Small Wars Journal

The Case for Maintaining an Advisory Presence in Afghanistan

Mon, 04/20/2020 - 9:35am

The Case for Maintaining an Advisory Presence in Afghanistan

Scott C. Buchanan


Barring an unforeseen event or shift in policy, it seems likely that by May 2021, the United States will remove its military forces from Afghanistan.  Despite claims of progress, the United States and its allies have undeniably made many mistakes over the past two decades.  Some commentators have argued that Afghanistan has been an “undeniable failure.”  While many commentators and policymakers have focused on getting out of Afghanistan, the past shows the potentially devastating consequences such actions could bring.  Instead, the United States and its NATO allies should consider leaving a small presence of advisors to support institutional development at the ministries and institutions.

The United States has maintained a presence in Afghanistan since the terrorist attacks on Washington D.C. and New York in 2001.  The presence focuses on the defeat of terrorist threats directed at the United States or its interests through counterterrorism and the elimination of safe havens.  Counterterrorism is generally conducted in one of two ways: either through direct U.S. or coalition action against terrorist threats, or with, by, and through proxy forces.  On the other hand, the elimination of safe havens is most effective when strong governance institutions can exercise legitimate rule of law and the government can wield its law enforcement tools.  If the United States wants to continue to influence the Afghan government, as Joe Felter recently asked, how can the international community pull out of Afghanistan without “pulling the rug out” from under the Afghans?

The lessons of the Soviet experience are instructive.  Nearly forty years ago, following the Soviet Union’s entry into Afghanistan to support the communist regime, the United States began working with Pakistan to identify mujahidin willing to fight the Soviet occupation, and provide them with arms and funding.  Throughout its occupation, the Soviet Union focused on training, advising, and assisting Afghanistan’s communist-aligned military forces and police—particularly the internal police.  Once the Soviet Union collapsed under the weight of its own economic decay, it was unable to continue to support the Afghan security institutions.  After the withdrawal of Soviet forces in 1989, the United States shifted its attention away from the region.

Absent the attention of either the Soviets or the Americans, the warlords previously supported by the United States and Pakistan, known as the Peshawar Seven, initiated a bloody civil war with the regime and amongst themselves to remove Najibullah from power and assert control over the country.  Although they had achieved the first objective by 1992, at the cost of an estimated 50,000 Afghan civilians and most of Kabul’s infrastructure, the civil war continued, with the entry of the Taliban into the fray in 1994.  The Taliban, or students of the Koran, implemented a conservative and harsh interpretation of Sharia law with the establishment of This Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan in 1996.  Although the Pashtun people in the South and the East largely accepted Taliban rule, the Tajiks, Uzbeks, and Hazaras that comprised the Northern Alliance under Ahmad Shah Masoud continued to fight.

Reconciliation between the Taliban and the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan once again places the international community at an inflection point.  Following reconciliation, Afghans will be challenged to keep the international community interested – especially in maintaining the flow of funds that are crucial to the security architecture.  Further challenging the situation is the ongoing political crisis in Afghanistan—both Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah have declared victory in the September 2019 elections—and it remains to be seen how power could be shared between both presidential claimants and the Taliban.  With the likely presence of the Taliban in any future power-sharing arrangement, the international community should consider leaving a small presence of advisors in the ministries and institutions to preserve the gains of the past decade and serve an oversight function, ensuring that donor funds are expended in accordance with international priorities.

Contradictory Approaches

Critics of institutional advising in Afghanistan often suggest that corruption and patronage has contributed to the slow progress of the Ministries of Defense and Interior over the past two decades.  While corruption certainly plays a significant role, the answer is much more complex.  When President Bush took office, he had campaigned, in part, against the idea of nation-building.  The focus was on a direct approach to defeating al-Qa`ida and the Taliban, only later addressing the need to develop a functioning army and police force.  Rather than define clear objectives, politicians in Washington and Brussels instead deferred to military leadership in the field to develop approaches and identify progress.  As a result, military forces with relatively short deployment timelines have often focused more on the combat side of the mission than on institution-building.

While international forces spent the early years focused on the numbers of trained army and police, it wasn’t until 2008 that senior Pentagon officials realized that years of growing tactical formations were wasted unless processes at the ministerial and institutional levels supported and sustained these formations over the long term.  By 2010, nine years after the United States entered Afghanistan, the Department of Defense began to send trained advisors to support the development of institutional processes within the Ministries of Defense and Interior.  While early metrics for progress in Afghanistan focused on the numbers of army or police recruited and trained per month, today, institutional progress is often viewed through more complex metrics such as attrition rates or contracts awarded by the Afghan government.

