Salvaging the War in Afghanistan

The U.S. is slowly and steadily losing the war in Afghanistan. It is not losing the war at the military level – although such defeat is possible in coming years if the U.S. does not provide the necessary funds, advisors, and partners. The U.S. is losing the war at the political level by failing to win (and merit) the support of the Congress, the American people, its allies, and the Afghans.

At one level, the U.S. is losing the war through a failure to provide credible leadership. It is losing the war through a combination of a lack of strategic realism, meaningful judgments about the cost-benefits of continuing the war, and a failure to develop credible plans. At another level, the U.S. is losing the war through delays, neglect, and a failure to lead at the top levels of the Obama Administration.

The Obama Administration does, however, face critical problems in providing effective leadership. It inherited a massive and unnecessary mess from the Bush Administration. It also inherited a major recession, and a crisis in federal spending that now forces major cuts in U.S. military capability and hard choices in terms of strategic priorities. The Congress has contributed to its own failures on a bipartisan basis. Rather than demand effective plans, accountability, and measures of effectiveness, it has simply accepted most funding requests in an effort to show it has supported the troops and the war.

At the same time, far too many outside government have become passive partners in the drift towards failure. They are unwilling to say they do not support the war, and they are waiting for the near total U.S. withdrawal that they now believe is inevitable without trying to find a workable solution.

At the same time, the U.S. lacks a credible Afghan partner. The U.S. does not need the Taliban or other insurgent enemies when its Afghan ally is guilty of so many failures and mistakes. President Karzai seems determined to exit having left the equivalent of a poisoned pill to his successor. He has never been willing to come to grips with the military realities shaping the war and the ANSF. He steadily and pointlessly alienates U.S. support for the war.

He continues to put power brokering before efforts to improve governance and the economy, before giving aid a credible level of freedom from corruption and chance of success. Almost every week, he creates a new and unnecessary problem in U.S. and Afghan relations, evidently based on the assumption that the U.S. really needs to back the Afghan government and has serious rather than marginal strategic interests in Afghanistan.

Uncertain Chances of Victory in a War and Country of Marginal Strategic Importance

No one can guarantee that the war will end in any form of success even with far better U.S. and Afghan leadership. At best, the odds of real, sustained success after 2014 are “acceptable” rather than “good.”

Even the best U.S., Afghan, and allied partnership may not be able to hold the country together if the Taliban and other insurgents prove to be highly resilient and effective over time. They also include the real world burdens Afghanistan faces in dealing with the withdrawal of most U.S. and allied forces, and with massive cuts in military spending and civil and military aid. This may be more than the government in Kabul and Afghanistan’s civil and military elite can deal with.

The most serious challenges, however, occur in governance, economics, and winning sustained outside aid. They include the lack of effective Afghan political and civil leadership, the level of corruption and waste in both outside aid and Afghan use of that aid. They also are the result of the failure of the U.S. and its allies to create effective plans to assist Afghanistan and set and enforce the conditions for Afghan reform and progress.

Better U.S. leadership, planning, and management of the transition effort will fail without far better Afghan leadership and realism and vice versa. The U.S. and its allies need to accept this and start putting real pressure on Karzai as well as start working with the full range of potential successors to develop an effective post-election set of partners rather than focus on the “purity” of the election rather than its aftermath.

They also include the need for a new level of U.S. strategic realism. Today’s increasingly hollow mix of reassuring U.S. political rhetoric and leaks about a zero option need to be replaced with credible U.S. plans tailored to Afghanistan’s limited strategic importance and priority. It is time that everyone began to be honest about the fact that the cost-benefits of a continued U.S. effort are limited.

The U.S. has some strategic interest in Afghanistan, but only a limited one. It is not the center of terrorism or even Al Qa’ida – which is now dispersed into Pakistan, Iraq, Yemen, North Africa and other areas. The U.S. has marginal interests in the rest of central Asia vital strategic interests in Asia and the Gulf, and far more important strategic interests in other areas in the MENA, Sub-Saharan Africa, and Latin America. Continued – grossly exaggerated and oversimplified -- U.S. official rhetoric about Afghanistan’s importance cannot disguise very different realities. In a time of global turmoil and limited U.S. resources, Afghanistan scores somewhere between 1 and 2.5 on a scale of 10 in terms of global strategic importance to the U.S..

