The Failures That Shaped (and Almost Lost) the Afghan War

The Burke Chair has prepared a seven-part analytic overview of unclassified metrics, and of how their current content relates to the challenges in policy, plans, resources, and management of the war that now reduce the prospects of victory.

This first brief is entitled The Failures That Shaped (and Almost Lost) the Afghan War, and itcan be found on the CSIS web site at:

The data highlight the failures that almost lost the Afghan War between 2002 and 2008.  Many of the key narratives and metrics that allowed the Taliban to return to Afghanistan and come close to winning a political and strategic victory are not available in unclassified form or do not lend themselves to summary metrics.

The other reports include:

The Areas Where Metrics are Available: Losing the War by Failing to Resource It and Manage the Resources That Were Provided

The US and its allies failed to adequately resource the Afghan campaign between 2002 and early 2009. The US gave the Iraq War priority to the extent that it did not provide the troops or funds necessary to prevent the Taliban from reentering and dominating much of the country. A combination of US and allied underfunding ensured that no credible effort was made to resource the creation of Afghan security forces until 2009, when the Taliban and Haqqani networks posed a major threat.
SIGAR, Inspector General, and GAO reporting show that these failures were compounded by erratic programming and funding, and a total lack of effective control over spending and the contracting effort.

Military spending on a contractor force that exceeded the number of troops deployed led to massive waste, gross inflation of prices, a pervasive climate of corruption, and abuses like struggles between power brokers and tolerance of the payment of protection money to the Taliban. This vastly increased the cost of the war, seriously hurt the regular Afghan economy, and damaged the reputation of the Afghan Government (GIROA) and its popular support.

As Part IV of this series shows, these failures were compounded by setting goals for aid and development that were almost totally unrealistic in terms of feasibility, probable funding relative to real world cost, and Afghan capacity to absorb aid money. Far too little attention was paid to projects that would win the support of the Afghan people in the near term, and the flow of aid funds to power brokers increased the contracting and corruption problems that alienated many Afghans from their government.

The Areas Where Metrics are Lacking or Only Present in Limited Form
Resource issues, however, are only part of the reason why the situation in Afghanistan deteriorated so sharply between 2002 and 2009. The broader failures in the US and ISAF war effort included lack of unity and realism in ISAF, an ineffective UN effort, and political decisions to ignore or understate Taliban and insurgent gains from 2002-2009, to ignore the problems caused by weak and corrupt Afghan governance, to understate the risks posed by sanctuaries in Pakistan, and to emphasize the value of tactical ISAF victories while ignoring the steady growth of Taliban influence and control.

These areas include the following major mistakes:

Mirror imaging of US and European values in trying to create a political system, and central government structure that did not allow for a lack of capacity, effective local and regional government, and a justice system based on Afghan values and practices:

The end result was a sharply over-centralized structure of government which compounded the problems of corruption; a focus on national elections without creating effective political parties; an over-emphasis on elections without a functional role for the new parliament, without focusing on effective governance, and without defining a workable role for the new legislature.

No workable provision was made for funding provincial, district, and local government. The need to keep and expand the remaining elements of the Afghan civil service was largely ignored. The need to adequately deal with Afghanistan’s deep ethnic, sectarian, and tribal difference was “solved” largely by assuming that the President and central government could force a “national” solution on the Afghan people.

Intelligence failures:

As senior US intelligence officers in ISAF later made clear, a gravely flawed intelligence effort initially grossly underestimated that ability of Al Qa’ida and the Taliban to recover and adapt, and then kept focusing on the tactical defeat of the Taliban rather than the constant expansion of its political control over large parts of Afghanistan.  Intelligence also did not address the growing unpopularity and failures of the Afghan government, the impact of power brokers and corruption, and role of Pakistan and insurgent sanctuaries in that country.  

They also, however, were driven by political decisions to ignore or understate Taliban and insurgent gains from 2002-2009, to ignore the problems caused by weak and corrupt Afghan governance, to understate the risks posed by sanctuaries in Pakistan, and to emphasize the value of tactical ISAF victories while ignoring the steady growth of Taliban influence and control.

Failure to create effective ISAF forces and PRT structures, and coordinate civil-military efforts:

The US initially approached its allies as if they could be little more than peacekeepers in a victory that was already won. It sought the maximum number of participants for aid and security activity without regard to effectiveness and national caveats. 

