Winning In Afghanistan

  • How the US Will Win Or Lose the War
    Sep 15, 2009

    No strategy for Afghanistan can be successful unless it answers the most basic question of going to war: can we win? The answer is yes, provided that victory is defined in realistic and practical terms. With the proper US leadership, it is still possible to create an Afghanistan that is stable and secure enough to ensure that it cannot again become a center for international terrorism, a threat to Pakistan and other nations in the region, or a center of Jihadist operations throughout the world. This will not be a victory that achieves the level of development, mature democracy, and Western concepts of human rights called for by the Afghan compact. It can, however, be a kind of victory that allows the Afghans to pursue their destiny in relative peace.

    The answer is only yes under very demanding conditions. Years of chronic under-resourcing have allowed the Taliban and other insurgents to recover and seize the initiative. This has imposed a significant cost upon the efforts to garner peace. Additionally, failures by the Afghan central government, paired with corruption and waste on all sides, magnified such costs. Furthermore, the situation has been compounded by a lack of effective civil-military cooperation. Anything approaching a real-world unity of effort between the US team, NATO/ISAF, UN, and international agencies hasn’t proven to be effective.

    The Taliban, Al Qa’ida, and other insurgent groups like Hekmatyer and Haqqani have re-emerged as major threats that influence or control approximately a third of the country, with de facto sanctuaries in Pakistan. These gains are more the fault of the US and its allies, as opposed to a reflection of the strength of Jihadist insurgents. In fact, such developments are largely the result of the US failing to provide adequate resources, decisive leadership, or effective implementation of a coherent civil-military strategy.

    The US has failed to commit adequate troops, civilian aid workers, and adequate funds. This lack of leadership, paired with a lack of adequate civil-military resources, has been to the detriment of effective Afghan governance and adequate Afghan security forces. Instead, the US has focused on Iraq, while trying to pressure its allies into assuming its responsibilities. The US has treated Pakistan as an ally despite Pakistan’s posture being clearly divided. It covertly tolerates and encourages the Afghan Taliban and other insurgents. The end result has been a power vacuum that a skilled and adaptive set of insurgents has exploited to seize the initiative, and wage a war of political attrition that they are now winning.

    Nevertheless, the US may well be able to reverse this situation. The Taliban and other insurgents are still weak and unpopular. The strategy of shape, clear, hold, and build that has had substantial successes in Iraq can be adapted to Afghanistan. Ambassador Eikenberry and General McChrystal offer the kind of leadership that has the ability to win. A meaningful form of Afghan NATO/ISAF victory still seems possible—and even probable—if the US changes its strategy, commits the manpower and money needed to win, and works more effectively with the Afghans and its allies.

    The US will fail, however, if the Administration and the Congress temporize and delay. Failing to fully implement a new strategy focused on a realistic effort to create true Afghan partners, while allowing domestic politics to supersede the needed troops and funds, will lead to such a defeat. It is clear that the Obama Administration and the US Congress can decisively waste the last opportunity for victory over the coming months by not giving the US team in Afghanistan the authority, support, and resources needed to win. Accordingly, the question that the US and its allies must now face is whether they are willing to act decisively enough, while committing enough resources, to correct the failures of the last eight years.

    These issues are explored in detail in a new analysis by the Burke Chair entitled "Winning in Afghanistan: How the US Will Win or Lose the War." The report can be downloaded from the CSIS web site at

    It explores the changes the US must make in resourcing the war, in seeking to reform and improve the Afghan government, and in improving the quality and unity of effort in US and NATO/ISAF civil-military operations.

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Anthony H. Cordesman