Briefing Book

Slouching Toward 2011

President Obama's Afghanistan withdrawal timetable is running up against a hard reality: Afghan forces are nowhere near ready to take responsibility for their country's security.

Creating Afghan forces that can help win the war and take over responsibility from U.S. and international forces is only one element of President Barack Obama's new strategy in Afghanistan, but it is a critical one. So far, the results are mixed and raise serious questions about both the impact of trying to rush progress to meet political deadlines, and the failure of America's allies to provide enough trainers to create an effective and enduring force. A detailed analysis of Afghan force development, based on interviews, reports by the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), and in-country visits, indicates that significant problems remain in every aspect of the effort.

There has been significant progress in the development of the Afghan National Army (ANA), which will be ready to begin transition in mid-2011. Major challenges remain, however, in developing its combat elements and transforming it into a fully balanced force with the Ministry of Defense, higher command, training, specialized branches, and logistics and sustainability needed to transition from ISAF support to taking over full responsibility for military operations.

This does not mean that a critical pillar of the new strategy will fail, but this remains possible. It will also become probable if a rush to create larger force numbers is given priority over force quality and if the army's development is not given the time and resources needed to create a force that can survive combat and current rates of attrition.

The NATO Training Mission in Afghanistan (NTM-A) and the U.S. Combined Security Transition Command-Afghanistan (CSTC-A) -- which are now integrated for all effective purposes -- remain seriously understaffed, and large numbers of the "trainers" now in place are U.S. troops with no specialized background or experience assigned to fill slots.

As recent reports from the training mission indicate, this situation will get worse before it gets better for both the ANA and Afghan National Police. Both forces face a massive shortage of specialized trainers. These trainers are vital to creating a force with the new skill levels needed to allow the army and police to operate on their own. Only nine skilled trainers (1.1 percent of the NATO/ISAF requirement) are now in place to meet a near-term requirement for 819, and 442 (54 percent) of the total have not even been pledged. It seems very doubtful that the army can become a force that is fully capable of independent operations and begin serving as the base for transition to Afghan-led operations by mid-2011. A time frame of 2012 to 2015 seems far more realistic.

Moreover, as the Afghan National army grows and matures, data on numbers trained become less and less important relative to reporting and mapping of where Afghan combat formations like the battalion-sized kandaks and "enablers" are actually present, effective, and not corrupt or tied to local power brokers. As critical as training is, the rapid cycle of training -- and continuing problems with attrition -- ensure that it is now how units mature in the field, how well they are partnered, and how well they retain their strength and combat effectiveness that count far more than the numbers trained or virtually meaningless data like the total number of ANA troops, regardless of quality or attrition rates -- a figure that threatens to win the latest "meaningless politicized metrics" award in Afghanistan. The new system for measuring the effectiveness of the Afghan national security forces, if honestly applied, seems to be a step in the right direction, but also holds the potential to become just another piece of meaningless propaganda.

The situation with the Afghan National Police is far more uncertain. It simply is not clear that current plans and resources for the development of the police are adequate. The most capable paramilitary elements (the Afghan National Civil Order Police, or ANCOP) are still part of a small force that suffers from serious levels of attrition, and it is not clear that an effective plan yet exists to create an enduring force of the size that is needed to cover the country.

More seriously, the overall mission effectiveness of the majority of the force (specifically the regular Afghan National Police (ANP) and Afghan Border Police (ABP) is extremely uncertain. The ANP and ABP are being structured in ways that make them unlikely to overcome the critical problems with warlords and corruption that often make them more of a threat than the Taliban and the tools of power brokers or whoever has political influence and money. Ther are no linked credible efforts to support the police with either the other elements of an effective justice system or the quality of civil governance necessary to win popular support for the police. To put it bluntly, the overall effort to develop Afghanistan's national police force seems to be a triumph of hope over experience.

These problems are disguised by an almost absurd ISAF reporting system that does not show basic information such as maps of the areas where the police are estimated to be present, functional, and not corrupt or tied to a power broker. In any case, reporting on police presence alone is meaningless as a measure of the ability to implement the new strategy unless it is tied to assessment of whether courts, the rest of the justice system, and governance are in place to make civil policing possible and tied to assessments of who controls the prompt justice system that most Afghan see -- and need -- from day to day.