As Parts Three and Four show in more depth, different national military elements were layered over different civil provincial reconstruction teams. This structure could not adapt effectively as the war in Afghanistan became steadily more serious. NATO and ISAF did make progress in military coordination, but they did not begin to develop effective coordinated plans until the McChrystal exercise in 2009, and national caveats remain a critical problem, as does the lack of an true, integrated, civil-military plan of operations.

Moreover, while efforts were finally made to create a central coordinator for civil programs, and integrated civil-military plans in 2010, these plans remain largely conceptual. There still are only tentative metrics and analyses that show real progress in these areas, that reflect meaningful fiscal controls and measures of effectiveness, or that provide a picture of how civil programs in governance, rule of law, and economic aid relate to military efforts.

Failure to create effective Afghan forces:

Parts Two and Five show that no serious effort was made to create effective Afghan forces until 2007, and this effort was never properly funded or supported with anything like the required number of trainers and emphasis on partnership and transition until 2010. These problems were compound by a failure to provide proper facilities and equipment that continued until 2010, and the failure to go from an emphasis on combat units to a balanced force that could operate independently and eventually replace US forces.

A failure to focus on creating a functional justice system:

Worse, the police training and expansion effort was decoupled from a rule of law effort that focused narrowly on creating a new formal justice system at the top.  This allowed the Taliban and local power brokers to become the de facto system for local justices. Courts and jails were often lacking or unable to operate.

Moreover, the lack of effective local governance – an essential element in winning support for police and a justice system meant all three elements of an effective justice system were lacking much of the country.  This – compounded the problem created by corruption, power brokers, and ethnic, sectarian, and tribal friction. All of these efforts were made worse by gross underpayment of salaries, corruption in hiring and promotion at every level, misuse of aid funds, and a lack of any effective effort to manage aid and development programs in the field.

Failure to create effective aid and development programs:

The most striking aspect of aid and development is the lack of meaningful data and metrics on the efforts involved.  Output metrics showing the results of aid projects are virtually nonexistent.  Ironically, more data are available on military operations and intelligence about the threat than the impact of civil spending and aid. 

Parts Two and Four of this briefing do, however, present summary metrics that show the US and the West set up hopelessly overambitious mid and long term development goals based on the assumption that Afghanistan was effectively at peace, without valid plans and requirements, and which can never be resourced at anything like the required levels.

Unfortunately there are no metrics to show other critical problems in the aid effort – problems compounded by a similar lack of management in military contracts. The result was a massive flow of aid money without effective financial controls, contracting methods, attention to absorption capability, and without meaningful measures of effectiveness. Moreover, these aid efforts were divided by sponsoring country, often responding to the aid politics of the capital involved, while NGOs funded projects that served their own goals and interests.
A central government lacking in capacity – and provincial and local governments controlled from the center and without resources of their own – was steadily corrupted by this process while no effective structure existed at the provincial, district, or local level for planning and executing aid activity. Groups like Oxfam estimate that some 40% of the aid money never reached actual programs and projects, and no element of the aid effort established any meaningful measures of effectiveness to show where the rest of the aid effort went or what its impact was.

Failure to focus on Transition and any form of “End State.”

As is discussed in more detail in Parts Two-Five, no serious effort was made until 2011 to create and implement a longer term plan to create a mix of Afghan government and security capabilities that could stand on its own, to define goals that would allow ISAF and the US to withdraw forces and limit their military and aid efforts over time. Instead, a constant stream of new polices and plans emerged to the point where the US, ISAF, and other outside actors tended to make every year the “first year” in Afghanistan.

The Need for More Data and Transparency

Virtually every expert on the Afghan War could add new points to this list of weaknesses in unclassified reporting and metrics. It is also obvious from many of these points that the metrics shown in this report can only hint at a few key trends and problems. In far too many cases, there are no metrics and no reliable detailed histories – although the kind of metrics and analysis that should have existed are easy to derive from the summary of each problem.

It is critical to stress , however, that that the other parts of this report show that progress is being made in addressing many of the issues involved, and metrics are only part of that story. For all of the omissions that still affect reporting on the war, major progress has occurred over the last two years, and additional major efforts to correct these problems are underway.