The U.S. also faces few liabilities if it does not continue to support the war. The Afghan government offers many reasons to withdraw. Most of the world has already accepted and discounts the prospect of something approaching a U.S. “zero option” in the years after 2014.

Many of our allies now privately are moving towards that outcome, but are unwilling to make those views public and rely on time and the momentum of events to free them of any meaningful commitment. Like the U.S., they will leave embassies, troops, and aid workers in Afghanistan; make promises they hope never to have to keep, and wait for the end of 2014 and a future they believe will never force them to make serious further sacrifices.
Only sunk costs and moral and ethical obligations really keep the U.S. involved. To paraphrase Senator Aiken’s famous comment about Vietnam, “The U.S. can declare that Afghanistan’s leaders make success impossible and leave.”

The U.S., its allies and the Afghans need to start being honest about these realities. President Karzai, the Afghan leadership elite, and the Afghan people need to be told that U.S. strategic interests in Afghanistan are becoming steadily more marginal. They need to know that the U.S. does not need Afghanistan and has strong strategic and financial incentives to write Afghanistan off. They need to be told that the U.S. (and allied) commitment to Afghanistan is quietly becoming steadily more marginal because of Karzai’s mistakes and the uncertain quality of future Afghan leadership and governance.

Defining the Conditions for Continued U.S. Support

The Administration must give Americans a different message. If the U.S. is to lead – and to stay in Afghanistan well after 2014 – it must begin by showing that it has real world plans for a post-2014 Transition with affordable costs, practical time schedules and ways of managing and allocating U.S. and allied resources, and reasonable changes of success. Those plans must be public, and subject to Congressional, media, and civil society review. This need to be legislated and it needs to be made clear that any delays of failures to provide such plans will lead to immediate cuts in funding and real career penalties for those involved. Washington is not comfortable with the reality that no one in government is more expendable that a general officer or a senior policymaker, but more than ten years of war without plans, accountability, measures of effectiveness, transparency, and meaningful debates over public spending a resources, is far too long.

Conditions and Conditionality for Continued U.S. Support of the Afghan Military Effort

The Administration needs to stop waiting and make its plans for the military side of Transition clear. It needs to show it has detailed plans that go beyond threats of zero options. A realistic net assessment of the war is another critical part of efforts. Panglossian “good news” is no substitute for honesty. Circling the wagons and returning to the equivalent of the Vietnam follies will not sell the war.

In practice, such an effort will probably have to be forced upon the Administration. The Congress will need to mandate reports that show whether the progress in the ANSF is real enough – and affordable enough -- to merit continued U.S. support. The Congress, the media, and the American people need an honest net assessment of the current and planned progress in the ANSF relative to insurgent capability and that such progress is sustainable beyond 2014 at affordable levels of well-defined partnering and fully costed military aid that are justified in detail. The Department of Defense – and ISAF and its successor – need to understand that realism and transparency are the price of continued U.S. domestic support for the ANSF.

At the same time, the Administration and the Congress need to make it clear to the Afghan government that U.S. aid will be dependent on real Afghan progress in building the ANSF progress, on the quality and realism of Afghan reporting and financial accountability, and on meeting U.S. terms for a Bilateral Security Agreement and status of forces agreement.

They need to make the limits to U.S. support both credible and affordable. This means explicitly telling the Afghans that the U.S. will not fund the build up of an air force, armor, and artillery to defend against Afghanistan’s neighbors (i.e. Pakistan), will not sign a treaty obligating to deal with any threat from Afghanistan’s neighbors, will not support an Afghan military effort that is not lead by a democratic government, and will not support an Afghan government that refuses to make an effort to achieve a realistic peace settlement. One does not have to be explicit about the Karzai threat to Afghanistan and Afghan-U.S. partnership but there is every reason to tell Karzai, other Afghans, and the world that the U.S. will not sustain a marginal strategic role unless its conditions are met.

