Realism in Afghanistan: Rethinking an Uncertain Case for the War

There is nothing more tragic than watching beautiful theories being assaulted by gangs of ugly facts. It is time, however, to be far more realistic about the war in Afghanistan.  It may well still be winnable, but it is not going to be won by denying the risks, the complexity, and the time that any real hope of victory will take. It is not going to be won by “spin” or artificial news stories, and it can easily be lost by exaggerating solvable short-term problems.

The Strategic Importance of Afghanistan and the Case for Staying in the War

Two critical questions dominate any realistic discussion of the conflict. The first is whether the war is worth fighting. The second is whether it can be won. The answers to both questions are uncertain. The US has no enduring reason to maintain a strategic presence in Afghanistan or Central Asia. It has far more important strategic priorities in virtually every other part of the world, and inserting itself into Russia’s “near abroad,” China’s sphere of influence, and India’s ambitions makes no real sense. Geography, demographics, logistics, and economics all favor other nations, and no amount of academic hubris can realistically model American reform of the “Stans” in ways that are cost-effective relative to other uses of US resources.

The carefully spun good news story about Afghan minerals may or may not prove to be economically realistic. It is all too typical of a long series of “breadbasket” arguments that take problem countries and argue that their natural resources can make them wealthy or that they can become major exporters of agricultural products. In practice, it will be at least half a decade before Afghanistan’s mineral resources will pay off, and the key outside investors are likely to be Chinese, Russian, and local. It is very unlikely that firms can compete without bribes and incentives as the cost of doing business, and even if US registered companies do invest, they are likely to operate as non–US entities in ways than minimize any economic benefits to the US.

The key reasons for the war remain Al Qa’ida and the threat of a sanctuary and base for international terrorism, and the fact the conflict now involves Pakistan’s future stability. One should have no illusion about today’s insurgents. The leading cadres are far more international in character, far better linked to Al Qa’ida and other international extremist groups, and much closer tied to extremists in Pakistan.  If they “join” an Afghan government while they are still winning (or feel they are winning), they are likely to become such a sanctuary and a symbol of victory that will empower similar extremists all over the world.

Experts disagree sharply about Pakistan’s instability and vulnerability in the face of a US and ISAF defeat in Afghanistan. There is no way to predict how well Pakistan can secure its border and deal with its own Islamic extremists, and Pakistan is both a nuclear state and a far more serious potential source of support to other extremist movements than Afghanistan. A hardline, Deobandi-dominated Pakistan would be a serious strategic threat to the US and its friends and allies, and would sharply increase the risk of another major Indo-Pakistani conflict.

It should be noted, however, that the US may be forced into leaving Afghanistan regardless of its intentions to stay, or face conditions that make any stable form of victory impossible. Containment from the outside may be the only choice, and having to leave Afghanistan does not mean having to abandon Pakistan. Maintaining a major civil and military aid effort to Pakistan, and keeping US capabilities to work with Pakistan in UCAV and other strikes on insurgent networks is also an option. So is working with Russia to support a rebirth of the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan and to pin down the Taliban and other insurgents as much as possible.

Moreover, it is time to stop demonizing Bin Laden and Al Qa’ida and focus on the broader threat. Massive population increases, poverty, decaying educational and social infrastructure, culture shock and alienation, and failed secularism affect far too much of the Islamic world. Yemen and Somalia are only the two worst cases, and some form of extremist and terrorist threat is likely to be a regional constant for the next two decades –regardless of whether the US and its allies win or lose in Afghanistan. Moreover, the trade-offs involved do raise serious questions about whether the same – or a much lower – investment in helping key allies like Egypt, Jordan, and Morocco would do far more to provide overall security.

The fact is, the strategic case for staying in Afghanistan is uncertain and essentially too close to call. The main reason is instead tactical. We are already there. We have major capabilities in place. If we can demonstrate that the war can be won at reasonable additional cost in dollars and blood, it makes sense to persist. But, only if we can demonstrate we can win and show that the additional cost has reasonable limits. Containment and alternative uses of the same resources are very real options, and would probably be more attractive ones if we could somehow “zero base” history. The reality is, however, that nations rarely get to choose the ideal ground in making strategic decisions. They are prisoners of their past actions, and so are we.

Can This Mission Be Successful? Can We Win?

These uncertainties would be less important if it were possible to argue convincingly that the war can either clearly be won, or must be lost. No one can do this on the basis of the current evidence and indicators.