Although advising at the tactical and operational level is nothing new – special operations forces have been doing this since their inception – long-term advising at the ministerial level in a semi-permissive environment is a relatively recent phenomenon.  As part of the Partnership for Peace initiative in the 1990s through the early 2000s, advisors from ministries or the defense regional schools, such as the Marshall Center, would provide instructional short courses on such subjects as the Planning, Programming, and Budgeting System or strategic planning.  Since it wasn’t possible to remove key leaders and their staffs from Afghanistan and Iraq for a year or more, it became necessary to find capable personnel with experience advising at senior levels to deploy.

Critics also charge that the United States has prioritized central governance over a more “pragmatic” approach (supporting local warlords).  When the United States overthrew the Taliban with its Northern Alliance partners in late 2001, it also dismantled the Taliban’s governing institutions.  Although the United States supported the establishment of a presidential democracy with Hamid Karzai at its head during the Bonn Conference in 2001, the subsequent establishment of Provincial Reconstruction Teams circumvented central government processes and thus shifted the power to the provinces.  President Karzai’s selection of regional warlords, such as Atta Noor in Mazar-e-Sharif, only served to reinforce this dynamic.  The growing strength of the provinces relative to the central government was demonstrated early in President Ashraf Ghani’s tenure, when Atta Noor’s refusal to give up his governorship resulted in his long tenure as an “acting governor.”

Once attention focused on growing central governance capacity, the international community found its own ability to advise at that level quite limited.  The advisory mission has often led to civil-military tensions, with military personnel often leading the institutional advisory mission, despite often lacking experience at the ministerial or institutional levels.  Similar inconsistencies in civilian advisor capacity, for a variety of reasons including misapplication of civilian skill sets, but most often a lack of awareness of the environment, has limited their effectiveness.  Generally speaking, however, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction has found that civilian advisors are better trained and capable of supporting the advisory mission than military or contract support.

The Problems of Withdrawing Advisors

Advocates of withdrawal argue that withdrawing advisors and focusing on the counterterrorism mission will allow the United States to focus its efforts on its vital national interests, and force the Afghans to do more for themselves—which is the only way they will improve.  Further, reconciliation between the government and the Taliban would allow troop contributing nations to draw down in Afghanistan and reinvest their forces elsewhere.

This argument presents several challenges.  First, reducing the advisory presence will threaten the cohesion of the coalition in Afghanistan if intra-Afghan negotiations do not lead to reconciliation.  This could lead nations to reduce their presence in Afghanistan in favor of other missions that are of higher priority to their own national security interests.  For example, Italy’s key national security interests are focused on Libya and Europe’s south, and a reduction of forces in Afghanistan would support its efforts in those locations.

Second, a reduction of the advisor presence, particularly in the Office of the National Security Council, the ministries, and the institutions, would pave the way for neighboring nations to increase their own influence in the Afghan government.  If the United States withdraws its advisory presence, opportunities would open for Russia, China, and Iran to extend their influence into the ministries and institutions.  If the United States is seeking to compete with Russia and China, it would be a mistake to cede influence where we have an established presence.

Third, withdrawing advisors would undermine efforts to improve the Afghan government’s long-term prospects for establishing institutions capable of securing territory and people from the threat of terrorism.  From a resource perspective, as terrorist threats are reduced, the international community’s presence should also decrease, while the local government’s ability to manage the problem should increase, leading to stability and improved prospects for economic prosperity.

Fourth, if the international community continues to provide funds to the Afghan government, advisors are a necessary component to ensure that those funds are spent wisely.  The presence of advisors will not prevent the misuse of funds; over the past two decades, the Special Investigator for Afghanistan Reconstruction has documented many instances of fraud, waste, and abuse.  However, their presence can serve as a deterrent to Afghans seeking to misuse funds, and, more importantly, continue to ensure that resource allocation decisions and processes are transparent and accountable.

Finally, there is a human component to the prospect of withdrawing advisors.  When Soviet forces departed Afghanistan in 1989, Najibullah’s government lasted only three more years before the country descended into civil war and led to the rise of the Taliban.  Visitors to Kabul today can see the visible reminders of the civil war, and no Afghan was left unaffected by it.  Helping Afghanistan to build a viable government capable of providing public services to its people is a responsible way of ensuring that Afghanistan does not again descend into civil war with the withdrawal of international forces.

Is There a Better Way?