It should be clear to both the Administration and the Afghan government that if the Afghan government does not meet these terms before the end of 2014, there will be no funds for a continued mission. The U.S. should not be over-demanding, or ignore Afghan sensitivities and sovereignty, but it should be clear about its willingness to set critical criteria for further support of the ANSF. Moreover, the Congress should again put pressure on the Administration. If the Afghan definition of sovereignty means such U.S. criteria cannot be met before and after the end of 2014, the Administration should be given no waiver provisions or choice.

At the same time, the Congress and the American people need to be realistic about what can be done before the end of 2014 that ANSF success in a layered defense means the insurgents may hold some territory in Afghanistan for years after 2014. They also need to support General Mattis and General Allen’s request for some 13,600 American troops after 2014 and that the U.S. needs to adequately resource a strong partnership and mix of advisors and partners. They need to see clear the reasons the ANSF may need some $4 billion a year in U.S., allied, and Afghan spending for at least several years after 2014.

Just as the war is not winnable if the Afghan set unrealistic conditions for U.S. and allied military support, it is not winnable if the U.S. sets unrealistic standards for quick success or fails to staff and fund a credible and affordable level of support. The war will be lost if the standard for victory is a transition at the end of 2014 that means the U.S. and allies can largely eliminate aid or failure to provide continuing military advisory support and enablers to the Afghan forces for as long as proves necessary.

Conditions and Conditionality for Continued U.S. Support of the Afghan Leadership

Both the Administration and the Congress need to be even more demanding about the civil side of the U.S. effort. One key aspect is to focus on the need for effective Afghan national leadership and post-election political unity, rather than the integrity or “purity” of the election. As Egypt and other examples make all too clear, the momentary “legitimacy” gained from holding elections is of little value unless it is followed by the lasting legitimacy that can only be gained by giving the Afghan people effective leadership, governance, and security.

The problems in the ANSF are marginal compared to the need for effective post-Karzai leadership and political inclusiveness. The U.S. should not attempt to choose an Afghan leader, but it should make it clear that continued support from the U.S., its allies, and other donors will depend on Afghan leaders and factions showing they can lead and govern, and the outside support will have to be earned by the next set of Afghan leaders and will not be a given.

Conditions and Conditionality for Continued U.S. Support of the Afghan Civil Effort

At the same time, Congressional legislative action will be needed to force reforms in the U.S. civil effort and set clear conditions for Afghan reform in governance and the use of aid. In the case of U.S. reforms, the Department of State and USAID have never produced meaningful plans and measures of progress and effectiveness for the civil effort in aiding governance and the economy in either the Afghan or Iraq Wars.

The Administration needs to be honest about the failure of the Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review (QDDR) under Secretary Clinton, the need to restructure planning and management of aid in the Statement Department headquarters in Washington, the need to demand fully integrated civil military plans, and the need to create a far stronger structure at the NSC to force that integration.

The war is not winnable if USAID continues to live in an economic fantasy world that focuses on project-oriented development rather than economic stability as U.S. and allied forces leave and military and civil aid spending decline. It is not winnable if the State Department seeks to create a “normal” embassy and limited in-country presence rather than support a strong, operational country team to support U.S. efforts throughout the country.

As is the case with the military effort, the civil and civil-military plans and measures of effectiveness must be public, and subject to Congressional, media, and civil society review. This need must be legislated and made clear that any delays of failures to provide such plans will lead to immediate cuts in funding and real career penalties for those involved.

The Administration needs to be ruthless in firing top level leaders in State and USAID if they cannot produce real world plans for a post-2014 Transition in governance, economic stability, and key civil programs that have affordable costs, practical time schedules, ways of managing and allocating U.S. and allied resources, and reasonable changes of success.

Conditionality for the Afghan Civil Effort

Both U.S. civil and military aid should be conditional on Afghanistan meeting the conditions for reform set forth in the Tokyo Conference, and both Afghans and the Administration should know there will be constant Congressional pressure to ensure this. The Congress should legislate restrictions on any aid spending or support with waiver provision that forces the Administration to justify and provide an unclassified explanation of any waiver every three months to keep the administration under constant political and media pressure as well as require an independent assessment by SIGAR. Moreover, the Congress should pass legislation limiting any expansion of the percentage of aid given directly to the Afghan government for non-compliance in implementing such reforms.

