The War in Afghanistan: A Race Against Time, Resources, And The Enemy

A Trip Report

The Burke Chair has prepared a report based on a recent trip to Afghanistan, and discussions with US officials and commanders. The full report is entitled The War in Afghanistan: A Race Against Time, Resources, and the Enemy.  It is available on the CSIS web site at:

This trip report provides a short discussion of key issues. It is supported by the following series of detailed reports on key aspects of the war:

The trip report and detailed analyses reveal a NATO/ISAF effort that has made progress in many areas: the fight against the Taliban, the development of Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF), some important aspects of Afghan governance, and some aspects of the development activities that are critical to winning the support of the Afghan people and meeting their urgent needs. It also revealed, however, that serious problems and uncertainties remain and that this progress may be wasted unless the US and its allies do a better job of assessing the risks that remain in the war, resourcing it over time, and showing the necessary strategic patience.

Real Military Progress, But Still Far From “Victory”

ISAF has achieved major tactical successes in the south, clearing and holding much of the former Taliban heartland – and they are unlikely to lose this territory in the near term.  Yet as positive as many of the tactical indicators are, history warns that most successful insurgencies appeared at some point in their history to be decisively defeated in the field, but survived by outlasting their opponents and by winning at the civil, political, and negotiating levels.

It is too early to determine whether ISAF and the ANSF can scale up the tactical successes they have won to date within probable time-lines, and succeed in creating “clear, hold, build, and transition” in the full range of critical districts. It is too early to determine whether they can transition such victories into lasting GIRoA and ANSF stability.  Uncertain US and allied popular support for the war, an uncertain willingness to sustain success if it clearly does develop, and an uncertain willingness to fund the required effort before and after transition may render most of the current NATO/ISAF effort moot.

The Growing Race Between Transition and Resources

Our trip also revealed that NATO/ISAF and the ANSF are much better resourced and have a much more realistic grasp of the problems facing it than in previous years.  However it was all too clear that they are also in a race – a race against time, resources, and the enemy – that they simply may not win. 
Largely because of the past US focus on Iraq, the NATO/ISAF effort in Afghanistan was massively under-resourced for years. Most of the major problems facing the country, from insurgent-controlled areas to corruption and a lack of development, were allowed to fester and grow for the better part of a decade.  With the limited numbers of troops, aid workers, and money at their disposal, there was little NATO/ISAF could do to win the war.  This is not a nine year war, nor is it a one year war being fought nine times.  To date, it is really a two year war – one that began in 2009, when Gen. McCrystal and President Obama provided the necessary resources and strategic coherence.  Now that the coalition’s human, financial, and military resources have increased, victory is at least possible. 

But the necessary resources may not last.  Aid funding will probably peak in FY2012, and will decline substantially thereafter.  Military withdrawals are already beginning this year, and will also likely accelerate in 2012-2014.  The “Civilian Surge” never really got many personnel out into the field in the first place, but even this limited deployment will begin to decline soon.  Even with current resource levels, huge problems remain in Afghanistan:

  • GIRoA’s current lack of popularity, trust, and integrity at every level from Karzai to local governments, compounded by favoritism, corruption, power brokers, and the impact of criminal networks.
  • Tensions between the US and ISAF officials and commanders at every level in GIRoA and especially with Karzai.
  • Regional, sectarian, and ethnic divisions within Afghanistan, GIRoA, and some elements of the ANSF.
  • Uncertain moves toward negotiation and political accommodation with the Taliban that could result in either its return to power, or new – and possibly violent – splits of the country.
  • The uncertainty as to whether current tactical gains can be scaled up to cover the entire range of critical districts, be transitioned to ANSF control within the required timeframe, and offset Taliban and other insurgent willingness to wait out the US and ISAF presence and overcome tactical defeat by fighting a war of political attrition.
  • Pressure to create an ANSF capable of transition that could offset real progress with artificial deadliness, and be followed by a refusal to fund the force for the needed timeframe after transition.
  • A civil aid effort in governance, economic, and stability operations that is vastly expensive but cannot meet current development goals, and so far has not shown that it can be effective or properly managed and assessed in the hold, build, and transition phases of the war.

The Continuing Need for Performance Rather than Promises

Senior leaders at ISAF, IJC, USAID, the State Department and the UN all were well aware of these problems, and were making serious efforts to deal with them. Many programs, however, will take a year or more to fully implement and test.

Far too often, it is also unclear whether the promised reforms that will create fiscal controls and accountability, refocus efforts on Afghan needs, and produce meaningful measures of effectiveness will actually be put into place. There have been too many conceptual efforts, too many promises, and too many failures in the past. There is another race that must be won in Afghanistan: replacing promises with performance.

The Lack of a Defined Grand Strategy: Transition to What?

More generally, five key uncertainties still dominate the strategic risks in pursuing the war to any meaningful grand strategic outcome:

  • The growing instability of Pakistan and its unwillingness to fully engage Al Qaeda and the Afghan Taliban.
  • The slow rate of improvement in the capacity and integrity of the Afghan government at the national, provincial, district and local levels.
  • The growing pressure to negotiate with the Taliban and reach an accommodation, even if this involves a serious risk of premature ISAF withdrawals, and the Taliban taking power in at least part of Afghanistan.
  • The growing divisions over whether a counterterrorism strategy could replace the current counterinsurgency strategy with a far smaller US and ISAF force presence far more quickly than is currently planned, and lead to sharply accelerated cuts in US and allied forces and all forms of spending in  Afghanistan.
  • The uncertainties that still surround the nature of the mission in Afghanistan, effective planning for transition, and the ability to ensure any kind of lasting “victory” once transition takes place.

The war cannot be won without strategic patience and adequate resources, but no one can guarantee that it will be won in any sustainable way even with them. Furthermore, political negotiations and accommodation with the Taliban can radically alter US transition planning, how many forces – if any – the US could retain in Afghanistan, the means and ability to carry on a counterterrorism campaign in Pakistan, and the politics of the 2014 Afghan presidential election.

Afghanistan is winnable.  Given a great deal of resources, a flexible leadership, and several more years, the current strategy can succeed.  But at this point resources and time are running out.   Senior leaders were realistic about the problems facing them, and many recognized that they were in a race against time, resources, and the enemy.  But few of them fully realized that they are now losing this race.   Resources are already dropping, and without substantive and demonstrable progress in the next year, they are likely to drop even faster.

This does not mean that the current strategy cannot succeed within resource limits.  It means that the US must determine what its end-state goals are in Afghanistan, whether they are achievable, and what resources it is willing to spend in order to achieve them.  It does not mean that the US should promote a comprehensive COIN strategy and then underresource it.  Nor should the US enact a CT strategy and expect all of the results that only a COIN strategy can achieve.  But this decision must be made, and once made it must be swiftly carried out – because the enemy has already made his decision.

Adam Mausner