 “Afghan Good Enough” Versus “Afghan Impossible”

The definition of victory is as much at issue as the question of whether victory is possible. One thing seems clear: The impossible goals and dreams of rapid political and economic development, creation of a Western-style rule of law, and quick progress in human rights was never going to take place even if the challenge had really been post-conflict reconstruction and the insurgency had not been allowed to fester without serious opposition for half a decade. The Afghan Compact, a badly drafted Western constitution, and the Afghan National Development Plan were little more than idealistic dreams decoupled from Afghan realities and Afghan desires.

More than eight years into the war, the last Presidential election is still a political nightmare, the legislative election is in limbo, and Afghan power brokers have become far stronger while Afghan capacity in governance has made limited progress Nearly 40% of the population is partially dependent on UN food aid for basic subsistence, and most Afghans have to do anything they can to survive – whether this involves opium or what the West calls corruption. It is the Taliban that established the real rule of law in many areas, and the civil authorities and police remain largely corrupt and ineffective in much of the country. As for human rights, traditional Afghans remain traditional Afghans, and issues like the rights of women make token progress at best outside the areas where such rights already existed before the Taliban took over.

The case is very different, however, if victory is defined in the way that General McChrystal and other have done in ISAF. They are talking about a much less ambitious end state that would offer most Afghans major benefits as well as achieve a meaningful form of victory. The ISAF command brief defines both the campaign goals and this endstate as follows:

  • Purpose
    • Assist GIRoA in defeating the insurgency.
    • Protect the Afghan population and separate insurgent influence.
    • Gain popular support for the government. 
    • Allow sustainable progress and promote legitimacy. 
    • Prevent the return of transnational terrorists and eliminate potential safe havens.
  • Method
    • Conduct the operation in three stages: A) Gain the Initiative; B) Achieve Strategic Consolidation; and C) Sustain Security.
    • Gain the initiative and stop insurgent momentum in the next 12-18 months.
    • Establish closer cooperation with the International Community.
    • Achieve improved integration and CIV-MIL operational cohesion.
  • Endstate
    • Insurgency defeated to within GIRoA’s capacity.
    • Legitimate governance extends to local levels.
    • Socio-economic programs benefit the majority of Afghan people.
    • GIRoA, with ISAF support, is capable of assuming the lead for security.

The campaign design and desired end state for Afghanistan is shown in more detail in the chart below, and it effectively limits the goal to effective governance and justice as perceived by Afghans, a stable society free of significant insurgent violence and threats, and a suitable condition for development by Afghans on Afghan terms.

This may fall far short of the goals that the US and other nations set in 2002 and the years that followed, but it is credible and would serve US strategic interests by denying Al Qa’ida, the Taliban, or other insurgents control of the country or major operational areas and sanctuaries.  In short, it is “Afghan good enough,” and not “Afghan impossible,” and is at least a pragmatic definition of the mission and a set of conditions that the US and its allies have some hope of achieving.

This does not, however, alter the fact that even this much more modest definition of the mission -- and of victory -- may still prove to be beyond our ability to achieve. There are several major areas of risk and uncertainty where there simply are not enough facts or precedents to make a credible prediction.

Estimating the Enemy

One key area lies in estimating the enemy and predicting its behavior. The metrics on the Taliban and other insurgents remain ambiguous. General McChrystal seems to be correct in saying that their momentum has been halted, but he has been careful not to say that it has been reversed. ISAF reporting shows the ambiguities in these patterns in considerable detail. It is far from clear that ISAF and the US have as yet won any tactical victories they can exploit in ways that bring lasting stability and transition to capable Afghan governance and security forces. It is equally unclear, however, that the insurgents can hold out against any concentrated offensive, or either take or hold ground in areas where they have limited or no ethnic and religious support.

US and ISAF intelligence estimates raise as many questions as they answer:

  • On the one hand, we are still dealing with a relatively small, extreme, and largely unpopular enemy that a number of intelligence experts argue has increasingly divided leadership and whose fighters are tired of the conflict and absentee direction.
  • One the other hand, these arguments are uncertain and often made out of any historical context. Most of the successful insurgencies of modern times have been won by groups that suffered major reversals on the battlefield (and were often said to have been defeated), that proved to be far more resilient and adaptable over time than experts calculated, and essentially won the war of political attrition by outlasting their opponents in spite of continuing tactical defeats.

