If Petraeus and Eikenberry Can Win
July 14, 2010
It may be interesting to propose new strategies for the war in Afghanistan, but it is also pointless. The change in the military command in Afghanistan has occurred at a time where the campaign is already underway, and where present strategy has to work, or else the next set of decisions will be the tactics of how to leave.
As the summary of the trends in the war, and the ongoing campaign, summarized in the appendix to this analysis shows; this is not the time to try to reinvent the wheel: the only truly new strategy the US and its allies can pursue at this point is an exit strategy. This appendix provides a graphic overview of the current trends in the war. It is entitled Afghanistan: Campaign Trends, and is available on the CSIS web site at
What we can do is constantly adapt the tactics to reflect the evolving realities of the war – and General Petraeus will do this, just as General McChrystal did. We can alter the broad vector of our strategic posture over time – if we can succeed in making the current strategy work during the next 18 months to two years. In practice, however, the political, resource, and time constraints shaping the war impose major limits even on tactical changes, much less any major effort to reinvent a strategy that Afghans, our allies, Congress and the American people can accept.
Moreover, the US team in Afghanistan can and must make important changes in the way it implements the present strategy, and some are significant. There often is a narrow boundary between strategy and tactics - one person’s strategy is another person’s tactics. General Petraeus has recognized this in starting his own review of the campaign and President Obama has recognized this in two critical ways: First, in steadily backing away from any rigid deadline for US withdrawal and calling for an enduring strategic partnership, and second, in making the creation of an integrated civil-military effort a top priority.
As for more detailed changes, Afghanistan is remarkably volatile, and multiple visits often do more to warn how quickly things change on the inside than provide a basis for lasting advice. There are, however, several areas where such suggestions may be of value – if only to provide a checklist to those who actually have to alter plans and implement them.
1. Create a Functional Modus Vivendi with the Power Structure in Afghanistan and Pakistan
No US strategy can succeed if the US cannot obtain sufficient support from the Afghan and Pakistani governments. The US cannot change the Karzai government, and more broadly, cannot change the underlying power structure in Afghanistan that will be dictated as much by power brokers, tribal factors, ethnic/sectarian, and regional differences as it will be by the formal structure of government. The US cannot change the underlying reality that Pakistani perceptions of its national interest differ from US goals and objectives in seeking influence in Afghanistan, in giving priority to the threat from India, and in focusing on internal security areas outside the FATA and Baluchi border areas of most interest to the US.
The US cannot, however, endlessly compromise with either the Afghan power structure or Karzai in ways that make it impossible to defeat the insurgency and limit Al Qa'ida’s influence. It cannot win a war by accepting a Karzai set of compromises with movements like Haqqani because that effectively gives the Taliban both a large element of control and blocks effective efforts to defeat Al Qai’da. Similarly, there are sharp limits to the US ability to compromise with Pakistan over its ties to Afghan insurgents and tolerance of Al Qai’da.
The last year has shown progress in US-Pakistani relations but it has not demonstrated that the US can find a modus vivendi with Pakistan that offers a credible hope of destroying Al Qai’da’s bases of operations there, or leading to a major Pakistani commitment to either defeating the Afghan Taliban or forcing it to reconcile on acceptable terms. There is still a credible hope that such a modus vivendi can be created, but the war will become pointless without it, and time is running out.
US relations with the Karzai government have deteriorated sharply since the planning for the new strategy in mid-2009, and many involved then saw the corruption and incapacity of the Afghan government to be a serious a threat to any meaningful form of victory as the insurgency. As a result, one of the underlying assumptions behind the new strategy and a continued US presence in Afghanistan is now in doubt. The US cannot implement its current strategy without the active support and cooperation of the Karzai government and there is no point in seeking to create the conditions for a stable and secure transfer of responsibility unless the support of an Afghan government offers a credible promise of preventing the Taliban and Al Qai’da from having a major influence in Afghanistan.
If Ambassador Eikenberry and General Petraeus cannot reach such a modus vivendi with the Karzai government, it is time to shift to a containment and withdrawal strategy. There is no point in pursuing tactical victory that ends in strategic defeat. The US needs to be flexible, however Ambassador Eikenberry’s warnings of last year are proving to be all too valid. No amount of spin and political rhetoric can compensate for the fact that the Karzai government must be far more proactively committed both, to the fight and the new strategy or the war will become pointless.
