Afghanistan a Year After "Transition": Losing the War at Every Level

It has now been almost exactly a year since U.S. and International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) combat forces formally left Afghanistan. So far, the Afghan government and Afghan forces are losing at every level: Politics, governance, economics, security, and popular support. This becomes brutally clear from the metrics available on the war, as well as from virtually all media reporting.

It is also clear from the fact that the Obama administration is steadily having to revise its plans for Afghanistan, extending the military training and assist mission from a planned end in 2016 to 2017 and beyond, and gradually adapting its size and scale to the fact that the threat is steadily gaining both in military terms and in the far more important area of regional presence, control, and influence.

These trends are complex, and they go far beyond the tactical issues that are the focus of many studies and reports. It is also impossible to put them all in proper context, list all of the areas where metrics are not available, or list all of the uncertainties involved. Work from a wide range of think tanks, the United Nations and other international institutions, media sources, and U.S. and other country government reports do, however, provide a range of data that make these trends all too clear.

These data are summarized in a report available on the CSIS website entitled Afghanistan a Year After “Transition”: Losing the War at Every Level, which is available at

There Is No Meaningful U.S. Strategy for Afghanistan

It is tempting to say that the failures that are laid out in this report are the result of a failed U.S. strategy, but this is not true for several reasons. First, the United States has no declared strategy and shows no signs of trying to implement one. It has slowly extended its military mission, and seems to have increased its use of airpower, but it has never declared any overall strategy for dealing with the Taliban and other hostile elements that make up the insurgent threat to the government. Simply extending the train and assist mission without any net assessment of its impact has not been a strategy; it has proved to be more a way of passing responsibility on to the next administration in the form of a legacy that is little more than a poison pill.

The latest Department of Defense (DoD) 1225 report on the war makes this all too clear. It is entitled Enhancing Security and Stability in Afghanistan and was issued in December 2015. The data generally cover 2015 only through the end of October, but this includes the key fighting seasons. (See .)

This DoD report provides a frank and useful summary of many of the tactical military problems in the Afghan government and Afghan forces. It makes it brutally clear that the Afghan forces were not ready for the withdrawal of U.S. and other ISAF combat forces at the tactical level, that the divisions in the Afghan government since the 2014 presidential election have had a critical impact in weakening the Afghan military effort, and that the Taliban and other insurgents are making serious gains.

The same report also makes it clear, however, that there is no real U.S. strategy for Afghanistan. The report does not describe any plan to try to correct the problems in the Afghan forces, merely ongoing programs and efforts. It also only focuses on the tactical dimension: fighting the insurgents rather than addressing the broader political-military effort necessary to defeat them.

The report does not address the problems in reducing their areas of influence and control and their growing ability to exploit the political and other failures of the Afghan government. Even in the military dimension, it repeats one of the most consistent problems and failures in U.S. warfighting: A focus on tactical outcomes to the exclusion of the political, ideological, and civil actions of the insurgents, and any net assessment of the failures in the host country governance and security effort that enable the Taliban and other insurgents to survive, expand their influence, and move toward victory. As such, it has tactical value but is strategically irrelevant.

There is, however, at least a military report. There is no such report on the civil dimension. Unlike the pre-Transition 1230 reports to Congress, the State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) have no declared strategy at all, do not report on developments, and issue little more than public relations statements and empty generalities. While the current Department of Defense 1225 report may use the word “stability” in its title, it does not address any aspect of stability, and no other U.S. government report shows any indication that there is a broader strategy for the war.

There Is No Afghan Strategy for Afghanistan

In fairness, however, the failure is scarcely just an American one, and the United States does not have primary responsibility for Afghanistan. That responsibility lies with the Afghans, and the fact that democratic elections have made those failures all too clear is not the fault of democracy, but the failure of far too many Afghan leaders to put the interest of their nation before themselves, their tribe, their faction, or their ethnic group.

President Ashraf Ghani has made attempts to correct this situation, as has Abdullah Abdullah, his uncertain partner and Afghanistan’s CEO. Announcing reform plans does not, however, mean any serious effort has taken place to implement them, that there is any clear move toward resolving the problems in elections and a divided leadership, or that the host of power brokers, warlords, and corrupt leaders that have done so much to weaken the nation have made any serious effort to move toward unity and serve Afghanistan’s people.

If anything, former president Hamid Karzai represents the worst in encouraging the nation’s divisions and problems, and he has more than ample company at every level of politics and governance from Kabulstan down through the provincial level to the district level. No matter how unformed the U.S. effort may now be, it is unclear that any outside effort can help a nation that cannot help itself.

“Losing” Does Not Mean “Lost”

It is important to note, however, that the growing problems that have emerged since “Transition” do not mean that the war is lost or that Afghanistan cannot achieve both security and stability. The margin of Taliban and other insurgent gains is limited, and the lack of any coherent U.S. strategy and effective Afghan leadership may still be correctable. One does not have to bet on hope triumphing over experience if a serious effort is made to learn from experience.

