The Real Issues in Afghanistan: Looking Beyond Undefined Policy Statements and Slogans

  • Special Troop Battalion air assault into a village inside Jowlzak valley, Parwan province, Afghanistan from
    Feb 2, 2012

    Secretary’s Panetta’s comment about ending the US combat role in Afghanistan in 2013, and focusing on building up Afghan forces, have triggered a predictable firestorm of criticism, guesswork, and speculation. The practical problem is that the Secretary did not define what he meant, and more importantly, any shift in the role of US forces involves critical issues and uncertainties that make a policy statement almost meaningless without far more detail on what the US is seeking and the overall level of resources it is willing to provide.

    In practice, the Obama Administration does not seem to have any clear plan as yet for transition. It has concepts and debates, but does not seem to have come to grips with any of the key issues it must deal with in shaping the outcome of the war in Afghanistan and Pakistan:

    • The US has never set meaningful strategic goals for the war. It has talked loosely about ending the threat of terrorism, but has not set any goal for what it is seeking in Afghanistan, Pakistan, or the region in terms of a post-withdrawal relationship with the governments involved, the level of development and security it desires, and what kind of peace – if any -- is desirable. It is fighting a war without a defined and meaningful objective.
    • There is no overall plan for transition and withdrawal that links US and other allied forces, changes in the aid efforts of the US and other countries, and the build-up of Afghan security forces and governance in given areas. The military may have a campaign plan, but the US and its allies do not have an integrated civil-military war plan.
    • The development of Afghan national security forces (ANSF) is in a state of total confusion. It is being rushed forward while spending is being drastically cut, long before it is clear how long it will take to create effective force elements and how serious the limits will be to the quality of much of the military and police forces. This is particularly critical because major elements of the ANSF cannot possibly be ready to stand on their own by the end of 2014, and the Afghan government officially stated at the Bonn Conference that it will need major outside aid and support through at least 2020.  It is all too clear that the ANSF will not  be ready to take on a major combat role in 2013 without significant ISAF support, and that the current ISAF campaign plan to secure key areas in the east and consolidate gains in the south cannot be implemented if major US and ISAF force cuts take place.
    • The US and its allies clearly understand that they are going to be making reductions in military and aid spending in Afghanistan during 2012-2014 that are so serious they could plunge the more developed sectors of the economy into a major recession and lead to massive capital flight from the country. Like the development of the ANSF, there is a flood of competing ideas, but no clear plan and no clear picture of the need for new forms of transition aid, how it will deal with the Afghan government’s request for transition aid, or what level of aid will be forthcoming.
    • It is easy to talk about a transfer of responsibility to the Afghans, but as similar statement in Iraq showed, this can be little more than cosmetic or be based on real Afghan capabilities. So far, there seems to be no clear standard for Afghan security and governance capabilities, or for defining what level of US and allied capability will remain once the official “transfer” takes place.
    • There is no consensus between ISAF and much of the US intelligence community over the effectiveness of US and allied military operations, the strength and determination of insurgent forces, and attitudes and capabilities of the Afghan government and forces, and the depth of the problems with (and within) Pakistan.
    • The US is talking about peace negotiations without a clear definition of what kind of peace it can accept, and in ways that are causing considerable tension with the Afghan government and Pakistan. It talks about fighting, negotiating, and leaving at the same time without explaining whether there is really a plan for doing any of this. Moreover, this is occurring at a time when the new US strategy announced in January puts a major emphasis on not fighting the kind of war the US is now fighting, and there are far more debates in the Administration and Congress over staying in Afghanistan than either would like to publicly admit.
    • There is no consensus within the US government over the level of troops that should be kept, how to phase down US and allied forces through 2014, how to phase down US aid efforts, what level of defense and foreign aid spending will be needed through 2014 and beyond. Concepts are not plans, and intentions are not money.
    • The US government has not developed any clear picture of how it should deal with critical problems in the Afghan government, deal with its lack of capability in governance and its corruption as the US and other leave, handle the problems inherent in its overcentralization, and deal with the fact that Karzai is supposed to leave and a new election is supposed to be held in 2014.
    • The US has not come to grips with the growing tensions between Karzai and the various ethnic and Hazara elements of the "Northern Allianace," and how it wants power to be distributed between the central government and regional and local power centers. There already is a risk of a major power struggle in the Afghan government over such issues as the US leaves, but the US is approaching this more through a state of denial than with any practical plans.
    • The US cannot talk about transition in Afghanistan without having clear policies and goals in dealing with Pakistan.  This is particularly critical as Pakistan, and its relationship with the US, is far more important to long-term US strategic interests than Afghanistan. 

    These are the issues the US needs to address immediately, and the devil lies in the details – not in making more undefined policy statements and in advancing yet another series of new concepts without plans and resources. There are now less than three years until the end of 2014, and it takes months or sometimes over a year to actually begin implementing major shifts in programs in Afghanistan. It is also time to stop largely meaningless speculation over broad policy statements and demand specifics and a credible set of goals and plans.


    The Burke Chair has recently published a number of reports on Afghanistan, including:  Winning in Afghanistan: Creating Effective Afghan Security Forces
    This book is a comprehensive look at the capabilities and shortcomings of the Afghan security forces, and the resources and policies needed to make them an effective force.

    In addition, several other reports are available that describe the changes necessary to develop an effective strategy and provide accurate metrics on the war. These reports are:
    Negotiating with the Taliban: Six Critical Conditions that Must Be Met to Avoid Another “Peace to End All Peace”
     “Transition in the Afghanistan-Pakistan War: How Does This War End?
     “The Afghan War At the End of 2011: A Status Report

    "Obama's New Strategy in Afghanistan"  This is an analysis of President Obama's new strategy found here:

    "The Afghan Narcotics Industry"  This presentation describes the Afghan Narcotics industry in comprehensive detail through graphics and maps.

    "Shape, Clear, Hold, and Build: The Uncertain Metrics of the Afghan War,"  This is a series of presentations that survey maps and graphics from a range of sources that cover the war and bring together a range of metrics in key areas:

    "The Afghanistan Campaign: Can We Win?"

    "The New Metrics of Afghanistan: The Data Needed to Support Shape, Clear, Hold, and Build":

    For a full overview of the resources needed to win in Afghanistan, please read the full report "Resourcing for Defeat: Critical Failures in Planning, Programming, Budgeting and Resourcing the Afghan and Iraq Wars":

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Anthony H. Cordesman