At the same time, the U.S. does not accept the fact that responsibility for leading the outside partnering and aid effort is almost solely American, that proactive leadership and most aid must come from the U.S., and that our allies will not follow where we do not show we are truly committed. Above all, the Afghan War is not winnable if the U.S. does not make it clear that the U.S. can leave Afghanistan and should exercise its “zero option” if the Afghan government does not meet the conditions for a credible level of success.

Even more importantly, conditionality for civil aid needs to be unambiguous and defined in terms that border on the ruthless. The efforts of SIGAR, the GAO, and the other groups that have tried to bring structure, order, accountability, and integrity to the aid and contracting efforts in Afghanistan need to be made a key part of all legislation and regulation affecting aid to Afghanistan, and the Afghan government needs to know that any failure to comply with the necessary reporting account, and transparency will mean an immediate cut off of that portion of aid.

There should be explicit penalties for any further Afghan efforts at extortion like the fees the Afghan government has attempt to impose on U.S. container shipments.

U.S. legislation should be passed reducing aid obligations and disbursements by some multiple of the total fees charged by the Afghan government so it is clear to all concerned that the U.S. cannot be held for ransom and that any such Afghan efforts will cost the Afghan government far more than the U.S..

Similarly, the Congress should pass legislation – backed by executive branch regulation – that ensures that no U.S. department of agency should be allowed to allocate or spend U.S. funds without a clear and well-defined plan, proper management and auditing provisions, and proper measures of effectiveness.

Non compliance should require dismissal of the senior official or officer involved, and non compliance by recipient of funds that does not comply with the reporting requirement should again mean an immediate cut off of that portion of U.S. funding as well as a loss of eligibility for all future U.S. funds.

Dealing with Waste Fraud, and Corruption

The U.S. should not make impossible demands regarding Afghan anti-corruption efforts, but it cannot afford to tolerate a situation where corruption, power brokering, and criminal efforts mean the Afghan government misuses outside aid in ways that lose the support of the Afghan people.

Afghan leaders will need time to adapt, but “sunrise” provisions are needed in U.S. law and regulation that will place reasonable limits on gross Afghan corruption, and put such “conditionality” going into force no later than FY2015. Afghan, U.S., and allied officials and contactors need to see clear penalties for corruption, gross waste, and non-compliance.

This should not simply be a matter of cutting off funds. They should be publically blacklisted, declared persona non-grata, and they and their families should be denied visa to the U.S. – and hopefully other NATO-ISAF countries. The State Department, USAID, and Department of Defense should be required to regularly certify that the are no credible reports of corruption by the senior leadership in any Afghan entity receiving U.S. aid or contracts and prevented from funding any entity where such certification is not possible -- either because of corruption or a failure to report and provide suitable transparency.

Where a U.S. independent investigation finds evidence of gross waste or corruption, aid should be conditional on that individual not being reappointed to any government position or given a government contract. Such an investigation should be triggered not only by U.S. officials and officers in Afghanistan but by SIGAR, GAO, and any agency inspector general, and SIGAR should be tasked with auditing the integrity and competence of each investigation.

At the same time, the failure of U.S. officials or officers to demand suitable plans, accountability, and measures of effectiveness should be audited by SIGAR. Omissions and failures should lead to automatic ineligibility for further federal funding for any U.S. official or contractor, and dismissal from the federal service and U.S. military for the responsible U.S. official or officer.

Thresholds and waiver provisions should be set to take account of reasonable tolerance of Afghan standards of governance and contracting, but once these levels are exceeded, it should be clear that Afghans who fail there own people will receive no aid and have no prospect of ever entering the U.S..

Win, Lose, or Draw

The war does not have to end with either a bang or a whimper. Afghanistan may be a war whose past cost greatly exceeded its strategic value, but enough progress has been made in the ANSF so there is a reasonable chance it can evolve into an effective force after 2014 with affordable levels of funding and advisory support. Focusing on Afghan governance and economic stability on Afghan terms with credible plans and aid levels should be enough to help the country through transition if there is a meaningful change in leadership.

The goals set in the Afghan compact will never be met, but an Afghanistan can emerge that will hold together in the short run and evolve over time. The various power brokers; the better elements of the Afghan forces; and key ethnic, sectarian, and tribal factions may be strong enough to create a divided country that still has formal ties to the government in Afghanistan to hold most of the country together and limit the Taliban and other insurgent forces to the periphery and a few key population centers.

