On 20 March and 22 March 2012, General John Allen, Commander, International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) and Dr. James N. Miller Jr., Acting Undersecretary of Defense and Principle Under Secretary of Defense for Policy, testified before the House and Senate Armed Services Committees on military, political and economic progress being made in Afghanistan.
General Allen and Dr. Miller expressed optimism regarding the ultimate success of the ISAF mission, which General Allen described as “to keep the Taliban from overthrowing the government of Afghanistan and to provide the security of that government over the long term” as well as “to deny Al Qaeda safe havens in Afghanistan.”
General Allen and Dr. Miller testified that Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) remained on schedule to take the lead in combat operations by the end of 2014, with reduced ISAF forces remaining in a train, advise, and assist role after that date pending the negotiation of a Strategic Partnership Agreement with the government of Afghanistan.
Dr. Miller reported to the House Armed Services Committee (HASC),
“From 2010-2011, enemy-initiated attacks in Afghanistan were down 9%. This trend has continued into 2012. For January and February this year, enemy-initiated attacks are down a further 22% from 2011 levels for the same months.
In October 2008, there were only 140,000 Afghans in the ANSF. Today there are approximately 330,000 and we expect to reach our goal of 352,000 ANSF ahead of the October 2012 target date.
Today almost 90% of coalition operations are carried out in partnership with ANSF and the ANSF is in the lead for more than 40% of operations.”
General Allen testified that “Afghan security forces are expected to assume security lead for as much as 2/3 or possibly more of the Afghan population” this year.
He continued, “In January 2011, there were 15 battalion-sized formations in the ANSF and 101 of those were ranked in the top 3 of the categories of measure for capability: independent with advisors, effective with advisors, effective with partnership. In the year since then, that number has grown to 138.”
At the conclusion of their opening testimony, Congressman Larson expressed skepticism that Afghan security forces would be able to maintain control of Afghanistan under Dr. Miller’s projected force strength.
“In 2002-2003, the military at the time was telling us that we needed to train 70,000 [ANSF]…. That number is now up to 352,000. What can you tell me that’s going to assure me that…you aren’t going to come back and say, “What we meant was 450,000”?
General Allen and Dr. Miller concurred that analysis of the current number is sound and they did not expect any significant increases.
Congressman Courtney questioned, however, what impact the continued lack of Pakistani support on insurgent safe havens would have on the ISAF mission. General Allen replied that ANSF defenses would have to be “thickened” in order to maintain the government in Kabul.
During the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) hearing General Allen stated to Senator McCain that two obstacles remained to success in Afghanistan: corruption in the Karzai government and continued ISI support for Taliban sanctuaries in Pakistan. He noted that while President Karzai is taking steps to address corruption, there has been no substantial change in ISI’s relationship with the Taliban and Haqqani network. He also noted that the Taliban have “made no effort to separate themselves from Al Qaeda”, the latter of which he later estimated at fewer than 100 in response to a question from Senator Webb.
It was unclear, however, whether he assessed the Taliban-Al Qaeda relationship as tactical or ideological in nature. Then-General David Petraeus testified last year that the Taliban’s political objectives are limited to Afghanistan rather than a pan-Islamic caliphate.
General Allen further testified that ISAF “[has] not seen the level of cooperation or action that we have requested” from the Pakistani government regarding the interdiction of chemical ingredients needed to produce IEDs.
General Allen and Dr. Miller also reported that Iran is supporting both the Afghan government and elements of the Taliban in Western Afghanistan in an advisory capacity. General Allen noted, however, “we have not seen the Iranian signature weapons in Afghanistan that we saw frequently in southern Iraq.”
During the HASC hearing Congresswoman Bordallo stated,
“Many observers have noted that corruption is endemic to Afghanistan and that this corruption feeds predatory power brokers and mafias who have co-opted that state…. Judging from recent stories about billions of dollars in cash being flown out of Afghanistan every year, the former head of Kabul Bank going free…it doesn’t seem like we’re making much progress [against it]….”
General Allen highlighted ISAF’s efforts to combat corruption through Task Force Shafafiyat (“Transparency”) and Task Force 2010, which was established to improve transparency in contracting. He also noted that Afghan President Hamid Karzai appointed a Presidential Executive Commission to address organized crime and cash flight out of Afghanistan. General Allen provided the committee a brief overview on the efforts of the Afghan ministries of Defense and Interior to remove criminal influence from within their ranks and committed to provide additional details for the record.
Congresswoman Tsongas noted President Karzai’s endorsement of the Afghan Council of Clerics’ prohibition against women traveling alone and its permission of wife-beating. Dr. Miller offered a counterpoint that in Kandahar, 40,000 women are receiving an education made possible by the continued ISAF presence.
During the SASC hearing Senator Collins quoted Dr. Miller’s estimate to the HASC that it would cost “between $4 and 5 billion a year to sustain [ANSF] at approximately the current end strength of 352,000,” while “the Afghan government has total revenue of under $2 billion….” Senator Collins asked how long the U.S. might have to bear this cost.
Dr. Miller replied that the Afghan government would not be able to sustain its own security forces “for the near term [nor] perhaps for the mid-term”.
Dr. Miller also estimated during the HASC hearing that agricultural development is expected to be a “10-years-plus” prospect and that the Department of Defense’s Task Force on Business and Stability Operations (TFBSO) is also working on the development of Afghanistan’s mineral resources over the long term.
