The Need for a New U.S. Strategy: The Real Message of the Latest Crisis in Afghanistan

The United States needs to look beyond the latest incident and focus on the broader patterns in U.S. and Afghan relations. It needs to realize that its current strategy is becoming a façade that can only make things worse, and it needs to make a hard choice: Admit that the United States is headed toward an exit strategy or recast current U.S. efforts in cooperation with our allies so that we provide a real transition strategy based on credible goals, credible resources, and doing things the Afghan way.

We need to face the fact that the tragic killing of Afghan civilians by a U.S. soldier only highlights the growing problem the United States faces in creating any kind of strategy for Afghanistan that can survive engagement with reality.

Seeing from an Afghan Perspective

We need to begin by understanding the Afghan perspective and the level of the problems we now face. Many educated and urbanized Afghans are grateful and realize the scale of their dependence on the United States. Many other Afghans, however, have little or no understanding of the outside world and are not even aware of 9/11. They see the United States in terms of their own very different cultural and religious values, and they are heavily influenced by insurgent propaganda and conservative clerics and tribal leaders.

The Afghan perspective has little broad sympathy for the Taliban and insurgents, but its view of the United States and our allies is shaped by night raids that kill civilians, air strikes that kill civilians, constant checkpoints and security barriers, detentions, and lower-level clashes and incidents involving International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) troops, contract security forces, and Afghan civilians and forces that are never reported.

It is shaped by failed aid projects and resentment of corruption, which Afghans feel is bred by massive foreign spending and uncontrolled contracts. It is shaped by previous high-profile incidents—the “kill team” platoon that attacked Afghans for sport, the urinating on a Taliban corpse, and the burning of Qur’ans.

More broadly, it shaped at the top of the Afghan government and Afghan society by U.S. deadlines that keep accelerating, the growing feeling that U.S. and allied action is a prelude to largely abandoning Afghanistan by the end of 2014, and steadily sharper cuts in troop levels, aid, and spending. It is shaped by constant criticism of the Afghan record on corruption, narcotics, power brokers, human rights, effective governance, creation of a functioning justice system, and insistence of sovereignty.
Many Afghans in the government fear the United States is using peace talks to cover an exist strategy at their expense—a strategy that many in the north feel will give the Taliban and insurgents control over much of the country. It is also personal: there has been one incident after another where senior and lower-level U.S. officials clash with President Hamid Karzai and lower-ranking Afghan officials over everything from a future strategic framework agreement to a particular corrupt governor or human rights case.

The Afghan Problem from Our Perspective

At the same time, we need to be grimly realistic about the Afghan side, as well, and about the prospect we can somehow suddenly transform it. There are far too many legitimate reasons to criticize Karzai, corrupt officials from ministers and provincial governors on down, and the Afghan power brokers that are today’s replacement for warlords.

Ten years on, the Afghan legislature is a hollow shell, and no one can guarantee the integrity of the presidential election due in 2014. Nepotism and favoritism are the rule, not the exception. So is favoritism by family, ethnicity, and sect, and the latent division of Afghans into the non-Pashtun north and different Pashtun belts in the south and east. Aid efforts may be producing more civil servants and a much greater Afghan capacity to spend, but we have little to show in terms of actual capacity to govern honestly and effectively and expand governance and the justice system in the field and the areas where insurgents are being pushed out at anything like the necessary rate.

There are elements in the Afghan government that are capable of managing and executing the kind of programs called for in current development plans. However, this capacity is far from the minimum requirement needed to take over current programs as most aid teams leave the field and major cuts take place in the military and spending. The current system and spending levels are critically dependent on a vast flood of money from military and aid spending, which the World Bank points out directly funds most Afghan government spending and development and which is so large that it approaches Afghanistan’s domestic GDP.

The failure to manage U.S. and allied military spending and aid funds has enriched and corrupted a small elite—and corrupted many more at lower levels. A decade of counternarcotics efforts has constantly shifted the areas of production but done nothing to eliminate a domestic economy based far more on narcotrafficking than a “new Silk Road,” and it has created a nation-wide structure of what have come to be called “criminal networks.”