2. But, the US must accept the need to compromise and operate on terms and a timescale that the Afghan and Pakistani governments and people can accept
The US, however, needs to recognize that it has as much responsibility for many of the current problems as the Afghan and Pakistani governments do. Although the Obama Administration has tried repeatedly to clarify the meaning of a mid-October 2011 “deadline” for capping the US troop presence and beginning a withdrawal and eventual transfer to Afghan responsibility, it has failed to do so.
No one can talk to Afghan and Pakistani officials – or those of allied ISAF governments – without becoming aware that many feel the US cannot show the strategic patience to win and cannot be trusted to stay long enough to achieve a viable end state to its military operations. This fear is compounded by the coming withdrawal of Canada, the Netherlands, and Poland – real partners in the fight – and growing uncertainty about the role of Britain. Unless President Obama, Ambassador Eikenberry, and General Petraeus can convince the Afghan and Pakistani governments that the US talk about an enduring strategic partnership is real, that the deadlines are truly flexible and conditions-based, and that the US is willing to stay even as key allies reduce their forces, the war will be lost. The Afghan and Pakistani governments will find the best compromise they can with extremists because they will have no other rational choice.
These are not easy issues to address and they will be impossible to address if the US cannot accept two realities. First, these are long wars that will probably take at least half a decade to resolve, and where progress will be the result of strategic patience and continued US and allied efforts to get Afghan and Pakistani cooperation at the pace that each nation’s power structure actually permits. The US, in particular, needs to admit to itself that it took at least a half decade of major US mistakes to create the current level of Taliban and insurgent power and influence, and no strategy can correct these mistakes quickly. If we are not prepared to fight a “long war” at the pace we can credibly persuade the Afghan and Pakistani governments to accept, we have already lost.
3. Dealing with Real World End States and Changes in Afghanistan and Pakistan
The US and its allies need to accept the fact that there is no credible chance of quickly or radically reforming Afghan or Pakistani governance, their justice system, or many aspects of their approach to human rights in the course of the present fight. The most the US can hope for is a reasonable degree of security and stability in both countries, and the elimination of the formal power structure of Al Qai’da and violent extremists.
In the case of Afghanistan, Ambassador Eikenberry and General Petraeus can influence the current power structure, but not fundamentally reshape it. Even if the insurgency can be defeated, that will be an Afghan choice made over a decade or more on Afghan terms. It also is almost certain that Afghanistan in the future will look far more like Afghanistan does now, than advocates of change and reform hope.
What the US can credibly do, and is already doing, is to focus on building up the best Ministries in the central government, empowering honest provincial and district governors, and working with local assemblies and mixes of Afghan leaders in ways that are transparent and ensure that aid and local governance meet Afghan needs and win Afghan support.
The real key to success will not be anti-corruption drives – which will end in the usual punishment of scapegoats and an empowering a new set of replacements. It will be in fully acknowledging that the US, its allies, and other aid donors are the primary reason for much of the corruption in Afghanistan and much of the alienation of the Afghan people from both GIRoA and the West. It is the failure of the US and other outside states to improperly allocate and control aid money and military and civil contracts, not to provide transparency and fiscal controls, and not insisting that that money serve the interests of the Afghan people with clear and credible measures of effectiveness that has transformed the almost inevitable process of informal fees and low-level corruption into a near disaster.
The best way to change this is to bring the money under tight control, to bypass power brokers that are grossly corrupt and/or fail to meet popular needs and only fund the effective, and to create a structure that empowers the competent and transparently deals with the most urgent grievances of the Afghan people. This will still involve power brokers and some degree of corruption, but it will bring the process back to Afghan norms and give the people reason to support the government and oppose the Taliban. Without it, each new prosecution will either end in farce or replace one corrupt figure with a new, hungrier, and less competent one.
Two other related changes are required. One is to accept that there are sharp inherent limits to both the effectiveness and power of the central government. Ethic, sectarian, and tribal differences will continue to shape Afghanistan long after the US is gone. The central government is a decade or more away from the level of capacity it needs, and successful governance must be built up at the provincial, district, and popular levels to provide even a minimal level of services and working mix of formal and informal justice.