A Skeptical Intelligence Community
General Allen’s and Dr. Miller’s statements come three months after the intelligence community submitted its classified but reportedly pessimistic National Intelligence Estimate on Afghanistan to the White House. The NIE sparked dissent from General Allen, U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Ryan Crocker, and CENTCOM Commander General James Mattis.
On 31 January, National Intelligence Director James R. Clapper testified on Afghanistan before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (SSCI), noting in his unclassified statement for the record,
“The Taliban’s ability to influence the population and maintain its strongholds inside Afghanistan has diminished since last year. However, its losses have come mainly in areas where ISAF surge forces are concentrated; it remains resilient and capable of challenging US and international goals….
“ISAF partnering and mentoring have begun to show signs of sustainable progress at the tactical and ministerial levels; however, corruption as well as poor leadership and management will threaten [ANSF’s] operational effectiveness.
“In terms of governance, there have been incremental improvements extending rule of law…and most provinces have established basic governance structures. However, provinces still struggle to provide essential services. Moreover, access to official governance is primarily limited to urban areas, such as district and provincial capitals, leaving much of the rural population isolated from the government.” (9-10)
On 12 March, Anthony H. Cordesman, Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, commented in an uncharacteristically strident manner,
“We can ignore all of the pressures building up on both sides as mistrust continues to rise, pledges are made and not kept, and outside forces and spending drops faster than planned. We can focus on empty policy statements, concepts, and conferences. We can continue to report nothing but good news or spin reality as best our public affairs officers can manage. We can waste much of the limited time left before 2014, play out a partisan debate in the United States through November 2012, and then join our allies in blundering out as best we can.
“The second strategy is an “honest exit” strategy…. We accept the fact that we will not sustain the level of effort needed through 2014, much less beyond. We accept what this means for peace negotiations…. We deal with the human consequences of these actions and…provide at least enough money and support so that, if there is a chance that the Afghan government and forces can survive with a far lower level of resources, they have at least that much support…. We [try to] protect the non-Pashtun areas in the north and the large numbers of urban and other northern Pashtuns….
“The third strategy is the most challenging. It is to create a “real transition” plan with real resources through a period that is likely to last at least through 2020. This does not mean going on with the current strategy. It means a comprehensive and honest reassessment of what can be done to enable the Afghans to do things their way and largely on their own as soon as possible…. It means accepting the fact that continued aid will have to go to the same power structure that now exists and facing the reality that most current abuses of government, policing, human rights, and the justice system will only change when Afghans are ready to change them….”
The Outspoken Colonel
On 5 February, Lt. Col. Daniel L. Davis, a representative for the Rapid Equipping Force with four combat deployments, wrote in an Armed Forces Journal article titled “Truth, lies and Afghanistan: How military leaders have let us down”,
“I interviewed or had conversations with more than 250 soldiers in the field, from the lowest-ranking 19-year-old private to division commanders and staff members at every echelon. I spoke at length with Afghan security officials, Afghan civilians and a few village elders.
“….I heard many stories of how insurgents controlled virtually every piece of land beyond eyeshot of a U.S. or [ISAF] base.
“I saw little to no evidence the local governments were able to provide for the basic needs of the people. Some of the Afghan civilians I talked with said the people didn’t want to be connected to a predatory or incapable local government.
“From time to time, I observed Afghan Security forces collude with the insurgency.”
He goes on to describe his conservation with a local Afghan official who served as the cultural adviser to the U.S. commander of a unit in Kunar province. In response to his questions, “Will [ANSF] be able to hold out against the Taliban when U.S. troops leave this area?” the adviser responded,
“No. They are definitely not capable. Already all across this region [many elements of] the security forces have made deals with the Taliban. [ANSF] won’t shoot at the Taliban, and the Taliban won’t shoot them.”
Despite Reports of Progress, Uncertainties Remain
It appears that while ISAF is making steady progress training ANSF to take over primary responsibility for the security of Afghanistan after 2014, many doubts remain regarding the determination of those forces to fight on behalf of Kabul absent a continued large scale ISAF presence beyond that date.
During the HASC hearing, Congressman Jones noted that the United States is borrowing $10 billion dollars a month from China to pay for military and civilian operations in Afghanistan. He asked at what point the U.S. should say it has done enough.
If ISAF can sustain military progress up to 2014 without strong indicators of Taliban reversals that would contradict its claims, it will likely have secured the political capital it needs to receive continued funding for its post-2014 strategy, which would be roughly 20 times less and worth the cost.
It appears probable, however, that the ISI will not be persuaded to cut off its support for elements of the Taliban and other insurgent groups, that Pakistani political leaders will become increasingly vocal in their opposition to drone strikes within their territory, that the Afghan government’s purported efforts at curbing corruption may prove to be too little, too late, and that ANSF fighting morale and loyalties will not parallel its quantitative growth.
In consideration of these obstacles, it may be worthwhile to invest time in preparing a scaled back strategy in the event that the current one proves to be overly ambitious.
This might take the form of Anthony Cordesman’s second scenario, with continued drone and paramilitary operations against Al Qaeda targets on Taliban-controlled territory, selective reprisals against Taliban leaders who actively support them, and a de facto acceptance of Kabul’s limited territorial control.
A cessation of hostilities between Afghanistan’s warring factions would still ultimately require negotiations on terms acceptable to its regional neighbors but at the very least, ISAF operations would be more sustainable from a financial, political and troop readiness standpoint.