Transition in Afghanistan

The US is already at least six months behind in shaping an effective Transition in Afghanistan. It has not laid credible plans for the security, governance, and economic aspects of Transition. It has not made its level of future commitment clear to its allies or the Afghans, and it has failed dismally to convince the Congress and the American people that there is a credible reason to support Transition beyond the end of 2014.

The attached report on Transition in Afghanistan: 2009-2013 is available on the CSIS web site at It shows the US has a long history of US failures to follow up effectively on major crisis and conflicts that dates back to at least Vietnam (Slide 3). These failures have been shaped by a repeated failure to develop credible plans and budget before such Transitions and to persuade the American people they a workable, affordable, and honestly effective as time goes buy.

No One Follows Where No One Leads

There are good reasons why a recent Washington Post poll found that 67% of Americans now feel the war is not worth fighting. (Slide 4), The Administration has done nothing beyond vacuous rhetoric to explain the need Transition and show it can work. 

This is a Presidential responsibility that should have been met no later than late met decisively in 2012 to deal with the long lead times involved in translating plans into actions, the timing of the US budget cycle, and the need to persuade our allies and the Afghans.

At the same time, the lack of such an effort reflects a failure by the leader and ranking member of the Senate and the House and the armed services and Foreign Relations Committee in both House to demand credible plans, budget, accountability, and measures of effectiveness – to debate the need to sustain Transition and win Congressional and public consensus. Transition is not failing because of our military or the civilians serving in the field. It is failing because of a bipartisan lack of top-level leadership.

Examining Afghanistan’s Strategic Priority

This does not mean that the US should support Transition after 2014. There is a need for an honest debate over the relative priorities and cost-benefits involved. The Strategic Choices and Management Review that Secretary Hagel briefed on July 31, 2013 illustrated just how careful we need to be in allocating troops and money.

Afghanistan has long lost its priority in the US effort to defeat the global threat of terrorism and extremism, and has only marginal strategic value relative to many other US commitments and priorities. It has to be shown that Afghan can and will meet their commitments to creating effective leadership, governance, security forces, and economic reform. It has to be shown that cutting US spending on the war from roughly $7 billion a month to somewhere approaching $5-$7 billion a year after 2014 is really worth a sum that will still total half or more of our entire security and foreign aid effort. Neither the President nor the Congress has gone beyond shallow political rhetoric, waving the “bloody shirt” of 9/11, and largely dishonest claims of progress in addressing these issues.

We need credibility, honesty, and transparency at an unclassified level to determine whether the sunk cost in lives and dollars is really worth it. None of that exists at any level of policymaking today. The irony is that if it did, studies like the New 1230 Report on Progress Toward Security and Stability in Afghanistan indicate that a successful Transition may be both possible and affordable – although the causes is far stronger in terms of military progress than in overall security and particular in leadership, governance, economics, and development.

Honest and Forthright Conditionality

This is also why we need to make it clear to Afghan – and to allies and other donors – that any continued major US effort at Transition will be conditional on Afghan progress in every key level. Like the need for effective planning and budgeting for Transition, this conditionality needs to be established now.

The Afghans need time enough to react. They need to put an end to their often grossly exaggerated opinion of their own strategic importance and feeling the US needs Afghanistan. They need to know that US demands are practical, there are credible standards and milestones, and the US and its allies will meet their commitment if the Afghan government meets its commitments.

To be specific,

  • Afghan leaders need to understand that Karzai must go in 2014, that the election must produce a credible leader that will be both backed by an effective consensus of Afghan leaders and factions, and will be an effective partner in security, in creating effective governance and popular support, and will carry out effective use of aid money and economic reform. The standard for the election is not its honestly or inclusiveness. It is to find a leader who can actually lead and a structure of governance that can win popular support and the political side of a successful counterinsurgency,
  • There need to be credible plans for shaping Afghan security forces that can actual take more than cosmetic formal responsibility, hold all major population centers and key areas of the country, push insurgents toward reconciliation, and limit corruption and abuses to the point where they – and far too many of Karzai’s civil appointments – are seen as a threat equal to the Taliban. This means full accountability and transparency in using advisors and partners, in the way money is spent, and in reporting on the effectiveness of Afghan forces in actually providing security and winning popular support rather than simply creating or sustain more forces.
  • There needs to be credible progress in provincial, district, and local governance and justice systems. Tip O’Neil once said that, “all politics is local.” So is all counterinsurgency and political stability. The US and its allies largely failed to provide effective aid plans when they tried to force Afghans to do it “our way.” But, both donors and Afghans need to set credible and realistic standard for progress in having the Afghans  “do it their way.”  This does not mean continuing absurdly over-demanding standards in terms of freedom from power brokers, human rights, and corruption. But, it needs to be clear no aid money will go where reasonable standards are met in terms of accountable governance, prompt justice, policing, and limiting the abuse of authority.
  • There need to be credible plans and actions to ensure economic stability as military spending and aid are cut, and eventual move towards development. Time is already running out in which to prepare for the level of coming cuts in military spending and aid, shift from failed overambitious project aid plans to providing economic stability during Transition, and from nonsense about a “New Silk road” to real world plans for development found on actual conditions in Afghanistan and Central Asia.
  • This requires common planning by the US, other donors, and the Afghan sat level that has never existed, and panning for limited aid, and it requires realistic levels of accountability and effectiveness reporting. It requires the Afghans to meet the criteria for economy and other reforms they promised at the Tokyo conference in 2012 and failed dismally to meet at the follow up meeting on July 3, 2013. It requires that that flow of US aid be made conditional on transparent accountability and effectiveness measures. And. It requires more honest reporting by the Afghan government, outside experts like the World Bank and the successor to UNAMA, and  -- above all -- by the US State Department and USAID.