The second is to tailored counternarcotics efforts in crop substitution at a pace that is proven to actually work in the field, and to shift the focus onto high levels of narcotrafficking and networks rather than the farmer or village area. Many of these changes are already underway, but there is constant pressure to eradicate first and think later. It is questionable that any program in Afghanistan will ever materially affect the global pattern of drug use – as distinguished from shifting the drug or choice or supplier country – but if these efforts are to continue, it should be clear that winning the war and the Afghan people has decisive priority over counternarcotics. The war on terror must take precedence over the war on drugs.
As for Pakistan, the US has so far, largely been tolerant of abuses that are at least as great at the popular level as in Afghanistan, while being somewhat more careful in controlling how its aid funds are used. There is a great deal to be said for such an approach, particularly if the US does not let itself be manipulated into weakening its already minimal fiscal controls and limits on how its money is used, who it actually goes to, and who it actually benefits.
Throughout this process, the US also needs to remember that its strategic communications need to deal with outside powers, Congress, and the American people in ways that are credible over time. Ambassador Eikenberry and General Petraeus need to reset goals and expectations so that levels of progress that can actually be achieved are not perceived as failure. Much – if not most – of the US and ISAF public affairs efforts has this unfortunate effect. It relentlessly spins real progress into progress that is not occurring and creates a climate of almost constant and well-deserved mistrust.
The best way to manage expectations is to tell the truth, identify risks and problems and be honest about them, and create enduring credibility and trust. A near decade of overpromising and underperfoming at every level has become a major barrier to creating the strategic patience needed to win the war. It is time to consistently underpromise and overperform.
This is also an area where the ISAF intelligence and strategic assessment groups have shown they now have the integrity and tools to provide steadily better reporting, and reporting that is far more trustworthy than the near-drivel emerging from the various public affairs and public information efforts. Moreover, much of this reporting is now only classified because of White House efforts to control and spin the message of the war at a central level. These efforts block adequate and credible monthly and quarterly reporting as well as sharply delaying reporting to Congress.
4. Make Integrated Civil-Military Efforts a Reality
More than eight years into the war, civil-military operations in Afghanistan remain experimental, poorly coordinated, and without any credible reporting on the civil side. Where the military reports on its entire side of the campaign in tangible terms, the civil side generally reports in what one key US official called “stovepipes of excellence.” Most of this reporting is conceptual, focuses on intensions rather than plans and actions, and often makes the amount of money allocated or spent the key measure of progress. The US aid strategy for FY2011 often seems decoupled from the fact that Afghanistan is at war, or assumes enough tactical success so that aid can operate largely as if the war will not still exist when given activities take place.
These problems are compounded by a failure to integrate the civil-military effort effectively and consistently in the field. To paraphrase Tip O’Neil, all counterinsurgency in a nation like Afghanistan “is local.” Civil-military action must be tailored to local conditions, needs, and power structures. At the same time, it must be tied to the overall effort in a given region as well as the broader strategy – at least to the extent that efforts focus on the most critical areas and produce measurable overall progress in defeating the insurgency, building support for the government, and creating enough security and stability to survive a transfer to Afghan governance and security forces.
These conditions do not exist, although major new efforts have been made to try to create them since the summer of 2009. There are now more civilians, there is more money, there is more emphasis on effective local programs, and the US and ISAF have a far stronger organizational structure to try to create coordination.
Ambassador Eikenberry and General Petraeus do, however, need to take immediate steps to do more. One key step is to end the civil-military bickering and backbiting at the top and visibly and consistently work as a team. There simply is too little public support for the war in the US and allied countries to have more press reports of tensions between the commanding general, Ambassador Eikenberry, and Ambassador Holbrooke. Moreover, there is also a clear need to show that they are cooperating in dealing with the Afghan government and our allies – and that matching progress of a different kind is taking place in Afghanistan. President Obama’s demand that the leaders of the US war effort act as a team is not a casual requirement is a key to any hope for victory.
The image of unity, however, is not substitute for something that current reform efforts have only begun to address. Civil-military unity must become a reality in the field, and be effectively managed – if not micromanaged -- from the top to ensure that it is actually taking place and is effective. More conceptual papers and PowerPoints, unfocused and generalized metrics defy effective management rather than encourage it. Campaign “plans” that do not lay out clear schedules for civil-military action, the allocation of resources, and credible measures of progress and effectiveness at the local level provide yet another path to losing the war. In short, until there is top to bottom integration of civil-military operations of proven effectiveness, Ambassador Eikenberry and General Petraeus will have to directly review and manage the creation of such efforts at the local level, and not trust the present reporting systems and chains of command.
