Time to Focus on "Afghan Good Enough"

Every day seems to widen the gap between the goals the United States is seeking to achieve in Afghanistan and its ability to achieve them. Even apparent progress, like the Strategic Framework Agreement between the United States and Afghanistan, seems more a warning on the inability to define specific goals, milestones, and resources—coupled with growing restraints on U.S. military action—than an accomplishment.

None of the tensions between the United States and the Karzai government have gone away. The broader problems with Afghan governance and corruption are not diminishing. Progress in creating effective Afghan forces is increasingly questionable, the insurgents are clearly committed to going on with the fight, and relations with Pakistan seem to take two steps backward for every apparent step forward. As for American domestic politics, there seems to be a growing, tacit, bipartisan agreement to drift toward an exit strategy without really admitting it.

The question is what, if anything, can now be done that might offer many, if not most, ordinary Afghans some realistic hope of security and stability through the withdrawal of most combat forces and beyond. The answers are not pleasant, or anywhere near as reassuring as the statements coming out of the United States and the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), but they may offer a better solution than pretense and impossible goals.

Dealing with the Real-World Capabilities of the Insurgents

The first step is to be realistic about the Taliban, Haqqani network, and other insurgents. They remain a relatively small set of forces, they are unpopular in many areas, and they have suffered serious tactical reversals. They are not, however, defeated, and unless they collapse for internal reasons, they have every reason to believe they can win a battle of political attrition.

They don’t need to initiate attacks on ISAF and U.S. forces; they only need to wait and let them shrink. They can recover their “momentum” at the political level by minimizing direct clashes with U.S. and ISAF forces, building up their capabilities in their sanctuaries in Pakistan, and focusing on increasing their influence in Afghanistan through intimidation and terrorism, attacks on Afghan officers and officials, exploiting their links to friendly tribal groups and power brokers, and taking advantage of the drug trade and the broad popular resentment of the Afghan government in the east and south. As in Vietnam, the insurgents can lose every major tactical engagement and still win control in some Pashtun areas once U.S. and ISAF forces are gone.

As insurgent websites make all too clear, they have no serious interest in peace unless it gives them victory. In fact, they already claim to have won. They may game negotiations to speed the withdrawal of outside forces, divide the Afghans, and gain official status. This does not, however, mean giving up terror and intimidation or high-profile attacks designed to convince Afghans and the publics in ISAF nations that they remain a critical threat. They will continue to attack Afghan leaders and officers, infiltrate as many areas as possible, and strengthen their ties to the Pakistani Taliban and outside extremists. Peace negotiations will remain an extension of war by other means, and by the time the current round of U.S. and allied force cuts are completed this fall, they will either have regained the political momentum in key areas in the east or south or have halted any Afghan and ISAF gains.

Accepting the Fact that Pakistan Is Not Really for Rent, Much Less an Ally or Partner

As for Pakistan, it is not clear that the United States can even use aid to bribe its leadership into meaningful cooperation. If the United States can “rent” Pakistani cooperation, success will consist largely of regaining some access to Pakistani supply routes—as much for the withdrawal of U.S. military equipment as any inflow of supply. Every “deal” along the border will have to steadily reflect increasing Pakistani leverage as U.S. forces withdraw, and every unmanned combat air vehicle (UCAV) attack or clash in the border area will risk a new U.S.-Pakistani crisis. Pakistan will not attack the Afghan insurgent sanctuaries in Pakistan unless the insurgents somehow turn on Pakistan.

Retain, Secure, and Support

If there is a solution, it lies in accepting the reality that the present strategy will almost certainly fail to secure the south and the east of Afghanistan. This does not mean giving up, but it does mean concentrating U.S., ISAF, and Afghan government resources on the areas already largely under Afghan government control.

It means seeking to exploit the differences between the pro-government Pashtuns and anti-government elements, and it means deliberately rebuilding enough of the elements of the Northern Alliance so they can act as a counterbalance to Taliban pressure once U.S. and ISAF forces are largely gone. It means using limited resources to consolidate Afghan security efforts where these can credibly sustain themselves after U.S. and ISAF withdrawal. Instead of “clear, build, and hold,” it means “retain, secure, and support.”