It will be an inexcusable failure on the part of both the Administration and the leadership of Congress if Transition occurs without addressing these issues. The same will be true if  OCO funds are eventually used as a Baseline slush fund or simply cut because there is no real Department of Defense or State plan for using OCO funds. Moreover, the US should only proceed with a Bilateral Security Agreement  if it requires such plans and clear Afghan willingness to comply with US conditions for continued support.

Putting the New 1230 Report on Progress Toward Security and Stability in Afghanistan in Perspective

These points are an essential preface to the latest 1230 Report on Progress Toward Security and Stability in Afghanistan issued at the end of July. This semiannual report by the Department of Defense is the only credible report on the progress of the war, but it is an inherent failure because it focused on the military and the past—effectively ending its coverage three months behind the formal date any given report has been due. The sections on political, governance, rule of law, narcotics and aid have always bordered on propaganda and have become steadily less credible over the last two years.

This is the one existing document that could be used to make a credible case for Transition. Both the Bush and Obama Administration have blocked such efforts, and the leaders of Congress have failed to demand them. The end result is that the report has never properly addressed the range of real world problems affecting US efforts in the war, the conditions needed for Afghan success, provided a clear plan for the future, set forth meaningful plans for US spending and military/civil aid and advisory efforts. In recent years, it has also sometimes been politicized to remove embarrassing metrics and narratives (shades of the “follies” in Vietnam). For example, maps showing progress in security, the quality of governance, and the impact of aid have been removed – in each case after a lack of expected progress from report to report

As for other reporting, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan (SIGAR), the GAO, the McMaster’s study on waste and corruption, and various other inspector generals have made devastating cases about past waste, fraud, and corruption, and warned repeatedly about the need for effective planning, measures of effectiveness, accountability, and transparency.  Unfortunately, they cannot shape overall policy towards Transition and the future.

At a broader policy level, ISAF has sometimes provided useful briefings – and NTM-A has provide a range of systematic data on progress by the ANSF -- but efforts to provide a credible monthly summary of military developments have been blocked by the White House and ISAF has had growing reporting problems in covering military progress in the field. ISAF is still trying to come to grips with the problems created by a focus on enemy initiated attacks and on tactical encounters rather than the overall progress of the ANSF versus the insurgents that led to a suspension of much of its public reporting in early 2013. The NTM-A make a major contribution to the 1230 report but has not followed up on the level of transparency it provided in NTM-A, Year in Review, November 2009 to November 2010.

The State Department has never issued a meaningful report on its role in the war. The one USAID unclassified report on US aid was a largely dishonest morass of statistical claims that grossly exaggerate progress and implied aid was responsible for Afghan gains that were more the result of added security and favorable rainfall than aid. See USAID, USAID in Afghanistan: Partnership, Progress, Perseverance, 2012. No data cover uncertainty and the dubious validity of most statistical claims. Key areas like the increase in agricultural output and GDP are indirectly linked to aid when the main causes are improved local security and good rains.

UNAMA has reported on civilian casualties and the UN has done some useful reporting on narcotics, but no useful reporting on economic development and aid. International organizations have done little better, with the exception of an underfunded effort by the World Bank to honestly assess the problems in the Afghan economy and Transition which badly needs the resources to improve it input data, more focus on security risks, and the ability to take account of corruption, waste and fraud, and capital flight. (See the World Bank, Afghan in Transition: Looking Beyond 2014, the World Bank 2013; and Afghanistan Economic Update, World Bank, April 2013.)

