Post-Election Transition in Afghanistan

A US Leadership Vacuum that Urgently Needs Hard Decisions and Real and Honest Leadership

Ever since Vietnam, the US has faced three major threats every time it has attempted a major counterinsurgency campaign in armed nation building:

  • The actual hostile forces, both in terms of native insurgent elements and outside support from other states and non-state actors.
  • Existing challenges in host country, including corruption, internal tensions, weak governance, and uncertain economics, that make it as much of a threat in practical terms as the armed opposition.
  • The failures within the US government to deal honestly and effectively with both the military and civil dimensions of the war, including attempts to transform states in the middle of conflict rather than set realistic goals; levels of costs and casualties that make sustaining the US effort difficult or impossible; and a failure to sustain the effort necessary to achieve a lasting impact.

The Need for Real Leadership by the Administration

It is now May 2014 and some 17 months after the time that the US, NATO/ISAF, and aid donors should have had in place realistic plans for Transition, and the US and its allies should have clearly laid out the strategic case and the cost and conditions for continued aid. The Obama administration seems committed to an almost endless cycle of reviews and requests for new options, but has failed to put forth any credible plans, costs, and conditions or make a meaningful strategic and political case for its position and the role the US should play in Afghanistan after 2014.

These issues are laid out in depth in an updated analysis by the Burke Chair at CSIS entitled The Post-Election Challenges to Transition in Afghanistan: 2014-2015, ( 

This analysis has just been updated to fully reflect new reporting by the US Department of Defense, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan, the World Bank, NATO/ISAF, the UN and other organizations. It makes it clear that the Administration has exaggerated progress in security, governance, and the economy – even if one ignores outside issues like the role of Pakistan.

The Administration has already waited far too long to determine whether the US will stay in Afghanistan on realistic terms and to create clear plans for the kind of funding and advisory presence that is needed. It needs to act now to persuade the American people and Congress it has a credible strategic rational and plan for staying.

It needs to act now to make sure the Afghan people and new Afghan government know and accept the conditions for continuing US support, and determine how much real world support it can get from its allies and outside donors. It needs to honestly assess the current challenges in Afghanistan, and not under-resource Transition. If it does not, the war may not end with a bang, but it may well end with a whimper.

The Security Dimension

A more detailed report is available on the progress within the ANSF that is entitled Shaping the ANSF to meet the Challenges of Transition. This report is also available on the CSIS web site and can be downloaded at

Recent NATO/ISAF, US Department of Defense, SIGAR, UN, World Bank, and other reporting again make it clear that the deadline of the end of 2014 is not “conditions-based.” It has rushed the development of Afghan National Security Forces in ways that present serious uncertainties and risks.

At a minimum, they require the full levels of manpower in terms of US and allied military advisors recommended by General Dunford, the Commander of ISAF -- at least 9,500 men in the case of the US plus the full level of requested German and Italian support. They also require US willingness to fund the gap between Afghan financing capability and the cost of supporting all of the elements of the ANSF  through at least 2016, and probably beyond 2018.

More generally, the US must be prepared for a “conditions-based” increase in this support if things go wrong. The current ISAF maximum recommendations have been pushed down to as high-risk level. Further cuts will sharply increase the risk of failure in the period from 2015 to 2016, and the collapse of the ANSF. A failure to allow for the possibility that even the commanders maximum recommendations may require surges of enables like air power or additional advisors is not realistic.

The Civil Dimension

The situation is far worse in the case of the civil side of Transition. The Administration, the State Department, and USAID have focused carefully- picked data and assessments of the civil progress in Afghanistan that sharply understate the problems the country will face as military and aid spending are cut and that undercut support for the government.

They have failed to provide a meaningful analysis of the uncertainties in the reporting and data they provide, and to show they have planned for the real world limits in the Afghan government’s ability to manage its revenues and aid, carry out critical aspects of the reforms it pledged in Tokyo, and cope with both the major coming cuts in the rate of GNP growth projected by the world Bank and a serious possible recession in the market, security, and service sectors of the Afghan economy.

