Transition in the Afghanistan-Pakistan War: How Does This War End?

The future of Afghanistan and Pakistan will be shaped by the way in which the US, NATO/ISAF, and major aid donors interact with the Afghan and Pakistani governments as they “transition” by withdrawing their forces and cutting their spending and aid. This “transition” is already underway, but no one can yet predict how the withdrawal of US and other NATO/ISAF combat forces from Afghanistan in 2014 will play out over time.

It is not clear how the US and its NATO/ISAF allies will actually manage withdrawal of their forces. It is not clear how much continuing support aid donors will provide to Afghanistan through 2014 and beyond, or whether the coming massive cuts in military spending and aid will trigger a major recession or depression during a period when outside troops will leave and Afghanistan’s weak government and forces must go through another election.

A new report by the Burke Chair at CSIS examines these issues by analyzing the  current trends in strategy, in the fighting, in in peace negotiations, and in dealing with Pakistan. It looks at the options for transition in terms of the attitudes and goals of other Central Asian power and China and Russia, and then examines Afghanistan’s ability deal with the withdrawal of US and other ISAF forces, and major cuts in outside military spending and aid. It concludes with an analysis of the prospects for transition in terms of Afghan politics, governance, economics, and ability to develop security forces capable of taking responsibility for Afghan security.

This paper is entitled Transition in the Afghanistan-Pakistan War: How Does This War End?It is available on the CSIS web site at:

The key conclusions of the analysis may be summarized as follows:

Uncertain Gains in Afghanistan After a Decade of War

NATO/ISAF have reduced the level of Taliban influence and control in the south, and the number of Taliban and insurgent attacks on NATO/ISAF forces in most of the country – especially insurgent initiated and complex attacks. They have made progress in reestablishing an Afghan military and government presence in a number of areas, and in establishing some degree of control and security in Kandahar. The security situation is uncertain in the East, however, and insurgent forces have expanded operations against Afghan officials and their presence in some areas in the North.  It is also unclear that Afghan national security forces (ANSF) and the Afghan central government (GIRoA) can hold the territory in the South and East now secured by US and ISAF forces once they and Provincial Recovery Teams (PRTs) phase out during 2012-2014.

It is even less clear that the US, ISAF, and Afghan military will be able to counter the impact of insurgent sanctuaries in Pakistan or defeat the Taliban, Haqqani network, or Hekmatyar group at the political level, and keep insurgents from dispersing and establishing new operating areas in Afghanistan. The insurgents have raised the level of assassinations, kidnappings, and other low-level forms of violence in some parts of Afghanistan and the decline in the number of military attacks may reflect the fact they are now avoiding direct combat and seeking to wait out the NATO/ISAF withdrawal.

The Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan (GIRoA) remains a major problem. It has yet to show it can successfully combine honest elections with effective government, or that its overcentralized government structure can make its legislature effective or bring honest and effective governance to the provincial and district level. The most recent Presidential and legislative elections have been corrupt, power brokers dominate much of the de facto level of governance in much of the country, and there is no effective governance and legal system in many of Afghanistan’s 403 districts.

A decade of aid has had little effect in fully restoring or developing the part of the economy that most Afghans participate in. Statistics showing growth in the GDP are now heavily dependent on NATO/ISAF military spending and aid to the Afghan budget. Average per-capita income is very low, and military and aid spending have not raised many Afghans above the poverty level. The ANSF is almost totally dependent on outside US and allied aid, and both the ANSF and GIRoA budget will remain dependent on such outside aid long after the withdrawal of most or all US and ISAF forces in 2014.

Dubious Options for Successful Peace Negotiations

The US and ISAF have put a rising emphasis on peace negotiations, and some form of serious talks may begin with a new Taliban entity to be established in Qatar. The US has also signaled that it will not see the Taliban as an enemy if it accepts a peace where it rejects violence and joins the Afghan government. The Taliban, however, has continued to attack peace negotiators and killed former Afghan President Burhanuddin Rabbani, the lead Afghan government negotiator, on September 20, 2011.

The insurgents may come to treat talks as a delaying tactic, or a means of winning a war through political means, but they do not feel they are being defeated and have reason to believe that all they have to do is outwait NATO/ISAF in a battle of political attrition. They may also increasingly see the US and allied countries as having to seek peace on steadily less demanding terms to allow them to end the conflict, and as a means of exploiting a weak and vulnerable Afghan central government, and peace negotiations as the way to win the struggle by non-military means.