The fact is that this is a duel in strategic endurance, in which it is not possible to predict the level of Taliban capability inside either Afghanistan or Pakistan, Al Qa’ida’s endurance, the level of lasting Afghan and GIRoA support for the war, allied support, Pakistani support, or the support of Congress and the American people. There are also cases of sudden, unpredictable and catalytic collapse on the part of both governments and insurgents. The only way to know is to actually fight the war.

Deadlines and Expectations

One thing is clear: The war will be lost if 2011 is treated as a deadline, and/or if the GIRoA and the Afghan people, the Pakistani government and people, and our allies perceive it as a deadline. The same will be true if the timing of the campaign, and the impact of US and allied actions, are defined in terms of unrealistic expectations. No amount of planning, discussion, and analysis can set clear deadlines for this war.

The current situation is the product of more than eight years of chronic under-resourcing, under-reaction, spin, self-delusion and neglect. It is the result of one of the worst examples of wartime leadership in American history. There is no magic route out of this situation, and the timing of an effective campaign has been complicated by a wide range of factors:

  • Karzai, who appeared to have already rigged the election in the summer of 2009, did not rely on power brokering to give him a majority. The controversy following the election consumed 4-6 months, divided Karzai from the US, has led to the resignation of key officials, and left GIRoA with far more uncertain legitimacy while sharply undermining US influence. This has affected every aspect of GIRoA and ANSF support for the war.
  • President Obama’s review consumed 4 months of critical time in a 12-18 month campaign plan. The plans for the civilian surge were never credible and led to inevitable delays. Military movements had their own delays, and key elements of operational plans were too conceptual from the start and assumed far more rapid and easy progress in the hold and build phases than proved possible in test areas like Marja.
  • President Obama attempted to qualify the deadline he set in his speech for the beginning of US withdrawal in August 2011, but this message has failed to get across in spite of repeated efforts by senior US commanders and officials. Many Afghan officials and officers, and allied officers and diplomats, are at best confused and at worst privately believe that we will leave. Any visitor to Afghanistan also sees efforts at every level to rush operations in time to meet November 2010 and July 2011 reporting deadlines. The end result is that a vague de facto deadline exists. This deadline inevitably affects goals and expectations that have long been set at unrealistically high levels for both civil and military operations. The end result is often that operations and actions that have a far better chance of succeeding over six months to a year longer are being rushed in ways that sharply increase the risk of failure. Moreover, far too little tangible planning is being carried out for the period beyond August 2011, with a sharp decoupling of civil and military plans that separate the military campaign and transition to increasing ANSF responsibility from aid plans that often are far too conceptual and stovepiped and that effectively mark a premature return to “post-conflict reconstruction.”
  • Allied war fatigue compounds the problem. Canadian and Netherlands’ withdrawal in 2011, and recent Polish calls for withdrawal, are symbols of the fact that the legislatures and population of many ISAF countries no longer believe in this war. Some of this is unavoidable, given the length and cost of the conflict and the fact that the US obtained much of its present allied support by describing the mission as peacekeeping and post conflict reconstruction, and failed to show effective leadership between 2002 and 2008.
  • Much – perhaps a majority – of the foreign aid effort is still directed towards programs and goals that were set before the insurgency cast Afghanistan into a state of war. This effort remains decoupled from the real world security situation and the needs and perceptions of ordinary Afghans. Far too much aid planning and spending exists in a “bubble” that effectively tries to ignore the fact that the nation is at war. It is time that the entire civil effort, and all foreign aid, dealt with the reality that Afghanistan is at war and that aid in governance, economics, and the rule of law must be tailored to this fact, and be transparently accountable in the process.
  • Goals have been set for the development of the Afghan National Security Forces that emphasis force quantity over force quality. These goals may well rush a force into the field that is used up in the process, therefore denying a basis for transition from US and allied forces. The end result may well also delay operations and transition by using up key elements of the army and paramilitary ANCOP police force, or risk serious reversals if ISAF tries to rely on the force. The Army is effectively being pushed towards its present short-term force goal two years early, and the ANCOP force is still under so much stress that it has 80% attrition. Moreover, ISAF had only deployed 23% of the required trainers as of early May 2010. Giving NTM-A and the partnering effort even an additional year, and time to put more emphasis on quality and transition over quantity and immediate employment, could make the difference between strategic success and strategic failure.

