Losing the "Forgotten War" The U.S. Strategic Vacuum in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Central Asia

The US is now engaged in a major national debate over how to fight the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. That same debate over the future of the US role in Afghanistan is not taking place. The US has issued the usual reassuring rhetoric after the inauguration of President Ghani and the belated signing of bilateral security and status of forces agreements. Afghanistan is still the “forgotten war” in terms of substantive plans and workable commitments. The Taliban is making steady gains, civilian casualties are rising, there still is no clear US strategy, and America’s allies lack clear plans for any post-2014 aspect of transition.

Afghanistan is also only part of the story. Pakistan is as critical to any meaningful definition of strategic success in the fighting as is Afghanistan.  Pakistan, however, is in political chaos, has rising tensions with India, has only made uncertain progress in its latest military campaign, and has made no progress in the mix of economic and educational reforms that are critical to its stable future. Few Americans see Pakistan as having been anything but the most reluctant ally since “9/11” and many see Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) as part of the enemy.

US forces have effectively left Central Asia, but the US has not announced any strategy to deal with Central Asia in the future or how to adjust to growing tensions with Russia.

The end result is that the United States has failed to define meaningful future strategies for Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Central Asia. It is cutting its presence in Afghanistan so quickly that its Transition efforts may well fail, and it has no clear future strategy for Pakistan and Central Asia.

As a result, the Burke Chair is issuing a study that examines the overall mix of problems in U.S. strategy in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the region. It suggests the best solution for the U.S. in dealing with the complex problems in South Asia and Central Asia may be the simplest and most minimalist approach. No vital U.S. national security priorities are currently involved that require sustained, major U.S. intervention, and strategic triage indicates that other areas and problems have a higher priority.

At the same time, it is far from clear that the US cannot make Transition work in Afghanistan if the new Afghan government is unified and acts quickly enough to show it can be a credible partner, and if the Obama Administration is willing to provide the needed advisors and aid resource on a conditions-based level.  There may still be a practical and affordable path to success in Afghanistan if the US does not reduce the US presence to an unworkable level by the end of 2015.

The risks, options, and cost-benefits involved are addressed in depth in a new Burke Chair paper is entitled Losing the “Forgotten War”: The Need to Reshape US Strategy in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Central Asia. This paper is available on the CSIS web site http://csis.org/files/publication/141006_Losing_the_Forgotten_War_Final.pdf.

Two other Burke Chair studies provide essential surveys of the progress and problems in the Afghan conflict:

•     Security Transition in Afghanistan available on the CSIS web site at http://csis.org/files/publication/Security Transition in Afghanistan Rev 24.9.14.pdf

•    Governance and Economic Transition in Afghanistan, and is available on the CSIS web site at http://csis.org/files/publication/140630_Gov_Econ_Transition_Afghanistan_0.pdf

Anthony H. Cordesman

Anthony H. Cordesman

Former Emeritus Chair in Strategy