Failure in Dealing with Pakistan

The US made major progress in attacking Al Qa’ida and insurgent networks in Pakistan before the steady deterioration in US and Pakistani relations in late 2011 led to Pakistan expelling US advisors, and closing a US unmanned combat aerial vehicle (UCAV) base on Pakistani soil, and limiting US UCAV flights over Pakistan. A combination of the US special forces raid into Pakistan that killed Bin Laden at the end of April 2011, an incident on the Afghan Pakistan border on November 26th where US forces killed 24 Pakistani soldiers, and a Pakistani civil-military crisis called “memogate” over claims the President of Pakistan sought US aid to avoid a military coup have transformed  long-tense US and Pakistani relations into near hostility.

At present, Pakistan -- and especially the Pakistani military -- show few signs of restoring even the past limited level of cooperation with the US. Even Pakistani willingness to allow the US to use Pakistani supply routes and air space is uncertain – although Pakistani need for US aid may preserve at least the façade of some aspects of cooperation. Pakistan also sees the Afghan conflict as one where it needs to do what it can to gain advantage once US and ISAF forces have left. There are many signs that Pakistan will seek to exploit a US and ISAF withdrawal, and any peace negotiations, to its own advantage and to seek influence over at least the Pashtun areas on its borders and to use Afghanistan to provide strategic depth against India.

China and Russia do play a role in Pakistan, but the Russian role is limited and China has carefully limited its commitments. It is the tense relationship between the US and Pakistan that is now driving Pakistan’s role in the conflict. More broadly, it is Pakistan’s own internal problems that will shape its future role in the region.

Pakistan is caught up in its own political, security, and economic problems and is drifting towards the status of a failed state. Its deep political tensions with the US continue to grow, and it seems committed to trying to expand its own influence in Afghanistan, and counter Indian influence, as US and NATO/ISAF forces leave.  At the same time, Pakistan’s civil government has deep and growing tensions with the Pakistani military, and is divided by political struggles that sharply limit the effectiveness of a weak structure of governance and one that faces growing internal political violence throughout the country. There is always hope that Pakistani relations with India may improve, but Pakistan’s military continues to focus on the Indian threat and to build up Pakistan’s missile and nuclear forces.

Afghan Hopes and Ambitions

It seems highly unlikely that insurgent groups like the Taliban and Haqqani network will reach any form of political reconciliation with the Afghan government before the US and other allied forces leave unless they feel they use such agreements to win. It seems equally unlikely that Pakistan will cease to seek its own objectives in Afghanistan and put an end to insurgent sanctuaries in Pakistan. Tactical gains against the insurgent matter but it is far from clear what level of security they can win on a political level, and sustain once US and allied forces leave. The quality of Afghan governance at every level is critical to popular support as transition takes place.

The most critical immediate challenge that outside powers face, however, is to support a transition plan that will allow the afghan government to function as aid and outside spending are cut, and sustain the progress being made in developing and sustaining Afghan national security forces.

Studies by the World Bank and Afghan government -- and ongoing studies by the IMF, the US, and key European governments -- show that “transition” requires major levels of continuing aid to avoid triggering major security and stability problems.

President Karzai requested some $10 billion a year through 2025 at the Bonn Conference on November 30, 2011 for a program that set ambitious goals for both security and development, called for equally ambitious reforms and improvements in governance, and called for the Afghan government to achieve full independence from outside support in 2030:

  • By 2015 Afghanistan will have taken over full responsibility for its own security, and will be leading development initiatives and processes with the confidence to make critical foundational investments that will lead to economic growth and fiscal sustainability.
  • By 2025 Afghanistan will have eliminated its dependency on international assistance for funding to non-security sectors and will only receive support consistent with all other least developed nations. A robust and growing extractive industries sector will have developed. Through effective development and, improved delivery of Government services, the root causes of insurgency will be reduced and, in consultation with international partners, plans will have been put in place to reduce the size of the ANSF.
  • By 2030 Afghanistan will be funding a professional, highly effective ANSF. Achievements in development and governance will see Afghanistan emerge as a model of a democratic, developing Islamic nations.