So how can the United States protect its investment in Afghanistan?  Rather than retrench from advising at the ministerial level, the United States and international forces should “double down” on its advisory presence.  This doesn’t necessarily mean more advisors, but rather high-quality advisors, experts in their fields, trained to work with difficult personalities.  But Afghan must also have a reason to keep talking to advisors – the international community must continue its financial support to the Afghan government.

A key demand of the Taliban in the impending peace deal with the United States is the withdrawal of foreign forces, but they recognize the value of the continued interest of the international community, particularly in the form of monetary support.  The United States has asked the Taliban for assurances that they will deal with the threat of terrorism emanating from Afghanistan.  This is potentially a convergence of interests that would lead to a new relationship with the Afghan government post-reconciliation.

Under President Obama, the majority of United States and NATO forces were set to depart on December 31, 2016.  Presidential direction to draw down to an embassy-centric presence led planners to develop plans for a security cooperation office.  NATO’s corresponding plan, the enhancement of the Enduring Partnership, developed a concept for a small civilian-led, civil military advisory presence to focus on residual advisory tasks such as leadership development.  Although NATO’s decision to maintain the Resolute Support Mission beyond 2016 shelved those plans, they clearly recognized that foreign funds must be expended in alignment with foreign interests.  This presence has served a useful function at a strategic level, as it improves U.S. influence with the Afghan government.  Given the prospects for reconciliation following intra-Afghan negotiations, we are likely to see significant changes in personnel in the ministries.  The changes resulting from reconciliation could undermine the work and progress achieved over the past decade since international forces started focusing on ministerial and institutional-level advising.

Afghanistan has long been a unique theater for U.S. forces for many reasons, but it also plays host to the Combined Security Transition Command – Afghanistan, which manages the Afghan Security Forces Fund and most of the advising to the Ministries of Defense and Interior.  The presence of this command has meant that the traditional security cooperation functions run out of the embassy have been minimal over the past two decades.  If residual international forces following a peace deal focus on countering terrorism, the embassy should be prepared to enhance its own ability to manage foreign military funding and security cooperation activities, including advising, for the Afghan ministries.

Any potential shift of the advisory mission between military and diplomatic spheres comes with challenges and benefits, including for NATO’s mission in Afghanistan.  Given that NATO is a military alliance, and the Resolute Support Mission is a military-led non-combat advisory mission, what would such a shift by the United States mean for NATO?  Unfortunately, how NATO would respond is unclear, but the concept approved at the Warsaw Summit lends some confidence that arrangements could be worked out to ensure that NATO remains in some form to support its U.S. ally.  A clear benefit of such a shift, however, is a tighter linkage between U.S. political objectives in Afghanistan and the performance of the Afghan ministries.

The international community’s investments in Afghanistan over the past two decades have improved life expectancy, education, gender equality, and living standards in Afghanistan.  Clearly, there is a lot of room for improvement in all of these areas.  Following intra-Afghan negotiations, particularly if reconciliation is imminent, it would be a mistake to remove the ministerial advisor presence, opening prospects for Russian, Chinese, or Iranian influence instead.  If the United States chooses not continue to invest in its advisory presence in Afghanistan, it would best be regarded as a wasted opportunity.

About the Author(s)

Dr. Scott C. Buchanan has served multiple tours in Afghanistan, most recently as the Senior Advisor to the National Security Council.  The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of Defense or the U.S. Government.



Thu, 09/23/2021 - 9:55am

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Leaving Vietnam in 1973 is also illustrative.

Nixon had already stated his plan to rush out of South Vietnam and there was serious debate in the Dragon Court whether to delay the Easter Offensive of 1972 since they knew we were leaving the following year. They decided (Le Duan) otherwise and the largest offensive began in I Corps on March 30, 1972.

The same situation seems to apply in Afghanistan knowing when we're leaving and an almost certain knowledge that their army and air force are nowhere near ready to fight on their own, even if they are resupplied by the U.S. (which was not true in S. Vietnam as we left them to wilt on the vine).

"The international community’s investments in Afghanistan over the past two decades have improved life expectancy, education, gender equality, and living standards in Afghanistan."  

Point taken.  But what has the international community's investments in Afghanistan done for the rest of the international community?  The argument seems to be that if we or NATO don't maintain an advisory presence -- that is, influence -- within Afghanistan's government, then someone else will.  Is that necessarily a disadvantage?  After eliminating the AQ presence from the country, what else has the extended relationship with Afghanistan done for the U.S. or NATO?