Small Wars Journal

Afghanistan and the Growing Risks in Transition

Thu, 06/26/2014 - 6:08pm

Afghanistan and the Growing Risks in Transition

Anthony H. Cordesman, Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic & International Studies, has prepared three related reports that illustrate the current security threats in stabilizing the Afghan security forces; the post-election challenges to Afghan reconstruction; and the challenges facing Afghan governance and the Afghan economy.

Report One: The Post-Election Challenges to Afghan Transition: 2014-2015

Report Two:Security Transition in Afghanistan

Report Three: Governance and Economic Transition in Afghanistan

Summary as Prepared by the Author:

These reports all show a rising risk that Transition will fail.  They show that the "surge" in Afghanistan did not achieve anything like the positive results that the surge in Iraq achieved before U.S. and allied forces left, and that Afghan security forces still have critical problems in quality and funding.  These are problems that President Obama largely discounted in his May 27, 2014 speech on Transition in Afghanistan:

From President Obama, May 27, 2014, on transition in Afghanistan:"...Our objectives are clear: Disrupting threats posed by al-Qaeda; supporting Afghan security forces; and giving the Afghan people the opportunity to succeed as they stand on their own.
"Here's how we will pursue those objectives.  First, America's combat mission will be over by the end of this year.  Starting next year, Afghans will be fully responsible for securing their own country.  American personnel will be in an advisory role.  We will no longer patrol Afghan cities of towns, mountains or valleys.  That is a task for the Afghan people.

"Second, I've made it clear that we're open to cooperating with Afghans on two narrow missions after 2014: training Afghan forces and supporting counterterrorism operations against the remnant of al-Qaeda.

"Today, I want to be clear about how the United States is prepared to advance those missions.  At the beginning of 2015, we will have approximately 98,000 U.S. -- let me start that over, just because I want to make sure we don't get this written wrong.  At the beginning of 2015, we will have approximately 9,800 U.S. service members in different parts of the country, together with our NATO allies and other partners.  By the end of 2015, we will have reduced that presence y roughly half, and we will have consolidated our troops in Kabul and on Bagram Airfield.  One year later, by the end of 2016, our military will draw down to a normal embassy presence in Kabul, with a  security assistance component, just as we've done in Iraq.

"Now, even as our troops come home, the international community will continue to support Afghans as they build their country for years to come.  But our relationship will not be defined by war -- it will be shaped by our financial ad development assistance, as well as our diplomatic support.  Our commitment to Afghanistan is rooted in the strategic partnership that we agreed to in 2012.  And this plan remains consistent with discussions we've had with our NATO allies.  Just as our allies have been with us every step of the way in Afghanistan, we expect that our allies will be with us going forward.  

"Third, we will only sustain this military presence after 2014 if the Afghan government signs the Bilateral Security Agreement that our two governments have already negotiated.  This Agreement is essential to give our troops the authorities they need to fulfill their mission, while respecting Afghan sovereignty.  The two final Afghan candidates in the run-off election for President have each indicated that they would sign this agreements promptly after taking office.  So I'm hopeful that we can get this done."

In spite of the rushed and uncertain character of the Afghan force development, the president chose to provide the minimum recommended mix of U.S. advisors, enablers, and counterinsurgency forces recommended by ISAF for only one year.  This, in spite of the fact that the U.S. military has consistently understated the need for advisors, aid, and prolonged effort in their past plans in Vietnam, Iraq, and other operations.  

More generally, he did not address either military or civil aid issues, focused solely on the election as a measure of governance, established no condition for aid and support other than Afghan agreement to a bilateral security agreement, and did not address economic risk, the problems posed by sanctuaries in Pakistan and Pakistan's part actions.  The White House also issued a "Fact Sheet" that repeated past claims to progress in "Afghanistan" that are uncertain, false, or taken out of context.

As the data in these reports show, the end result is to grossly understate the risks facing our Afghan ally, and to repeat the false estimates of progress or "follies" the U.S. issued in Vietnam and towards the end of the fighting in Iraq.  These kinds of Assessments make the U.S. a potential threat to its own interests, and are the same failures, oversights, and shortcomings that Neil Sheehan described in his critique of U.S. folly in Vietnam, A Bright and Shining Lie.

The range of metrics and data in The Post-Election Challenges to Afghan Transition: 2014-2015, and its sub-reports, can only cover part of this story, but they do provide a wide range of warnings of just how serious the risks in Transition really are.  In practice, both these risks and the prospect of some form of failure in Afghanistan may be acceptable.  The U.S. has higher strategic priorities in Europe, the Middle East, and Asia, and finite resources.  It has a weak and uncertain Afghan partner, and one that has yet to sow it can develop either effective leadership or effective governance.

At the same time, there are enough positive trends in Afghan forces, governance, and economics to show that a still limited but more realistic level of U.S. effort might produce a relatively stable Afghanistan.  A more realistic effort to support Afghan forces might offer a higher prospect of success, and the same World Bank reporting that provides a levels of realism on Afghan governance and economics is sadly lacking the U.S. official reporting present in past reports, including Islamic State of Afghanistan: Pathways to Inclusive Growth.  That report offers a far more realistic and affordable path to acceptable levels of Afghan governance and economics that dreams of a new Silk Road or sudden wealth in exploiting national resources.  

For all of the negative trends and warnings issued in the three Burke Chair reports, there are potentially affordable options that can prevent U.S. withdrawal from repeating the experience in Vietnam and Iraq and from ending in either a bang or a whimper.


So it looks like we will do to the Afghans exactly what we did to the South Vietnamese those many years ago. We will cut them off financially after we pull out. It was a terrible thing to watch the first time it happened and I hoped to never see us do something like that again. But it is likely to come to pass. Twice in my lifetime. What a horrible shameful thing it will be.