The Afghan National Security Forces are making progress, but this progress is rushing toward goals that are far too fast, far too large, and based on spending that has to be financed from the outside at levels that cannot be sustained. There are too few properly trained U.S. and allied advisers and partners and far too high a rate of attrition and turnover in Afghan forces. The Afghan Army is making progress, but it would need at least two more years after 2014 to really be able to take over responsibility for security, and the Afghan Air Force is not supposed to be ready before 2016.

The police still suffer from massive corruption, and it is unclear than even the best elements of the local police can hold together once foreign advisers leave. There is no effective governance and justice system (sometimes, there is no system at all) in far too many high-risk and conflict areas, and no police force can be effective on its own. Moreover, it is all too clear from past insurgencies that military gains are almost meaningless if the government cannot come in immediately and hold and build.

Dealing with Reality

There are three options or strategies we can use to deal with the situation. The first is a strategy of “exit by denial.” We can go on trying to preserve as much of the past strategy as possible. We can continue setting impossible goals for transforming the Afghans and for continuing levels of U.S. and allied funding and support.

We can ignore all of the pressures building up on both sides as mistrust continues to rise, pledges are made and not kept, and outside forces and spending drops faster than planned. We can focus on empty policy statements, concepts, and conferences. We can continue to report nothing but good news or spin reality as best our public affairs officers can manage. We can waste much of the limited time left before 2014, play out a partisan debate in the United States through November 2012, and then join our allies in blundering out as best we can.

The second strategy is an “honest exit” strategy. We do not put political cosmetics and face-saving gestures first. We accept the fact that we will not sustain the level of effort needed through 2014, much less beyond. We accept what this means for peace negotiations. We don’t promise the Afghans more money and forces than they will really get.

We deal with the human consequences of these actions and ensure that those Afghans who worked with us are safe. We provide at least enough money and support so that, if there is a chance that the Afghan government and forces can survive with a far lower level of resources, they have at least that much support. We try to work with Pakistan, China, Russia, the Central Asian states, and even Iran to do as much as possible to limit the role of the Taliban and other insurgents, protect the non-Pashtun areas in the north and the large numbers of urban and other northern Pashtuns, and give Kabul a meaningful role. These efforts may well fail, but they at least offer the Afghans some chance.

The third strategy is the most challenging. It is to create a “real transition” plan with real resources through a period that is likely to last at least through 2020. This does not mean going on with the current strategy. It means a comprehensive and honest reassessment of what can be done to enable the Afghans to do things their way and largely on their own as soon as possible.

It means dealing with Afghan anger and perceptions by ending much of the criticism and calls for reform. It means accepting the fact that continued aid will have to go to the same power structure that now exists and facing the reality that most current abuses of government, policing, human rights, and the justice system will only change when Afghans are ready to change them.

It means a zero-based examination of what kind of Afghan security forces can really be created with the money and time available, as well as what level of U.S. and allied advisory and partnering presence is both needed and feasible given the security problems and tensions on both sides and real world future resource constraints. It means accepting a narco-economy, power brokers, and Afghan management of development and operating aid funds, where the most that can be done from the outside is penalize gross waste and corruption.

Unfortunately, there is no real way to know how feasible such a strategy really is. It requires a transition plan we have failed to develop, a level of interagency and international cooperation and realism that does not yet exist, and a far more honest dialogue with the Afghans than has taken place to date. It is the most responsible strategy of the three, in theory, and the one most likely to serve our longer-term strategic interests, but it is far from clear that we can go from “exit by denial” to a “real transition” plan in practice.

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

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

© 2012 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.

For additional analysis and commentary see:

Anthony H. Cordesman, “Afghanistan: The Death of a Strategy,”

Anthony H. Cordesman, “Transition in the Afghanistan-Pakistan War: How Does This War End?”

Anthony H. Cordesman, “Afghanistan: The Failed Metrics of Ten Years of War,”