These Afghan requirements seem to be based on assumptions about future security, the pace of reform and improvement in governance, increases economic development and activity, and increases in government revenue that are optimistic to the point of being unrealistic.

One of the critical problems in the civil aspects of some transition plans is they do not take account of the probable level of security in given areas as outside military and aid workers depart, and who can provide security for domestic and internal ventures. There are few prospects for anything approaching local security in much of Afghanistan until long after 2014 – barring some “peace” arrangement that gives insurgents de facto control over high threat areas. No aid or economic plan that ignores the fact the nation is at war and key areas are likely to remain so long after 2014 has the slightest value or credibility.

As a result, the Afghan government requests certainly understate the level of outside aid need to achieve Afghan goals. Aid levels of roughly $120 billion over the entire period are probably higher than will ever be available, but they are almost certainly is too low to both cover the cost of funding the Afghan National Security Forces during transition and beyond, and give Afghanistan the resources to cope with the loss of US and ISAF military spending during 2012-2014 and the probable cuts in donor civil aid.

US and European Realities

It is far from clear that the Afghan government can obtain the level of aid it requested at the Bonn Conference requesting, particularly over a period that extends far beyond 2014. Many US and European actions have already begun to look like a cover for an exit strategy from Afghanistan.

Development aid from US, the largest aid donor, dropped from $3.5 billion in 2010 to about $2 billion in 2011. Aid to support democracy, governance and civil society dropped by more than 50%, and from $231 million to $93 million. Aid for "rule of law" dropped from $43 million to $16 million. Many aid agencies and NGOs are already making major cuts in their programs, and some are already having to eliminate key programs or withdraw from the country.

While US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton joined her European colleagues in pledging continued aid at the Bonn Conference in November 2001, no long-term pledges were made in concrete terms. The conference – which Pakistan did not attend and the Taliban stated would “further ensnare Afghanistan into the flames of occupation”-- focused on vague calls for aid and regional cooperation.

The US and European speeches at the Bonn Conference also called for Afghan reforms, and reductions in corruption, in ways that implied new conditions for aid that Afghanistan may well not be able to meet.  US and European foreign ministers discussed continuing past security and economic aid, but did not deal with the massive impact of ending US and European military spending in Afghanistan as each ISAF country’s forces departs – spending which totaled $4.3 billion for US military directs contracts with Afghans in FY2011 – which was only a small portion of US military spending in the country.

Prospects for Transition in Afghanistan:

The US, its allies, and aid donors need act now to realistically assess the cost-benefits of their future actions and decide whether it is worth taking the risk of making commitments for yet another decade. Even if the US and Europe do act quickly and effectively, success is uncertain. Afghanistan may have even less success than Iraq in building a functioning democracy with effective control over governance, economic development, and security. Worse, Pakistan is far more strategically important and is drifting towards growing internal violence and many of the aspects of a failed state.

If Afghanistan does get enough outside funding to avoid an economic crisis and civil war after US and allied withdrawal, it is still likely to remain a weak and divided state dependent on continuing US and outside aid through 2024 and beyond, confining any strategic role to one of open-ended dependence.

The Karzai government barely functions in much of Afghanistan, and new elections must come in 2014 – the year combat forces are supposed to leave.  US and allied troop numbers are dropping to critical levels. No one knows what presence – if any – will stay after 2014.

It is far from clear that the present US, allied, and UN focus on building up the central government will make transition possible. The West must take the blame for driving the drafting of a constitution that grossly overcentralized power and control of funds in the President, and now do far more to encourage effective government at the provincial and district level, and find ways to provide aid and contracts directly at the local level.

Success may well require some form of de facto federalism that reflects the major differences between southern Pashtun, north Pashtun, and the ethnic minorities in the north – a new form of “Northern Alliance” operating within the government. It must act to protect Afghanistan’s Hazara Shi’ite minority, and recognize that local justice systems, approaches to human rights, and law enforcement will remain a reality in many Afghan districts.

Progress is taking place in creating an Afghan army, but without a functioning state to defend, the ANSF could fragment. Far less progress is taking place in creating the police and justice system. Massive aid to Afghanistan has produced far too few tangible results, and the Afghan economy is likely to go into a depression in 2014 in the face of massive aid and spending cuts that will cripple both the economy and Afghan forces.

