The Mindless Debate over Future U.S. Military Manpower in Afghanistan

The growing media and think tank debate over the future levels of U.S. military manpower for Afghanistan is as dangerous as it is mindless. The United States now plans to withdraw virtually all of its military and civil manpower from Afghanistan by the end of 2014. It is planning massive cuts in military and civil aid spending but has not made any details public.

At the best of times, military manpower totals are a largely meaningless metric. The issue is never whether there are 6,000 men and women or 30,000. The issue is what they are deployed to do, what roles and missions they perform, what combat role they will play if any, how well funded and equipped they are, and how they support an overall strategy, plan, and effort to achieve a real strategic result. In an insurgency, and in an effort to conduct armed nation building in a failed state, military manpower is an even less meaningful metric than usual. The issue is the future size of the civil-military effort, not the military effort alone. Any debate or analysis of the future U.S. role in Afghanistan that does not tie the two together is little more than intellectual and media rubbish.

Totals for military and civil personnel not only do not describe or justify the function of such manpower, they need to be tied to data that show where they are to be deployed and their future level of security. There are unconfirmed media reports that the United States now plans to cut the number of U.S.-occupied facilities in Afghanistan from some 90 at the end of 2011 to 5 major facilities by the end of 2014, and no one is talking about the end result in terms of the future security of U.S. personnel or the ability to perform meaningful missions without being exposed in the field. Moreover, our cuts will take place as our allies—and many nongovernmental organizations—almost totally withdraw from the country and with an Afghan election occurring in 2014 that will produce an unknown future leader of a largely failed government.

What really matters, however, is that there are no public U.S. plans that show how the Obama administration will deal with either the civil or military aspects of this transition between now and the end of 2014, or in the years that follow. The few metrics that the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) and the U.S. government have made public only cover past combat performance, and they show there has been no meaningful military progress since the end of 2010. The State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) have never issued a remotely credible report on the progress and impact of the civilian surge or any aspect of the civil aid program. (For a detailed analysis of recent combat reporting, see the text, maps, and charts in “The War in Afghanistan at the End of 2012: The Uncertain Course of the War and Transition.”)

At this point in time, this lack of public and transparent plans and reporting makes it impossible to determine whether there is a real transition plan or a disguised exit strategy. All that is clear is that the United States is likely to spend at least $150 billion more on the war by the end of 2014 and suffer well over a thousand more casualties.

In fairness, to the U.S. military and General John Allen, their recommendations to President Obama almost certainly went far beyond the public debate over the leaks of total military manpower options that have become the focus of far too much of the media and far too many think tanks. Moreover, it is the function of the U.S. military to provide military advice, not overall plans that include the civil and military aspects of the war.

The missing civil half of any public plan is the responsibility of the State Department and USAID, neither of which has ever produced a meaningful, detailed, public report on the nature and effectiveness of their civil efforts in either the Afghan or Iraq Wars. In spite of the very real efforts and sacrifices of their personnel in the field, neither has shown real leadership in Washington, and their promises to produce plans and effectiveness measures have never been kept.

This is not a minor bureaucratic failure. The civil side of the war is at least as critical as the future role of the U.S. military. Work by the World Bank and the Afghan government both warn that the Afghan government is so dependent on outside aid and military spending in country that the entire government and war effort could collapse during 2014 and the years that follow without effective outside aid efforts.

In short, we should not make any decisions regarding the future of the war without a comprehensive effort by the Obama administration to fully address the issues that truly shape the war, without clear presidential leadership, and without transparent public transition plans that can allow the Congress and the nation to debate the way forward and reach some form of real consensus. This need becomes clear from even a brief examination of the other issues that need to be addressed in shaping our future commitments.

First, more than a decade of calls for effective and honest government have left Afghanistan under corrupt and incompetent leadership in Kabul and with weak, corrupt, and/or no meaningful governance and rule of law in much of the field. President Hamid Karzai’s term expires in 2014, and a new president is to be elected. He will preside over a corrupt and divided Afghan legislature whose powers are too weak for it to be effective and a political structure where governors and local leaders are appointed and have no real popular legitimacy.

The issue is not whether the 2014 election will be more honest than the previous one. It is whether there will be a leader who can somehow make Afghanistan work as most outside military and civil aid and personnel vanish. We need to remember that a compliant and incompetent leader failed in Vietnam and that a factional political conspirator is failing in Iraq. If Afghanistan repeats this process, there will be no reason to stay.

Second, there seem to be two options for the future of the war. An uncertain effort at a settlement with the Taliban that the “Emirate” so far firmly and decisively rejects—demanding that all foreign troops leave as a precondition for any negotiation. Or, an open-ended U.S. commitment to supporting the Afghan government, as well as a mix of Afghan forces, which the latest Department of Defense reporting indicates will not have any army that is really ready to assume true responsibility for Afghan security until sometime after 2016, and whose police are unlikely to succeed at any point in the future.

Third, we are not alone in Afghanistan in 2013, but we may be largely alone after the end of 2014. Much of the country is now secured by allied forces and has allied aid teams responsible for progress in governance and economic security. If the United States is to keep the necessary levels of military and civil manpower in country, then the United States needs to do it in ways that honestly address the almost total public lack of support for the war in every major allied country, the real-world unwillingness of our allies to keep spending on a sustained basis, and their real-world unwillingness to keep troops in country or risk the lives of their civil and military personnel in the field.

The Tokyo and Chicago conferences did not credibly address these issues. There is no plan to fix a UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) that is now supposed to coordinate the international civil aid effort but has never produced a single meaningful report—much less actual leadership—since the war began. There is no public plan to turn a post-2014 NATO Training Mission Afghanistan (NTM-A)—the NATO/ISAF group in charge of Afghan force training—into a credible structure for the development of the Afghan forces.

Fourth, we have many other strategic and financial priorities. We have no reason to stay in Afghanistan unless there is a credible case that doing so after 2014 is the best use of our resources and will actually produce a lasting result. The are no real “end states” in history, but staying in Afghanistan requires a clear case from the president that the result over the next decade will be worth more than putting resources into Asia, a Middle East in turmoil, a truly international counterterrorism effort, or dealing with our domestic financial crisis. No one in the administration has even begun to make this case, and it desperately needs to be made if we are to stay.

At this point in time, all of these problems and issues raise more negatives than positives—a reality that no amount of shallow public affairs claims and propaganda can cover up. At the same time, much of this may reflect the Obama administration’s lack of plans, reporting, and leadership. There are many positive as well as negative indicators. It is possible that credible plans and analysis, and a focus on the real issues involved rather than meaningless manpower totals, would make the case for staying. This, however, will require the president to realize that no one follows where no one leads.

Anthony H. Cordesman holds the Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

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