ANSO -- the one NGO that did solid reporting on aid and security – now seems to lack the resources and access to continue its efforts and all of its public reporting has ended in an effort to cover up the often politically embarrassing data it provided. (The ANSO web site is closed. See the remarkable rationale for ending transparency –“All reports - including the daily threat warnings, incident databases, provincial analysis and quarterly data reports - remain freely available to registered NGO members only…INSO may periodically post thematic reports or special research projects where it sees fit,” and the resulting halt to all public reporting at the INSO web site:!reports/c22ox.)

Recent Military Developments

The July 2013 Report on Progress Toward Security and Stability in Afghanistan does not provide a comprehensive picture of developments in security. It repeats a past focus on tactical outcomes in the fighting rather than the overall success and failures of the insurgency in terms of political and influence, and makes no effort to provide a net assessment of the overall success of insurgent in key areas relative to the success and failures of Afghan forces and governance.

The analysis of the Taliban and threat is almost all tactical, and ignores the fact the insurgents can afford to wait out the departure of most US and allied forces, the political dimensions of the insurgency, its current areas of influence, and how the failures in GIRoA impact in given areas.  The end result is a largely one-dimensional approach to a three dimensional problem although the narrative has usually been more nuanced than the graphics.

The new version of the report is at best ingenuous in claiming that the formal transfer of security to the ANSF has been completed (Slide 6).  As the rest of the report states, the ANSF is years away from being able to perform its missions on its own.

The report does not map insurgent areas of influence or Afghan government areas of control, and does not provide a useful analytic description of General Dunford’s concept of a layered defense – a critical step forward in justifying continued US support of Transition. It does provide other data showing that most fighting is concentrated in the East and South, but no data on its outcome. (Slide 7)

It states that there has been no major progress in reducing Taliban and insurgent activity, although the various insurgent elements does most fighting in a limited number of areas and do not control any major population centers. It also does warn that shadow governments exist in every province, but no progress has been in reducing enemy sanctuaries.

There are two sets of polls on security that seem to be reassuring but present major problems. A poll of women’s feeling regarding security is mildly reassuring, but a national poll is virtually meaningless because it buries for results in areas with higher levels of conflict in the overall perceptions of the vast majority in areas where little fighting takes place. (Slide 8) If anything, the negatives are surprisingly high, given the fact many women lack mobility, are not the subject of insurgent attacks, and are in the more secure population centers.

The following polls shown in Slide 9 present a different set of problems. They compare the worst period of insurgent influence in 2008 to a precampaign season set of perceptions in March 2013. They also measure perceptions of the ANA on the basis of Afghans, who generally had absolutely no clear knowledge of its performance on dependence on outside support, and the visibility of the ANP and not its effectiveness. As the later reporting on the limits to the ANA and the corruption and problems in the ANP makes clear, this kind of “feel good polling” borders on the analytically absurd.

Worsening Levels of Violence

At the same time, the attached report on Transition in Afghanistan: 2009-2013 ( shows there has been no meaningful cut in insurgent activity even at the tactical level and that the past surge in Afghanistan has failed dismally by the standards set during the surge in Iraq. (Slides 11 and 12)

The new 1230 report shows that a once highly touted trend in enemy initiated attacks (EIA) does not exist and never has existed. It also represents a largely meaningless trend since insurgent do not have to initiate attacks to infiltrate and now have an incentive to do so before US and other ISAF forces largely left. The end result is to keep a metric that largely served propaganda purpose in trying to justify the surge but is now valuable only to the extent it shows that the surge clearly failed to do more than halt insurgent momentum at the tactical level – a positive but scarcely the one the US planned in launching the surge. (Slides 13 and Slide 14)

Sharply Rising Casualty Levels

The attached report on Transition in Afghanistan: 2009-2013 also shows that casualty levels are rising, but the seriousness of what is happening is not really discussed properly or honestly. By coincidence, a UN report on casualty trends came out at virtually the same time as the 1230 report and it provides warnings that Transition planning clearly needs to address.