ISAF has shown considerable realism in adjusting its campaign plans to these facts, but they could still cost the US and its allies the war if a major shift does not take place from the present climate of “over-promise and under-perform” to an acceptance that deadlines do more to undercut support than to motivate, that plans must reflect real world time scales and realistic expectations and goals, and that credibility and leadership depend on “under-promising and over-performing.”

No one can guarantee victory even in the form of the end state described earlier. One can guarantee that it is better to have a credible chance of victory in 2012-2013 than it is to rush to defeat in 2010-2011. Moreover, it is fairly easy to predict the political cost of pretending that the aftermath will not require serious aid expenditures, and US and allied military advisory and support efforts, well beyond 2015. One cannot ask for money through 2015 in DoD and State Department budget documents for FY2012 and simultaneously pretend that the transition to Afghan governance, the ANSF, and Afghan self-financing will be relatively quick. In fact, even the most optimistic estimate of any mining and agricultural development effort indicates that major financial support is likely to be needed through 2020. It is time to be honest about this. Vietnam is a warning of what concealment and denial will do to any lasting political support.

Accepting Afghans as Afghans

The war is not going to be won by treating the power structure of Afghanistan as if it did not exist or as if it could be radically changed in the course of the next few years. The central government is not going to be empowered at the expense of key regional, geographic, ethnic, and sectarian divisions; or suddenly eliminate the role of tribalism and key families. Efforts to reshape governance to create a modern Western structure of “effective governance” that somehow transform all of Afghanistan are simply not going to work. The challenge is to co-opt the power structure, and control its worst elements and behavior, in ways that the Afghan people can accept as a better option than the Taliban. As one experienced aid worker put it, “it is to find their worst grievances, deal with them, and create conditions where they can move forward if they choose to do so.”

This means setting far less ambitious goals for reform and government capacity. It means accepting a major role for existing power brokers, if for no other reason than that there is no credible alternative. The issue is not Western concepts of governance, but what will make GIRoA “good enough” by Afghan popular standards.

The US, its allies, and all aid donors need to take responsibility for much of what is called “corruption.” They failed to understand that Afghans accept informal payments as part of the cost of normal life. They did not consider the real world motivations of people involved in some 30 years of war and turmoil and who had no way to know if any given job or position would last more than a few months.

They failed to see the importance of preserving the Afghan civil service and instead hired many Afghans away from the government. They created a virtually uncontrolled flood of money that could be grabbed by Afghans who had not had any similar opportunities in 30 years, who had limited loyalty or no abstract concept of governance, and who had the resulting ability to take that money to become wealthy and buy power in the process. Organizations like UNAMA and AID have been massively corrupting forces in Afghanistan. So have the US and ISAF military who have given massive amounts of money to poorly supervised contractors and others, who in turn not only buy power with that money, but often pay a tax to insurgents in the process.

These problems have been compounded by an emphasis on anticorruption drives that have had a predictable lack of effect. Rather than threaten the power structure, they lead to hollow investigations, finding scapegoats, shuffling officials from one post to another, and predictable resistance from any Afghan with the clout and wealth to avoid becoming a successful target.

Moreover, all these problems interacted with a past emphasis on building a formal justice system whose resources and timescales were impossibly long and limited in near-term coverage, decoupled from credible policing and detention, and ignored the hopelessly low pay and poor security for judges and prosecutors. The end result bypassed the kind of less formal justice Afghans wanted and needed, left much of the country without effective justice, and empowered the Taliban to the point where it had enough presence to create its own “prompt” justice system. Anticorruption efforts cannot function at the local and regional levels under such circumstances, and creating local police becomes impossible when there is no real justice system for them to support and virtually any power broker or successful criminal can buy their way to the result they want.

In short, winning requires a major adjustment in US, ISAF, and donor acceptance of Afghanistan as it is. It means accelerating efforts to provide full accountability for all aid and military expenditures, tightly controlling the flow of money to power brokers and contractors in ways where the recipients see the incentive to support the war and to limit their abuses, and carefully targeting money to effective and relatively honest Afghan officials at the federal, provincial, district, and local levels in ways where it is clear that the end result benefits the Afghan people and wins support for the government over the Taliban. It means dealing with the real power structure in Afghanistan, not with the formal construct of government.