The problems and issues that emerge from the metrics available on Afghanistan do clearly reflect the fact that it is one of the least-developed countries in the world and that much of the reporting on its “progress” in political, governance, economics, human development, and unity before the withdrawal of U.S. and ISAF forces—and most civil aid efforts—was little more than dishonest political spin.

Afghanistan did make real progress in some areas during 2002–2014 by Afghan standards. The Taliban and other insurgent movements are not sufficiently strong, popular, and united to defeat a better organized and focused Afghan and U.S. effort—particularly if other nations can be brought into a better structure for providing outside aid.

Limited additions in terms of U.S. and allied airpower, and providing an expanded train and assist mission that reached down to the major combat unit level, might still make a decisive difference at an affordable cost and with limited casualties. Focusing on meeting immediate economic and social needs, rather than abstract development goals and project aid, might meet Afghan expectations if Afghan leaders could focus more on the needs of their people rather than themselves.

Analyzing the Afghan Conflict

Making such an assessment is not easy, no matter how many metrics are used to show the trends in the fighting and Afghan stability. The Afghan conflict has become steadily more complex with time and also steadily more difficult to assess. The process of Transition during 2014 withdrew outside combat forces, and many aid, consular, and nongovernment organizations (NGOs) had to withdraw in the process.

The United States and its allies have lost access to many sources in the field, have cut back sharply on official reporting, and have often shifted from realistic assessments to public relations exercises that exaggerate success and either disguise key challenges or fail to mention them. Official Afghan reporting often seems to be generated by computer models that make detailed estimates based on only tenuous data collection.

There are, however, a wide range of sources that examine key aspects of the fighting and the current situation in Afghanistan. Some European countries have provided assessments of insurgent strength. NGOs like the Institute for the Study of War and the Long War Journal have contributed regular analyses, as have major media sources like the New York Times, Washington Post, and BBC.

The United Nations has provided casualty and risk data that provide key insights into the fighting. A range of NGOs like Vision of Humanity have provided key data on the patterns of terrorism in Afghanistan and Pakistan, many drawing on the START database as well as their own sources. They include important survey efforts examining Afghan perceptions by the Asia Foundation and critical data on population numbers and “youth bulge” issues, and on population density, sectarian, and ethnic issues from the United Nations, CIA, U.S. Census Bureau, and USAID. They also include reporting from a range of experts and NGOs on corruption, narcotics, and human development.

Finally, there are important official sources that examine the causes of instability in Afghanistan. These include data on governance, economics, and aid flows from international bodies like the United Nations, World Bank, and International Monetary Fund (IMF), as well as reporting by the U.S. Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction (SIGAR).

Key Limitations to Such Reporting

At the same time, many of the data that these sources provide are complex, and sometimes sharply contradictory. It is often necessary to extrapolate from a wide range of sources to get what is still a rough picture of basic trends. In some cases, it is also necessary to ignore or sharply discount given sources simply because they are clearly political in their content or based on models and data sources that are too uncertain to use.

Many of the official sources that do have value make little serious attempt to define key facts and figures in proper detail or assess their level of uncertainty, which is often “acute” at best. Both international organizations and governments seem to feel that some of the most critical aspects of analysis—defining one’s terms and stating uncertainty—are not required in official reporting. There often is also a clear attempt to avoid controversial or critical data and assessments—effecting “spinning” the outcome of Transition in favorable ways for political purposes.

Comparing Key Data, Metrics, and Maps

The report on Afghanistan a Year After “Transition”: Losing the War at Every Level updates previous Burke Chair reports to provide a working draft comparison and summary overview of key maps, metrics, and data on the fighting. It shows key trends but focuses on the state of Afghanistan at the end of 2015—nearly a year after Transition—and the role of Pakistan in the fighting.

The report deliberately focuses first on the civil dimension. The search for security and stability can scarcely ignore the fact that a war is under way, and the Afghan government must win at the tactical level, as well as at the level of defeating the insurgency in ideological, political, and economic terms. Far too much of the analysis of the Afghan war, however, focuses on the fighting rather than the factors that allow extremist insurgent movements to keep on fighting, win more territory, and gain influence and control over the population.

The grim reality is that the Afghan government is its own worst enemy in many dimensions of the fighting, and reforms in its conduct and the nature of outside aid need the same attention as the fighting. As Vietnam showed all too clearly, a war that slowly loses the population makes individual tactical victories irrelevant.