The World Bank estimates that most Afghans have only had marginal benefits from the flood of outside spending and can survive the collapse of aid and military spending. Reverting to local standards of Afghan politics, governance, justice, and security may actually reduce corruption and be less abusive than governance from Kabul.

Outside competition for influence from Pakistan, Iran, India, Russia, China, and the Central Asian states may allow Afghans to play their neighbors off against each other with considerable success. A weak, fragmented, divisive Afghanistan may be a mess and lose many of the gains in modernization and human rights it has made since 2001, but many of these losses now seem inevitable.

And yet, truly serious failure is also possible. Some mix of insurgents could “win” or lock the country into civil war. Extremism in Afghanistan could pose a growing threat to Pakistan – a country of real strategic importance to the U.S.. Millions of Afghans can suffer that do not need to, development efforts can largely fail while population pressures and narcotics drag down the economy. The best educated and wealthiest Afghans will leave and take their skills and money with them.

More importantly, strong U.S. leadership, adequate U.S. military advisory and enabler efforts, and well-targeted and managed U.S. aid efforts under $5 billion a year for another half decade – versus levels close to $85 billion today – could radically increase the chances of success and make Afghan “good enough” a country where “good enough” means real hope for its future.

Major Supporting Analyses

Egypt, Syria, the Search for Regional Stability and Learning from the "Non-Wars" Against "Non-Terrorism"

The study shows that the US failed in Afghanistan and Iraq because it focused far too much on terrorism, ignored the broader causes of violence and extremism, and failed to develop effective civil-military efforts to deal with the true causes of civil violence. It validates the broad concepts set forth in the new defense strategy the US announced in January 2012. It also shows, however, that the US needs to make fundamental changes in the ways it deals with counterterrorism, in its efforts to reduce the civil and military causes of instability, and in how the chooses to use force in those cases where it cannot prevent civil war.

The study emphasizes the need for true partnerships with regional friends and allies. At the same time, it calls for fundamental changes in the ways the Department of Defense, State Department, and USAID address the nature of instability and violence in the MENA region, and calls for fully integrated interagency plans, budgets, and measures of effectiveness.

The Afghan War in 2013: Meeting the Challenges of Transition:

The four volumes include:

Executive Summary: A brief outline of the major conclusions of the analysis. To download the PDF of the Executive Summary, click here.

Volume I: Leadership and Governance: This volume provides a warning that the growing challenges posed by the absence of strong Afghan leadership, the coming election, and problems in governance at every level present as much of a challenge to successful Transition as do the insurgents. Volume I warns that Afghans must take more responsibility for their own destiny and do so almost immediately after the spring 2014 election. It also warns that aid and military support must be conditional enough to push the Afghans toward real progress. To download the PDF of Volume I, click here.

Volume II: Aid and Economics: This volume challenges assumptions that Afghanistan does not face a major crisis in aid and in its economy as US and ISAF troops largely withdraw. Volume II warns that the economic threat to Transition is also all too real. It also indicates, however, that Afghanistan may well be able to succeed if it lives up to the pledges of reform that it has already made; if donors hold the Afghan government accountable for its actions; and if donors live up to their pledges. It calls for major improvements in the quality of the current level of economic analysis, and in the way aid is planned, managed, and subjected to meaningful measures of effectiveness. To download the PDF of Volume II, click here.

Volume III: SECURITY AND THE ANSF: This volume addresses the major problems that created misleading and politicized reporting on the security situation in Afghanistan through February 2013. It highlights the reforms needed to produce honest and transparent reporting of the security situation, including changes in the way progress is managed and reported by the various elements of the ANSF. At the same time, Volume III demonstrates there are real signs of progress, and a shift to a layered defense may allow the ANSF to successfully carry out transition if they focus on real security needs, are given sufficient outside aid, and if the US and its allies provide the mix of post-2014 advisors, partners, and enablers the ANSF will still need. To download the PDF of Volume III, click here.

Anthony H. Cordesman holds the Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) 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).

© 2013 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.

Anthony H. Cordesman

Anthony H. Cordesman

Former Emeritus Chair in Strategy