The Civil-Military Side of the War

All of these challenges combine to add another dimension to the cost-benefit assessment of continuing the war. They all highlight the fact that the war has not one but six centers of gravity,  and they all highlight the fact that the primary risks are civil and not military. As is seen throughout this analysis, the Taliban and insurgents are only one center of gravity. The rest range from GIRoA to ISAF, aid donors, and the lack of unity within the US effort. They include:

  • Defeating the insurgency not only in tactical terms, but also by eliminating its control and influence over the population.
  • Creating an effective and well resourced NATO/ISAF and US response to defeating the insurgency and securing the population.
  • Building up a much larger and more effective (and enduring base for transition) mix of Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF).
  • Giving the Afghan government the necessary capacity and legitimacy at the national, regional/provincial, district, and local levels.
  • Creating an effective, integrated, and truly operational civil-military effort.
  • Coordinating NATO/ISAF, UN, member countries, NGOs, and the international community
  • Efforts to focus on winning the war, meeting Afghan needs according to Afghan perceptions, and reducing waste, corruption, and their corrupting impact on Afghans.
  • Dealing with a center of gravity outside Afghanistan and NATO/ISAF’s formal mission:
    The situation in Pakistan, and the actions of Iran and others.

There is little doubt that the US and ISAF can continue to win open tactical clashes. The risks lie primarily in the creation of an ANSF that can actually transition to the point of largely eliminating the role of the US and other ISAF forces in combat, and – above all – creating the effective civil side of a US/ISAF effort that can convince the Afghan people that fighting the war will be worth the cost, that a mix of government capabilities will come to exist that are far better than living under the Taliban, that their basic economic needs can be met, and they have a credible path to economic development.

It was all too easy to formulate a new strategy based on “shape, clear, hold, build, and transition” as long as the civil side of “hold, build, and transition” was conceptual, and did not have to be implemented in rural areas like Marjah and the far more challenging conditions of a largely urban area like Kandahar. It was clear from the start, however, that any practical application of this strategy lacked operational definition on the civil side, that the aid community was not ready to implement it and any civilian “surge” would still leave civil activity highly dependent on the US military, and that building Afghan capabilities would be a slow effort that had to occur at every level from local to central government. It short, implementation was never a military-driven exercise in finding the right troop to task ratio, but always a politico-economic exercise in resource to experiment ratio.

General McChrystal and ISAF deserve praise, not criticism, for accepting these realities. There is a clear need to slow the campaign in Kandahar, to correct the problems that occurred in Marjah, to avoid major combat of the kind that took place in Fallujah, to realistically build government services while finding viable compromises with power brokers, and to move forward on a pace dictated by Afghan acceptance and not US/allied impatience. There are acute limits to any civilian surge, which can only act at the pace that the number of capable US and allied civilians and military personnel with civil-military expertise permits. To paraphrase a lesson from Iraq, the campaign can only succeed if it operates according to Afghan and not US time. As noted earlier, this means that determining whether the war can be won or lost almost certainly should slip from 2010-2011 to 2011-2012. If it does not, it may be a sheer lack of strategic patience – not the other difficulties we face – that loses the war.

At the same time, the fact that the scale of the civil challenge, and ANSF development, are both higher than previously estimated may require more attention to a potential weakness in the overall strategy and campaign plan. Focusing on Kandahar as the greatest challenge makes sense if that challenge can be quickly met. If delays are as inevitable as now seems likely, more attention may well be needed to the less demanding challenges of pushing a much more limited insurgent presence out of the north, west, center, and parts of the east. Reversing insurgent momentum would be much easer to accomplish and would put greater and earlier pressure on the overall mix of insurgents.

The Reality of Continuing Risk

These are not likely to be popular conclusions. They require considerable leadership on the part of the US, as well as close and frank coordination with our allies. Moreover, they require acceptance of the fact that the case for the war is not based on some certainty of victory, but odds that may well be even -- or worse. It is time, however, to come to grips with the sheer scale of the US mistakes that led to the rise of the insurgency in Afghanistan, and to start addressing the reality that we may face many wars in the future against extremists that exploit the weakest and most divided states, fight similar wars of political attrition, and force the US to commit forces and money to weak governments and nations that do not meet many Western expectations.

This is not likely to be a century of confrontations between Western powers fighting conventional wars on their own territory. It is almost certain to be a century where the US must learn to fight irregular wars and exercises in armed nation building whether it likes it or not. If nothing else, the case for the war in Afghanistan may be that it is the prelude to an almost inevitable future.