At the same time, the sections on security and the fighting that follow often show that failing honestly to address the current limits to Afghan forces and Taliban and other insurgent gains can lose a war as well. Here, the narrative portions of the Department of Defense 1225 report on the war— Enhancing Security and Stability in Afghanistanare far superior to the now almost nonexistent metrics and data provided on the fighting. U.S. official metrics are down to one glaringly meaningless metric on “Effective Enemy Initiated Attacks,” statistics that are undefined, unrelated to their tactical much less the strategic effects, and little more than military rubbish.

It is striking that aside from one now-dated German map, the only meaningful metrics on the fighting come from the maps provided by the Institute for the Study of War and the United Nations, and the only meaningful trend data on the scale and intensity of the fighting consist of the UN casualty data.

The Key Messages in Given Sections of Afghanistan a Year After “Transition”: Losing the War at Every Level

The report is divided into the following key sections:

  • Key Lessons of “Failed State” Wars summarizes key lessons of the fighting and nation-building effort to date, the need to address complexity, both civil and military trends, to provide suitable net assessments, and to focus on all the dimensions of an insurgency rather than the tactical dimension alone—lessons that have not been learned in practice.
  • Uncertain Outside Claims of Success versus Very Different Afghan Perceptions highlights the fact that many official claims of success to date have been exaggerated and uncertain and are not supported by either more objective reporting or Afghan perceptions—many of which show a sharp decline in popular expectations and confidence.
  • A Nation Under Acute Population Pressure and with Critical Ethnic and Sectarian Divisions provides detailed tables and comparative charts and maps describing the impact of population growth, Afghanistan’s deep ethnic and sectarian divisions, and the impact of its exceptionally young population and youth “bulge” on the need for jobs to maintain stability. It highlights the fact that the pressure on Afghan security and stability are sharply affected by demographics, the “youth bulge,” and Afghanistan deep sectarian, ethnic, and tribal divisions.
  • Key Civil Challenges provides a detailed analysis of the real world civil challenges that Afghanistan still faces and the extent to which the State Department and USAID have made exaggerated claims of progress and success. It provides metrics on Afghanistan’s level of corruption, human development indicators, real world progress in education, and how the Afghan people view such challenges.
  • Uncertain Politics and Large Areas of Failed Governance highlights the critical problems in the quality of Afghan governance and the political problems that limit public support and trust. The comparison of the trends in World Bank assessments of governance and Asia Foundation survey data of Afghan perceptions provide critical warning indicators.
  • The Corruption Challenge provides equally critical warning data. It shows why many Afghans do not trust their government—a warning reinforced by later data on the broad perception that the Afghan police are corrupt and that there are serious problems in the justice system.
  • The Budget Challenge warns that the Afghan government is not meeting its goals for raising domestic revenues and remains acutely overdependent on aid. It highlights the impact of other data showing the impact of aid and military spending cuts on key factors like employment and perceptions of progress. It also highlights the critical absence of any data that go beyond assessing the impact of the budget in terms of Afghan ability to spend the money available, the lack of any estimates of the impact of corruption and waste, and the lack of any reliable estimates on the impact of spending and measures of effectiveness.
  • Economic Challenges explores the key problems in Afghan economics and development—highlighting World Bank warnings about the impact of the Transition process and SIGAR’s warning that the Tokyo reforms have effectively been abandoned and not replaced with any tangible course of action.
  • Poverty Challenge summarizes World Bank and other warnings that Afghan poverty began to increase well before Transition and that popular concerns over income and employment provide valid warnings of discontent.
  • Economic Stability and Development Challenges warns that Transition has led to serious problems in sustaining development and Afghan perceptions of such progress. It also highlights Afghanistan’s acute dependence on a fragile and rain-driven agriculture sector and a service sector that cannot be sustained now that military and aid spending has been sharply reduced.
  • Business, Investment, Mining, and LoC Challenges warns about the myth of any major near-term wealth or increase in government income from mines, pipelines, outside investment, or concepts like the “New Silk Road.”
  • Narco-Economy Challenge warns that the counter-narcotics program has been a dismal failure, that drugs are a far more critical aspect of the entire Afghan economy than many sources have been willing to admit, and that estimates based on farm gate prices are inherently ridiculous in a country where power brokering and narco-trafficking interact to create “value added” that goes far beyond farm gate prices and the grower.
  • Warfighting and Violence Challenge highlights the fact that the “surge” in U.S. forces in Afghanistan failed to have any lasting effect and the levels of violence have grown sharply in the process of Transition. A comparison of the previous civil trends, and overall trends in Afghan perceptions, shows the interaction between civil progress and violence, and that the Transition is not succeeding in its current form.
  • A Focus on Tactical Outcomes Disguises a Lack of Meaningful Reporting on the Key Impact of the Insurgency: Growing Insurgent Influence and Control and Declining Support for the Government provides a grim warning that a focus on tactical clashes, rather than the relative level of government and insurgent influence and control, marks critical failure in any meaningful and objective analysis of the course of the war, and that a lack of transparency and objectivity present dangerous risks in addressing real world warfighting problems. It is clear that the various assessments made by governments, the United Nations, media, and think tanks are so different that there is a critical need to improve the official data collection and analysis effort. (The estimates made by the Institute for the Study of War [ISW] have become steadily more sophisticated over time, and the actual estimates made by the Institute seem to do a much more accurate job of portraying the complexities involved than the media adaptations of the ISW data.)
  • Terrorism Challenge provides a range of estimates on the sharp rise in terrorism in Afghanistan, as well as metrics on these trends relative to those in other areas and countries. The data, however, are based on press reports and not declassified intelligence estimates and raise serious questions about how terrorism should be assessed versus fighting in insurgency and counterinsurgency.
  • Casualty Data provides relatively reliable data on the trends in violence, as well as important metrics on the fact that the surge in Helmand has proven to be largely a failure and that violence is sharply increasing in the East and North.
  • Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) Strength and Readiness Challenge provides an overview of the readiness of the Afghan forces and popular sympathy for the Taliban and other insurgents versus support for the Afghan Army and Afghan Police. Here, the narrative excerpts from the Department of Defense 1225 report on the war— Enhancing Security and Stability in Afghanistan—provide far more meaningful assessments of actual Afghan combat capability, and the real world problems in given force elements, as well as in the Ministry of Defense (MoD) and Ministry of the Interior (MoI)—than the metrics.

