Major New Report: The Trump Transition and the Afghan War: The Need for Decisive Action

The Burke Chair at CSIS has issued a major new report entitled The Trump Transition and the Afghan War: The Need for Decisive Action. The report is available on the CSIS web site at:

It provides a detailed analysis of the problems caused by both the failures of past U.S. Administrations to properly structure and resource the U.S. combat support forces, and military and civil aid missions necessary to support Afghanistan, and of the critical failures in the Afghan government that threaten its survival and military success. It includes a detailed analysis of key weaknesses in U.S. allied train and assist, counterterrorism, and combat air support missions, and in the security efforts of the Afghan government. It also addresses key problems in the Afghan civil sector, in politics, governance, corruption, the economy and winning Afghan popular support.

The report suggests significant changes to the U.S. military mission in Afghanistan that shift from a deadline-driven withdrawal strategy to a conditions-based strategy that provide the resources needed to help Afghan forces until they are truly ready for transition. It also suggests a major shift in the U.S. civil efforts from one focused on development to one focused on addressing the key weaknesses in Afghan politics and governance, and meeting critical Afghan civil needs and winning popular support.

At the same time, the report suggests that any such U.S. and allied effort must be made firmly conditional on actual Afghan reforms and performance, and that continued Afghan failure should lead the United States and other outside states to seriously consider ending aid and withdrawing from Afghanistan.

Table of Contents

The table of contents of the report is shown below. It includes numerous tables, maps, and charts and a series of analytic appendices:


Executive Summary

The Trump Administration will inherit an under-resourced mess in Afghanistan when it takes office. Two previous Administrations have failed to properly prepare Afghan forces for the withdrawal of most foreign forces that took place in 2014, or to shape an effective Afghan civil government. It is not clear whether the Afghans risk losing the war in 2017, but it is more than possible that they will be locked into a war of attrition with no clear end, and that 2017 could at least be the beginning of a major defeat.

War is not won through half-measures or denial. Unless the incoming Trump Administration takes a far more decisive approach to both the security and civil sectors in Afghanistan, its security and popular support for its government may collapse—either slowly and painfully over years, or in some catalytic political struggle.

The Need for a Conditions Based Strategy, but One Based on Making Aid Conditional and on Actual Afghan Progress

This analysis indicates that Afghan forces do need more U.S. and allied combat support and a stronger train and assist mission. Any chance of winning a decisive victory by 2020 requires a new U.S. approach to both military and civil aid. The U.S. can only succeed if it shifts from a deadline and withdrawal-oriented strategy to one based on providing enough aid to achieve decisive results that reflect the military and civil realities on the ground, and the real world conditions of Afghan forces and governance.

At the same time, any analysis of the need for more effective U.S. aid must be prefaced with the statement that this does not mean the incoming Trump Administration should simply increase United States military and economic support for Afghanistan without setting clear conditions for action by the Afghans as well.[i]

Many of Afghanistan’s problems are the result of self-inflicted wounds that have been delivered by its own political leaders. Unless Afghan leaders become more responsible and effective, more outside support will continue to fail. The United States must also weigh its choices carefully. The United States has many other strategic priorities. Afghanistan is scarcely the current center of the terrorist threat to the United States, and leaving the Afghan (and Pakistani) problems to Russia, China, Iran, India, and Central Asian states is one way to impose the burden on other countries.

Current analysis of the Afghan security sector shows that United States has already identified a long list of military security problems that can only be addressed by the Afghan government, and where the United States needs to make military aid far more conditional on Afghan efforts to solve these problems.

The later sections of this analysis cover the Afghan civil sector, and show that the U.S. approach to this aspect of the war needs radical change—a change toward a focus on Afghanistan’s failed levels of governance and its growing post-transition economic crisis rather than the current types of aid. Such changes can only be effective, however, if Afghan politics and governance make serious reforms. The United States cannot help a government that will not help itself.

If the Afghan government can be persuaded to make the necessary reforms over the next few years, and take the most urgent steps during the coming 2017 campaign season, there is a case for stronger U.S. and other outside military and civil support, and the analysis indicates that the cost to the United States of doing what is needed may well be acceptable.

It must be stressed, however, that continued and expanded U.S. aid and support to Afghanistan should be conditional on actual Afghan performance, and not simply on further promises of reform. The costs and risks of U.S. involvement in the war are not acceptable if Afghanistan's leaders continue to fail their country. The United States cannot help a nation from the outside that will not help itself, as the United States has many other needs and obligations.

All aspects of military and civil aid should be clearly tied to full accountability, measures of effectiveness, and transparent reporting. The threat of cutting off aid should be rigidly enforced when Afghanistan does not actually execute necessary reforms, and when corruption, incompetence, and political favoritism make them ineffective. The United States should also target corrupt, incompetent, and self-seeking Afghan leaders and officials, by making it clear that they must resign—or be fired—for given flows of aid to be resumed, by denying them visas, and by carefully examining measures to remove any dual nationality.

Planning an Effective U.S. and Allied Train and Assist, Counterterrorism, and Combat Air Support Effort

No one can assess the detailed requirements for an adequate U.S. support effort from the outside. The detailed planning to both reform the Afghan force development effort and provide the kind of U.S. train/assist and air support can only be done at the command level in Afghanistan, and it should be done in concert with the matching effort to tie aid to Afghan civil reform, called for in the following parts of this analysis.