A third report by the Burke Chair focuses on these civil issues, again using the latest NATO/ISAF, US Department of Defense, SIGAR, UN, World Bank, and other reporting. This report is entitled   The Afghan Civil Transition Crisis: Afghanistan's Status and the Warnings from Iraq's Failure. It is available on the CSIS web site at

It documents critical problems in the quality of governance, the ability to execute budgets and complex programs, corruption, demographic pressure, ethnic and sectarian divisions, and an economy that is so dependent on outside military and aid funding that its market sector could collapse unless the US and outside donors provide emergency support.

It also shows that any examination of the uncertainty in the data on Afghanistan reflect far higher degrees of risk and uncertainty than the State Department, USAID, and some UNAMA reporting indicates. The UN Development Report, for example, indicates that Afghanistan is making progress, but lags far below two other extremely poor and divided countries – Nepal and Bangladesh.

Moreover, a recent Burke Chair analysis of similar metrics for Iraq, more than two years after US forces departed, warns just how dangerous false assurances and exaggerated images of success can be in creating Afghan and US expectations that cannot be met, and how lasting the consequence can be in a far wealthier nation when the Us fails to provide the help in governance and economics a nation needs.

This analysis is entitled Hitting Bottom: The Maliki Scorecard in Iraq and is available on the CSIS web site at:

Making Things Work: The War Does Not Have to End with Either a Bang or a Whimper

None of these analyses mean that Afghanistan requires anything like the aid and military spending provided in past years – much of which was wasted and/or helped trigger a process of massive corruption at every level of the Afghan government and economy. 

The insurgents in Afghanistan have not won broad popular support, and have significantly more military limitations than the ANSF. If the ANSF receive the aid they need during the key years following the exit of US and other ISAF combat forces, they may well be able to hold key population centers and lines of communication. With help, their strengths may well offset their weaknesses.

Much of Afghan success  in the security sector will still depend on Pakistan’s tacit and covert support of  Afghan insurgent sanctuaries, and the ability of the new Afghan government to actually govern in ways that  win broad national support.

Winning this support also does not require the government to achieve unrealistic goals that the US may focus upon. It requires the government to meet Afghan standards. Afghanistan’s civil sector may not have made anything like the progress the US government has claimed, but it may well be able to adjust if the US is prepared to provide emergency aid if the requirement arises and deal with the real world Afghanistan rather than a fantasyland of exaggerated progress.

The US does, however, need far more honesty and realism in assessing Afghanistan’s civil sector, to plan for the risks the challenges in its civil sector and Congress present, and prepare the Congress and American people for the need for such aid. It also needs to make a real world case for a continuing commitment based on real world assessments of Afghanistan’s limited strategic value relative to clear conditions for continued US support and credible and public estimates of the costs involved.

The necessary levels of US and other donor aid do not seems unaffordable, and it seems likely that such aid will allow Afghanistan to survive as what it is in the real world: A desperately poor and weakly governed country. Afghan is not going to transform or develop during the early years after US and ISAF departure. And probably will make only limited progress over the next decade. Afghanistan as it, however, is good enough to merit US support of its new government is even moderately effective and make even moderate steps towards reform.

It almost certainly will fail, however, if the Administration continues to fail to provide credible leadership, goals, plans, and cost estimates.  It will fail – and probably lose major ground to the extremists and insurgents – if the Administration continues to try to carry out Transition on the cheap and with troop and spending level lower than  General Dunford – and General Mattis and General
Allen before him – have recommended over the last two years.

Afghanistan will also fail if the US government continues to be part of the threat rather than part of the solution. A successful Transition cannot take place with today’s lack of honest assessment and transparency, and without honest assessments of risk and uncertainty, with today’s lack of proper conditionality and institution-building for giving future aid. It cannot take place a with today’s lack of adequate and realistic US planning and contingency funding, and without the level of transparency and credibility necessary to win public and Congress support.

As Vietnam has shown all too clearly, it really doesn’t matter whether you lose a war with a bang or a whimper.