The additional narratives that are not excerpted and cover each of the following force elements are also far more useful than the metrics and do provide a strong indication that limited improvements in leadership, putting train and assist advisers in major combat units, and providing adequate U.S. and allied air support could make a major difference.

  • Ministry of Defense and Afghan National Army (ANA) Forces and Readiness: The official metrics here are of very limited value and do more to disguise problems than reveal them. The only useful data are the attrition data, which do not seem particularly reliable. They do, however, warn of a high desertion rate and a force that may be overstressed. Reports of a 27% increase in ANSF casualties in 2015 are not well defined or put in context of efforts to allow forces leave and time to train and regroup, but they are a warning. Like the other readiness data that follow, the lack of detail does not seem driven by security as much as by a desire to avoid added pressure to provide more forces for an adequate train and assist mission.
  • Afghan Air Force vs. U.S. and Allied Air Support again provides anodyne official data. The public reporting is essentially meaningless. It disguises grave problems in the ANSF data, as well as the critical need for more sustained outside air support from the United States and other allied countries.
  • Afghan Ministry of Interior Forces and Readiness provides similar data on the MoI and various elements of the police. Once again, the readiness data are largely meaningless and do nothing to illustrate either paramilitary capabilities or the ability to provide a functioning local justice system. Unofficial polling data do highlight broad levels of corruption in the police force, corruption that has extended in the past into much of the MoI and many elements of the Afghan justice system.
  • The U.S.-ISAF Force Drawdown and Withdrawal data highlight the problems inherent in cutting forces to meet a deadline, rather than a conditions-based level that reflects Afghan’s progress and continuing needs. New decisions to maintain a significant advisory presence through 2016 may help but cannot correct for the lack of clear plans to extend the train and assist mission to Afghan combat units or provide the necessary level of air support.
  • U.S. Civil and Military Aid draws heavily on the work of SIGAR and others to show how critical aid remains, but also that past funding and program stability has been poorly managed and in ways that sharply limit the benefits of such spending. Reporting on the ongoing level of corruption and waste by SIGAR warns that these problems continue, but it is equally clear that rapid cuts could effectively undermine the Afghan Transition effort. The lack of any meaningful data on future plans or effectiveness is striking, as is the lack of any tie between aid and conditionality in actually executing reforms. The total lack of meaningful State Department and USAID reporting is a serious indictment of the quality of senior leadership in both State and USAID.
  • An Uncertain Pakistan warns that Pakistan remains an ally that is also a threat and continues to play an important role as a sanctuary for insurgents.

A Cautionary Note

This is a working paper and will be revised over time. Comments, corrections, and additional material will be gratefully received. More broadly, any summary of this kind presents several serious problems. It often presents data that were never designed for direct comparison, takes them out of context, and does not provide the narrative behind the data shown, which is critical to a full understanding.

It is a guide to issues that need further study and examination and that have a critical impact on the course of the fighting and Transition, but it is not in any sense a definitive analysis. It also only represents material that is public and unclassified; the selection is the author’s and so are the judgments made about the data presented.

The practical problem, however, is that some base is needed to provide an overview of the data available, its limits and differences, and how broad comparisons of the full range of factors shaping Transition can be displayed and sometime quantified. It is also all too clear that such a comparison often highlights critical problems in past decisionmaking and areas that urgently need more policy-level attention.

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