  • Slide 16 shows that the US and ISAF are now taking minimal casualties but that ANSF casualties are rising sharply and totally military casualties rose steadily during 2010-2013 in spite of the surge. Moreover. Some reporting has a disturbing tendency to see higher casualties as a measure of effectiveness – particularly in the case of the Afghan police which are a far less effective force than the ANA. One sometimes has to wonder if ISAF is going to start rating 100% casualties as 100% mission effective.
  • Slide 17 shows that there has been a steady rise in civilian killed and injured, again without any positive impact by the surge.
  • Slide 18 does show a positive trend in terms of NSF and ISAF causes of civilian casualties and that the insurgent are responsible for a steadily rising share of killings – but this is scarcely an indication that the insurgents are being defeated.
  • Slide 19 shows resurgence in IED killings and a deeply disturbing rise in targeted killings of key Afghan official and leaders, as well as killing associated with a rising number of insurgent attacks on the ALP.
  • Slide 20 shows there is no significant change in the ratio of killed to injured.
  • Slide 21 shows that ISAF data seem to broadly coincide with UN data, although the ISAF data only go as far a March. Once again, the percentage of insurgent inflicted casualties is rising – a good thing in terms of ISAF/ANSF restraint but a warning the insurgents are scarcely being defeated.

Mixed Progress in the ANSF

The data on the ANSF are mixed, the 1230 report does a good job of address the fact the ANSF are making progress but still need substantial outside support. It also address the problem of corruption and states in passing that the ANA and ANP risk becoming polarized on ethnic lines if the 2014 election does not produce real unity.
For all the reasons cited earlier, the 1230 report does not provide any clear plan for the future. It also does not really explain the reasons for the problems in the ANSF.

The US made decisions during the first eight years of the war that ensured there were insufficient forces to deal with the insurgency from 2002-2008. This changed in 2009-2010, but only until President Obama set a 2014 deadline. During 2011-2012, his decision had the result that the working plan went from creating an effective ANSF during 2014-2018 – where cost and manpower constraints were seen as conditions based -- to Transition in 2014 with limited (and still totally undefined) outside support and a somewhat mythical budget plan totaling $4.1 billion a year based on a cost model that never seems to have serious review and where no clear progress has been made since the Chicago conference in 2012.

  • Slide 23 shows the degree to which the US build failed to keep up as the insurgents gained during 2002-2008.
  • The bottom half of Slide 32 shows how long the US military aid effort lagged – funding problems that delayed the deployment of effective training and advisory resources to 2010.
  • Slide 24 shows how badly development of the ANA lagged – almost solely because of decisions made in Washington over-ruling the advice of past ambassadors and ISAF commanders. It also shows how mythical the 352,000 figure is. In the real world, the units really capable of counter insurgency warfare made up a little more than half the total – less a highly corrupt and often ineffective ANP.
  • Slides 25 and 26 show the rising role of the ANSF in broad terms. They again show the rising level of military casualties, but also the shift in focus in enemy EIAs and the shift in the balance of total ANSF versus ISAF forces.
  • Slide 27 provides perhaps the most impressive picture of the rise in ANSF capabilities and ability to take the lead, although it clearly warns afghan forces are not ready and need sustained outside support.
  • Slide 28 shows the ANA portion of the capable force still has critical attrition and drop out problems.
  • Slide 29 shows why General Mattis and General Allen advised a continued US advisory presence after 2014 of some 13,600 men and why NTM-A and ISAF see some 2,000-2,500 German and Italian advisors in the north and west as critical. The US and other ISAF advisory and partnership role is having a major impact but is years away from being complete.

In summary, the July 2013 report does reflect real progress in developing the Afghan National Army, but warns that ethnic, sectarian and regional differences may be are key problem and that annual attrition is a critical problem. The data on the police are reassuring on manning, but highlight corruption, ineffectiveness, and power brokering.

This raises serious issues about the value of going to 352,000 men with so many police and dropouts -- see the break out in the attached PDF. The problems in the ALP tend to be downplayed; local forces that are not ALP are largely ignored. The discussion of the APPF ignores all of the recent warning of SIGAR and is little more than a puff piece glossing over its problems.

What is really critical, however, is there is no plan laid out for the future funding and development of the ANSF after end 2014, no plan for the US forces that will remain, or for allied force elements. The only thing clear is that US forces now in country will be cut in half (-34,000) by next spring.

As General Dunford has made clear – like General Allen and General Mattis before him – the military keys to a successful Transition will be to give the ANSF the proper funding, the proper mix of trainers, and enablers, and the proper priority to the ANA. At the same time, they will be to set clear conditions for US and allied support to the ANSF which ensure it will be used effectively, that money and partners are used honestly and with the proper priority, and that a future Afghan leaders doe not – like Karzai – put the priorities of power brokering and influence over security and the welfare of the Afghan people.

Here, the US needs to understand that the 50% option is no better than the zero option. It is far easier to begin well, with the more resource and cut them than insufficient resources and fail. It is also critical to make conditionality clear. It should be clear that the Afghan desire for modern armor and air forces the country does not now need, that the US will not fuel local feuding by agreeing to security guarantees against Pakistan, and that a future Afghan government must mot try to bargain of the basis of a level of Afghan strategic value to the US that does not and will not exist.