This does not have to become an enduring task. RC East has shown it is possible to create truly integrated civil-military teams at every level of operations. The fact is, however, that the present level of civil-military integration is ineffective and reporting upon it is often little more than a tissue of lies. This is the result of years of underresourcing and ineffective strategies and concepts. It no one’s fault, and major efforts are already underway to change this situation. But, that process of change now needs to be pushed forward to full success and pushed forward in the most demanding protocols that are actually feasible by both the commanding general and ambassador.
5. Recalibrating Efforts to Develop Afghan Forces, Governance, and Justice
It is no secret that the efforts to shape a new strategy in 2009 had serious limits. It proved much easier to focus on the military tactical level of what should be done in shaping military operations and clearing the Taliban and other insurgents rather than to define the civil-military operations needed to hold an area, build up governance and the economy, and create a structure that could accept lasting functional transition to Afghan governance and forces.
The planning for the new strategy also did not anticipate several key problems that now affect the war. It did not foresee a “deadline” that has led to trying to rush many aspects of Afghan force development. It did not foresee how long it would actually take to put more US troops in place. It did not foresee how hard it would be to obtain more civilians that could actually act as partners in the field. Finally, it did not foresee an election crisis than seriously weakened the Afghan government’s capability to act while dividing President Karzai from the US. Moreover, there was not enough time to survey all of the problems created by eight years of failure to properly react to the rise of the insurgency.
Like it or not, many of the plans for “2010” are now only going to be feasible in 2011. This does not means that progress is not being made, but it does mean that it is unlikely that the US team and ISAF can definitively show that they have found ways to implement the new strategy that can decisively defeat the Taliban before the end of 2011 and probably before the summer of 2012. It also means that trying to rush progress forward is more likely to fail and lose political support than win it, and waste resources that can be obtained for another attempt. The odds are almost certainly far better than even that if the Obama Administration does not accept this reality, and act upon it, it will create conditions that make it impossible for the country team, ISAF, and the Afghan government to win.
This is particularly important in terms of creating effective Afghan forces. There is no point in quantity, even if it wins tactical battles, if the quality cannot win the trust of the Afghan people and the force lacks the quality to endure and become a solid base that can replace US and allied forces. The US and NATO training efforts have made great progress over the last year, but many elements of this progress are only now firmly in place despite continued critical shortages of trainers. The partnering and mentoring effort is still weak, and delays in the campaign plan mean that many elements of the partnering process have still not been proven in the field.
This does not mean there will not be much better ANA by the summer of 2011, but putting the proper emphasis on force quality and creating an enduring ANA that can accept transition is almost certainly going to slip into 2012. At a minimum, it means that NTM-A and partner forces must be allowed to ensure that force quality has priority over force quantity.
The problems with the Afghan police are far more serious, and not because NTM-A is not taking the right steps to implement the current plan. The fact is that the current plan grossly understates the requirement for paramilitary police and forces that can provide policing in an environment of constant insurgent challenge, stay-behinds, and reinfiltration. NTM-A needs the resources and mission to create such a force, and one large enough to survive the mission without the present near-70% level of annual attrition.
Equally important, the overall police effort is too ambitious, and seeks to create a training force in a near vacuum of support from local governance and the creation of the other elements of a justice system. The effort does not take into account the reality that most police will become linked to local power brokers, cannot eliminate corruption when so many outside pressures exist to corrupt the police, cannot be effective without support from effective local governance, and cannot function in a civil society along formal legal lines when there is no effective or honest local justice system. The ANP effort is decoupled from both the slow and limited progress in governance and a rule of law program that not only show no signs of achieving broad effectiveness and coverage, but also have allowed the Taliban to become the de facto prompt-justice system in many areas.
Ambassador Eikenberry and General Petraeus should conduct a zero-based review of the ANP development program. Part of that review should be to force an integrated regular police-governance-capacity rule of law program into being that can actually be resourced and that is tailored to meeting Afghan needs and expectations – not mirror imaging the West.