What is needed is a zero-based net assessment of both the current and probable threat, and of the current and probable capabilities of Afghan forces, and a "zero-based" assessment of the need for train and assist personnel that accepts the fact the United States must be the major provider of such aid. "Zero-based" must mean assessing the need to have a good prospect of winning, not how to minimize the U.S. effort and reduce it as quickly as possible. It must include an honest risk assessment, including contingency studies.

The United States must not repeat the mistake of spinning the analysis to suit some policy goal and minimizing the requirement to make it politically acceptable. If adequate and decisive force is too costly—which seems unlikely—the study should honestly address this.

At the same time, the assessment must look beyond the tactical level and evaluate the impact of the political and civil dimensions of the conflict. Insurgencies are battles for control over populations and territory, not just fights between hostile forces. The assessment must address the level of government influence and support as compared to insurgent influence and support, not just combat outcomes. It must look at the ability hold and build, and not simply to win.

This has been a consistent failure in far too much of the military planning in Afghanistan, and it risks repeating a lesson raised all too clearly by an incident described the late Colonel Harry Sommers. Sommers was talking with an officer who had served in the then North Vietnamese forces. Sommers pointed out that the United States had won virtually every tactical encounter. His Vietnamese counterpart smiled and responded that, "Yes, but it was irrelevant." The winner is the side that ends up controlling the state, whether by military means or political ones, and control of the population is critical.

Planning Effective U.S. and Allied Support to the Afghan Civil Sector

Any effort to create an effective U.S. civil effort is going to require very careful planning of a kind that needs to be done in country. In practice, such an effort will almost certainly also have to limit any aid requirement to something very close to the $15.2 billion for 2017-2018 aid to Afghanistan agreed to at the conference the EU hosted in Brussels in October 2016.

At the same time, it must look beyond fiscal measures and focus on how to use the money to best meet the needs and expectations of the Afghan people and win support for the government. What is needed is to expand the zero-based net assessment of Afghan military needs recommended earlier in this report to includes Afghan civil needs as well.

This should include a net assessment of Afghan popular perceptions of the government and the insurgent threat that deals with key differences by region, sect, ethnicity, and key power brokers. It should also focus on stability and security and not development. There simply will not be enough time, money, and qualified personnel many to deal with every urgent need or grievance, much less pay for development in mid-conflict.

Job creation may well prove to be the key priority—along creating effective leadership and governance—but basic services like justice, education, and medical help are also critical. Once again, aid must also be conditional and tied to effective plans, audits and fiscal controls, transparency, and measures of effectiveness.

It must also be tied to the same measures to limit waste, incompetence, and corruption. One of the fundamental absurdities of Afghan civil aid is setting goals for central government control and allocation of aid money as if the government was competent and not corrupt. Promise of reform should also never be substituted by actual reform. There are many highly competent, patriotic, and honest Afghans, but no one can count on their presence. Past promises of reform have also had about the same success as granting parole to a lifetime recidivist felon.

Once again, it will also have to be hammered home that conditional means conditional, and that Afghan leaders either take responsibility or the United States can and will leave. It is one of the ironies of a successful U.S. strategy in Afghanistan that the ability to stay is dependent on the willingness to leave.

Taking a Transactional Approach to Afghanistan's Neighbors

The changes in U.S. strategy must also reexamine the role of Pakistan, and the emerging roles of nations like Russia, Iran, India, and the Central Asian states. The most important such reexamination should be Pakistan.

Almost since the start of the Afghan War, Pakistan has pursued its own interest in Afghanistan at a high cost to the United States—sometimes in dollars and sometimes in lives. For all the rhetoric of alliance, Pakistan’s ISI and other elements of its military have consistently dealt with —and have offered sanctuary to—elements of the Taliban, al Qaeda, Haqqani Network, and other insurgents. The United States has also had to pay for access to Pakistani air space and lines of communication with aid, and to some extent by endorsing the facade of an alliance that is only partly real.

It is possible the United States can have a successful strategy that is sufficiently Afghan-centric so that it can continue such relations indefinitely. This, however, requires an objective risk assessment, and the United States needs to consider what options it has to quietly or overtly pressure Pakistan—particularly if Afghan-Pakistani relations continue to deteriorate and/or if the United States seeks to seriously try to convince the Taliban to come to the conference table in some way that can actually end the conflict.

Cutting aid, sanctions, tilting to India are all options, although scarcely good or easy ones. So is transparency. Leaking all of the details of given Pakistani actions, providing an official report to Congress, systematically rebutting the usual Pakistani claims of martyrdom, and outing Pakistani ties to the Taliban are all possibilities. This may or may not mean openly ceasing to keep up the facade that Pakistan is an ally, but the relationship should be seen as what it is: A transactional relationship where you get what you pay, pressure, or threaten for.

The same is true in a broader sense. Searches for regional cooperation, or based of some idealistic view of groups of rational bargainers do not fit the region or the individual nations involved. Leaders change, but at present, India seems to be the only case where there is enough common interest to go beyond pay, pressure, or threaten.

At the same time, the United States does have one potential compensation. To some extent, all of the nations outside Afghanistan can to some extent exploit the U.S. position while the U.S. greatly reduces the risk of an unstable Afghanistan to them. The situation changes radically if the United States withdraws. If the U.S. withdraws, Afghanistan's neighbors have to become involved to some degree, or live with the consequences. It also becomes far easier for the United States to play a spoiler role at little to no risk to itself.

Other Burke Chair Studies of Afghanistan


[i] Department of Defense (DoD), Enhancing Security and Stability in Afghanistan, December 2016, , pp. 5 & 31.

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