprehensive reporting on the war in Afghanistan is now available for download in the three volume series, The Afghan War in 2013: Meeting the Challenges of Transition:
Volume I: The Challenges of Leadership and Governance
Volume II: Afghan Economics and Outside Aid
Volume III: Security and the ANSF