Mobilizing US and European support for the war and continued aid and support to Afghanistan is already a critical issue. It is also an issue where success will depend largely on the US. If the US is to have any hope of bringing its European allies along at the required level of effort, it must show them – and Afghanistan and Pakistan -- that it has the domestic support to act.

This means the US needs a meaningful action plan for transition that Congress, the media, area experts, and the American people can debate and commit themselves to supporting no later than Congressional approval of the FY2013 US budget. If President Obama cannot provide such a plan within several months, and then win the support necessary to implement it, any hope of salvaging lasting success in the war will vanish.

Prospects for Stability in Pakistan

The US and its key European allies face a more critical strategic challenge. They must now define a credible set of goals for the strategic outcome they want in Pakistan.  This must involve dealing with Pakistan’s impact on Afghanistan. Pakistan will complicate US and European efforts in helping Afghanistan move towards transition. Pakistan is far more likely to be a disruptive force in Afghanistan than a constructive one, and there are no obvious prospects for creating stable relations with Pakistan during the transition process.

Even if US and ISAF relations with Pakistan do not continue to deteriorate, or remain so tense as to be nearly dysfunctional, Pakistan’s efforts to advance its own interest in Afghanistan, and inability or unwillingness to deal with Afghan insurgent sanctuaries, will threaten or undermine any successes inside Afghanistan.

Pakistan’s role in Afghanistan, however, is only part of the story. A nuclear-armed Pakistan is both the key strategic center of gravity in the Afghanistan-Pakistan War, and its most dangerous wild card. Pakistan is slowly devolving towards the status of a failed state, and becoming progressively more unstable regardless of US aid and actions in Afghanistan.  Any de facto “exit strategy” that suddenly cuts off US aid to Pakistan, or produces an even more serious level of confrontation between the US and Pakistan during the entire transition process will make this future almost inevitable.

It is easy to talk about regional solutions, as decades of previous efforts have shown. In practice, Pakistan’s internal problems are more likely to bloc any progress in Indian and Pakistani relations than push Pakistan towards a settlement.

The US and the West also cannot rely on Russia and China. Russia has little strategic interest in taking on Pakistan’s problems now, and will have even less if Pakistan continues to devolve towards a failed state. China will take a more active interest, but will keep a careful distance.

Rhetoric aside, China has been careful to avoid a major aid effort or attempt to help a Pakistan whose civil and military leaders seem so incapable of helping Pakistan help itself. China will want to keep Pakistan as a counterweight to India and prevent it from becoming a base for Islamist extremist threats to China and its interest in the region, but China knows all too well that any major Chinese intervention is unlikely to be any more successful than past outside aid efforts.

Muddle, Uncertainty, and an Unpredictable Non-End state

These challenges do not mean a “worst case” outcome in Afghanistan, or that Pakistan cannot move forward if gets more competent civil and military leadership. While no one can predict so uncertain a future, it does seem unlikely that transition will give the Taliban and other insurgents control of the country, even if the Afghan insurgents do succeed in keeping their sanctuaries in Pakistan and outwait the US and Europe during transition. 

The most likely post-2014 outcome in Afghanistan is a situation where the insurgents control and operate in some Pashtun areas, while others are controlled by factions of the Northern Pashtuns. Other Afghan ethnic factions are likely to create some new form of the Northern Alliance, and the central government in Kabul is either likely to play some limited role, or become a key player in a limited form of civil conflict. 

The most likely case in Pakistan is that it will draft further towards the status of a failed state until some coup or leadership crisis produces an new leadership that actually begins to react to Pakistan’s internal problems rather than focusing on its own power, living in denial when it can, and exporting blame when it must.  Outside powers can encourage change and reform – using a mix of diplomacy, aid, and pressure – but Pakistan’s problems go far beyond the war in Afghanistan and no faction has yet visibly emerged that offers serious hope of the level of reform that can only come from within.

In short, the most probable result of result of “transition” will not be what some US policymakers have come to call “Afghan Good Enough” – a stable democratic state -- nor will it be a stable Pakistan. It will be an unstable form of “Afghan Muddle Through,” coupled to an unstable Pakistan still driven largely by its internal problems and tensions with India.