Avoiding Creeping Defeat in Afghanistan: The Need for Realistic Assumptions, Strategy, and Plans

The US is not losing the war in Afghanistan in the classic military sense. The US, its allies, and Afghan forces still win virtually every direct military encounter. The problem is that this is a political war where the political impact of combat, politics, governance, and economics are far more important than tactical success in directly defeating the enemy. At this level, the insurgents still seem to have significant momentum and are certainly not being decisively defeated.

Moreover, tactical military success is no guarantee of a successful Transition. The choice between victory or defeat will also center around the success or failure of the Afghan government and Afghan forces after most US and ISAF forces largely withdraw in 2014, and major cuts occur in aid and military spending. As was the case in Vietnam, the US can win every battle and still lose the war.

A new report by the Burke Chair entitled Avoiding Creeping Defeat in Afghanistan: The Need for Realistic Assumptions, Strategy, and Plans is available on the CSIS website at https://csis-website-prod.s3.amazonaws.com/s3fs-public/legacy_files/files/publication/120828_Avoiding_Creeping_Defeat_Afghanistan.pdf.

This report highlights the critical problems in the current strategy, the way it is implemented, reporting on progress in the war and Transition, and the lack of credible plans for the future.

It identifies the following key areas where current plans ignore the fundamental realities shaping the war:

  • Pakistan is not a real ally and will not become one.
  • The US cannot fully defeat al Qa’ida or the threat of Islamist extremist terrorism in Afghanistan.
  • There is little prospect of a meaningful, stable, and negotiated settlement with the Taliban and Haqqani Network.
  • The US, its allies, and the ANSF cannot establish security across Afghanistan or even in all of the “critical” districts by end of 2014, or at any predictable point thereafter.
  • Development of the Afghan security forces now focuses on rushing towards unobtainable numbers of forces, without regard to effectiveness and without clear plans to address funding and self-sustainment.
  • Transition alone will not convert Afghanistan into a developed, functional democracy with effective governance, civil rights, and rule of law.
  • Progress in governance lags far behind need, and governance is not representative of local needs and priorities.
  • Economic growth and development are more illusory than real, and sustaining them through Transition will require serious, well planned outside aid rather than the vacuous goals and pledges of the Tokyo Conference.
  • The “New Silk Road” and hopes for major coordinated efforts at regional development are now a dysfunctional façade.

The Burke Chair report suggests that a new strategy and approach to planning and reporting is necessary that focuses on an “Afghanistan as Good as it Can Really Get.” This means setting credible goals for Transition and making the following major changes in the US approach to the war:

  • Deal with Pakistan on a pragmatic basis: What the US now gets from Pakistan is all it can hope to get for a reasonable bribe price.
  • Prepare to deal with continued insurgent control in parts of Eastern and Southern Afghanistan, and significant insurgent influence in in other parts of the country well after 2014.
  • Accept that there is little prospect of a meaningful, stable negotiated settlement with the Taliban and Haqqani Network.
  • Create realistic, transparent, and affordable plans for development of each element of the Afghan security forces and focus on their combat performance and their problems with divided loyalties and corruption.
  • Accept a deeply flawed Afghan political system but still hold it accountable in areas critical to Transition.
  • Focus efforts on improving the quality of central governance and the strength of provincial and district governance, while preparing for the reality that a far more divided power structure based on regional, ethnic, and tribal lines is likely to emerge.
  • Create a new, better-coordinated international effort to replace the present mix of a hopelessly ineffective UNAMA and uncoordinated national aid teams.
  • Accept the reality that regional development along the lines of a “New Silk Road” may offer hope for stability and security in Afghanistan after 2020, but offer no practical basis for Transition in the immediate term.

The report suggests that these options show that it may still be possible to carry out a workable form of Transition with benefits that are worth the cost.  It is all too clear, however, that there is broader grand strategic question that everyone involved in the Afghan War still needs to ask: Are the benefits of continuing the war for a Transition that will require serious US involvement through 2020 really worth the costs?

The Afghan War is only one element of a broader US global strategy at a time when other needs demand considerable attention.  To be sure, concerns in Asia and the Middle East, as well as the need to maintain and modernize US forces—may demand higher priority – and are certain to demand greater urgency if the proposed budget cuts and sequestration options become take effect.

Continued US support for the war must be based on a ruthlessly objective analysis of the costs and benefits associated; but an honest assessment may very well point to continuing the war in Afghanistan if the US takes the following additional steps:

  • Make it clear at the Presidential level that the US commitment to the Afghan war is not open-ended and can be halted at any time. 

It should be made clear to Afghan leaders and the Afghan people that US efforts are and will remain dependent on Afghan progress and success, and the quality and effectiveness of Afghan leadership. The President should be forthright about the fact that the US will reassess its strategy and commitments on a semi-annual basis.

  • Make continuing the war contingent on winning congressional, public, and media support by demonstrating credible plans, and honestly communicating the risks, progress, costs, and benefits of continuing the war.

This latter effort means restoring credibility and integrity to every level of reporting from the command and aid team level in Afghanistan to the President. Support for the war must be won through transparency, issuing meaningful plans, and a honest portrayal risks and progress. The country team in Afghanistan must stop spinning a favorable picture of the facts on the ground through lies, exaggerations, and omissions. The Administration should immediately change how it reports to the public and Congress regarding its plans and progress in Afghanistan, in order to allow an honest, transparent, and sober assessment of the facts.

Other recent Burke Chair reports on the Afghan conflict can be found on the Burke Chair website & include:

Anthony H. Cordesman

Anthony H. Cordesman

Former Emeritus Chair in Strategy