Creating an Affordable Afghan Army Beginning Now

One key will be to give real meaning to the effort to reshape Afghan forces as a much smaller and more affordable force, and to do so as soon as possible, rather than building up to a 352,000-man hollow force and rushing down to 230,000. This means a force that can credibly be funded with the money that could actually come rather than relying on promises. It means focusing on the army, knowing that much of the police will remain ineffective or corrupt. It means securing the Afghan government where it is now effective, rather than trying to expand it into vulnerable ink spots than can easily be overrun once U.S. and ISAF forces leave. It also means creating plans for the size of Afghan forces that trainers and partners can credibly sustain, providing more than mere pledges and hopes.

Local Forces and “Warlords” Are Better Than Nothing

Grim as the prospects are in some respects, it also means accepting the rebirth of local militias and forces, as well as armed power brokers. Ethnic, tribal, and sectarian forces should be tied to the central government in “Kabulstan” to the maximum degree possible—and any aid should be clearly tied to minimizing their past abuses of power—but containing the Taliban cannot be done by the central government alone. It requires countervailing centers of power with clearly different interests, and these are ethnic, sectarian, and tribal.

Don’t Rely on Elections and the Central Government; Rely on Direct Support of the Competent and Effective Elements of Afghan Governance in the Field

The United States and its allies should not abandon the central government or the hope that elections can somehow have a practical impact on the outcome of the war. We also, however, should not have any illusions about Karzai or any alternative. No leaders can somehow govern from the capital simply because they are elected. The Afghan legislature has little real meaning or purpose in much of the country, and Afghan promises of reform and major changes in governance are not going to be kept.

The level of Afghan governance that now exists—with all of its corruption and faults—is going to be hard to preserve as U.S. and ISAF forces leave, and any progress will have to be voluntary and come largely from within. The challenge now is to preserve the best elements of Afghan central, provincial, district, and urban governance. It is also to find ways to continue to work directly with Afghan leaders outside the structure of the central government, build up regional power bases, and support those local governments that are strong enough to survive or have a convincing popular base. The last thing on earth that the United States, allied donors, and nongovernmental organizations should do as they pull out their aid workers in the field, is funnel all of their aid through the central government. Money should flow to those who offer security and stability and can show they will use the money effectively. It is too late to try to build “Afghanistan right.”

Reshape the Present Aid Process

And finally, aid money will be a critical issue. No one knows just how close the Afghan economy, forces, and systems of governance will come to collapse as the United States, ISAF countries, and aid donors cut their flow of money. It is clear, however, that almost all of Afghanistan’s supposed real economic growth—outside its native drug industry—has come from outside spending. It is also clear that 2014 will not bring security to Afghanistan’s roads and border areas, end the drug trade, or create the conditions where major resources will go into developing some form of future mining industry.

It is all too likely that the Taliban and insurgents will control key road links into Pakistan wherever Afghan forces or paramilitary police are not present and that the Afghan government and police will be no more honest then than now. It is equally likely that the United States, its ISAF allies, and donors will make pledges now they will not keep, particularly if their publics and legislatures see the money wasted or moved outside the country through corruption.

The question is what aid funding is credible through 2020, if the money is properly controlled and goes only to those who actually use it effectively. Here, however, the problem is not Afghan waste and corruption, but whether more than a decade of U.S., allied, UN, and World Bank failure to develop effective tools for allocating and managing aid money can be corrected enough to function in those areas where it is clear such aid can be effective.

Given the 12- to 18-month lead times involved to create such capabilities, there is a serious risk that donors will meet for another liar’s conference in June when they desperately need to restructure their efforts in time to have the necessary impact by 2013 and 2014.

“Good Enough” Is Better Than Continued Illusions

Even if the United States, its allies, donors, and the Afghan government do face up to these realties, success will be uncertain and limited. This kind of Afghan “good enough” falls far short of the goals the United States and its allies once set, or claim to be pursuing now. The reality, however, is that it is this Afghanistan that offers at least some hope of holding together and protecting large numbers of Afghans. Pursuing today’s “strategy” and illusions offers almost no hope at all.

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.

Anthony H. Cordesman

Anthony H. Cordesman

Former Emeritus Chair in Strategy