Non-Reporting on Governance, Rule of Law, and Economic Stability

There is little point in parsing out the rest of the 1230 report. It does highlight the problems in the Karzai regime and the lack of support for an effectiveness strategic partnership, the problems in corruption, and the reasons why Afghans need better provincial and local governance and control of aid and their own government funds.
The need for effective leadership, economic reform, and the reduction of corruption is highlighted. No progress is reported in detail in these areas. The recent problems with Karzai and the limits to Pakistani cooperation are laid out in detail. The lack of effective efforts to deal with corruption, narcotics, and power brokers is mentioned, but the failure of the July 3 conference to show Afghanistan can meet its commitments to reform is not mentioned because the report's cutoff date is March 2013.

What is totally lacking is any meaningful analysis of the economy and the economic risks of Transition. One key example of the near absurdity of the analysis is a claim of 11% GDP growth in 2012 that ignores the fact almost all of the growth came from better annual rainfall and its impact on agriculture.

The report does highlight serious GIRoA problems in planning, spending, and managing money and the probable cut in future growth from coming aid and military sending cuts but provides no real detail. In general, however, it fails to address any of the problems in aid activities raised in reports by SIGAR and GAO, the lack of any plans and effectiveness reporting, and the practical justification and probable impact of  the current emphasis on uncoordinated project aid efforts.

The lack of clear aid plans, the waste of vast amounts of many, and the constant program turbulence show in Slides 31 and Slide 32 is never addressed. Neither are the problems in phasing out of the vast dependence on outside aid shown in Slide 33 which affect a far weaker and more aid dependent economy than most of the past cases shown in Slide 34.

The section on USAID has no plan to ensure economic stability during transition and does not address SIGAR's question about managing aid money once almost all US government teams are go or tied to the embassy. There is no meaningful discussion of the US aid program for transition, and the key measure of effectiveness for both GIRoA and USAID seems to be how fact it can spend its budget. This is a major failing in light of the current dependence on aid shown in the attached PDF.

In summary, the 1230 report provides no clear basis for expecting progress in leadership, governance and dealing with corruption. The economic, governance, and aid analysis is largely self-serving and superficial, and does not address key problems in Transition.

The potential just cost in dollars is staggering, as the introduction to the July 30, 2013report by SIGAR notes,

I believe the United States cannot achieve its objectives unless the execution of its policies receives at least as much attention as the intent behind them. For example, the policy objective of creating a robust Afghan army that will provide national security in lieu of Coalition forces, while admirable, will remain hollow unless Washington pays equal attention to proper contracting and procurement activities to sustain those forces. SIGAR is well aware of the wartime environment in which contractors are operating in Afghanistan, but this can neither explain the disconnect nor excuse the failure.

…Despite the pending U.S. troop drawdown and Afghanistan’s political and security transitions being less than a year away, the reconstruction continues and billions remain at risk due to contracting and procurement challenges. Federal agencies have requested more than $10.7 billion for Afghanistan reconstruction programs in the Fiscal Year 2014 budget, and the United States has pledged to provide many billions more for years to come. Much of these funds will be awarded to contractors, and unless the U.S. government improves its contract-oversight policies and practices, far too much will be wasted. As SIGAR proceeds with its audits, inspections, investigations, and special projects in Afghanistan, we will be vigilant in calling out poor management and inadequate contract oversight, and in suggesting ways that accountability might be improved. 

Detailed planning for every aspect of the shift to Transition coming in FY2015 needed to be largely complete and subject to negotiation and clearly stated conditions last fall. Instead, there seem to be no credible plans for even the present side of the civil aid effort.

Summing Up

There may be a case for delaying a formal agreement on set of bilateral security agreements with Afghanistan until the US can see the result of the 2014 election. Even so, the US will be far better off if the Afghan election is held under circumstance where the Afghan people know what US plans and conditions really are; if Transition proceeds on the basis of plans, budgets and and transparency that have Congressional and popular support; and if the Administration, Congress, and American people have agreed that the war has sufficient strategic value and cost-benefits to justify a successful Transition. None of these conditions are currently being met.

To put it bluntly, the time to meet them is long overdue. So is is the time for a fully coordinated set of civil-military plans, a single budget for the war rather than vague departmental OCO budgets, and full transparency and accountability. A decade is far too long to wait. If the Administration cannot meet these conditions by mid-September, the Congress should make all of them a legislative requirement as part of its action on the FY2014 budget request.

For further analysis of the war in Afghanistan see:

Salvaging the War in Afghanistan,

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

  • 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

Anthony H. Cordesman

Former Emeritus Chair in Strategy