Despite Obama's July 2011 "time frame" for beginning to shift responsibility to the Afghans, there is a significant probability that Afghanistan's national security forces will not be ready for any major transfer until well after 2011. Only an effective police force and a swift, trustworthy justice system will give President Hamid Karzai's government the ability to hold ground and build the support of the Afghan people. Unfortunately, Afghanistan is still far from producing either.

The good news is that the financial resources and the facilities necessary to create an effective Afghan army are now largely in place. The bad news is that critical problems remain in providing the training mission with all of the trainers it needs, both in terms of the number of trainers and their experience and quality. These problems might grow worse over the coming six months: ISAF countries often do not deliver on their pledges and "firm commitments," and specialized trainers may well not be available to give Afghan forces the new skill sets and capabilities they now lack. Equally serious problems exist in the quality of partnering and mentoring in the field, in developing effective systems to give Afghan units time to train and go on leave once they are committed, and in dealing with the problems of corruption and powerbrokers once units are in the field.

These problems can be overcome, but they require resources, patience, and focus -- qualities that have been in short supply during the nine long years of the Afghan war.

The most serious danger is that artificial political deadlines will cripple a development program that could otherwise succeed. The effort to create effective Afghan forces, particularly forces that can largely replace the U.S. and allied forces, must overcome nearly a decade of critical failures in force development and training, not to mention failures in the broader course of the U.S. effort in Afghanistan.

The United States and its allies will lose the war if they try to expand Afghan forces too quickly, create forces with inadequate force quality, and decouple Afghan force development from efforts to deal with the broad weakness in Afghan governance and the Afghan justice system. U.S. politicians, policymakers, and military leaders must accept this reality --and persuade the Afghan government and America's allies to act accordingly -- or the mission in Afghanistan will fail.

Majid Saeedi/Getty Images

Briefing Book

Nukes Forever

Barack Obama is spending billions to maintain and upgrade America's nuclear weapons. But his opponents say it's not enough. Will they ever be satisfied?

Sixty-five years ago, scientists working in a secret city in northern New Mexico journeyed south to yet another secret location to test their "gadget." J. Robert Oppenheimer, head of the Manhattan Project, reacted to the atomic explosion that shattered the predawn desert silence by simply saying, "It worked."

The "secret city" was Los Alamos, home to the Los Alamos National Laboratory, the lab that produced the Little Boy and  Fat Man atomic bombs that were exploded over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, respectively. The lab became the star of the U.S. Cold War nuclear weapons complex; its scientists designed the hydrogen bomb and multiple other warheads. To establish a healthy atmosphere of competition, a second nuclear weapons laboratory, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, was established near San Francisco. The exclamation "it worked" has probably been uttered by nuclear designers many hundreds of times since.

Under heavy public and congressional pressure, the United States ended its program of nuclear testing in September 1992, and President Bill Clinton signed the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty four years later, barring all nuclear explosions, military or otherwise. The Senate failed to ratify the treaty, but the United States has still honored what Clinton called the "longest-sought and hardest-fought-for arms-control treaty in history."

The U.S. moratorium on nuclear testing was a major turning point for the nuclear weapons complex. It meant that, without the ability to conduct nuclear tests, the labs would still have to be able to answer the questions: Will it work? How well will it work? What sorts of programs do we have to ensure that it will work? These questions form the nexus of the nuclear warhead "modernization" debate, which is now becoming a point of contention in the political battle over the ratification of President Barack Obama's new strategic arms treaty with Russia, known as New START. As we'll see, the treaty's opponents have created the false impression that Obama isn't doing enough to maintain America's fearsome nuclear arsenal, when in fact he's throwing billions into the effort -- even, arguably, expanding it despite his pledge to work toward a world free of nuclear weapons.

Since the moratorium on testing began, the Energy Department has managed the United States' 9,613 remaining nuclear weapons through its subagency, the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), under the Stockpile Stewardship and Management Plan (formerly the Stockpile Stewardship Program). This plan relies on a range of scientific techniques to certify and maintain the nuclear arsenal. A direct result of these experimental and computational developments has been the NNSA's Life Extension Programs. Using a variety of physical, chemical, and mathematical methods, the NNSA's scientists identify potential problems associated with aging in each type of warhead and remedy them by replacing parts and refurbishing the weapons as necessary. All this is accomplished without underground testing or building entirely new warheads; the latter was actually proposed at one point by George W. Bush's administration, but Congress refused to fund it. Maintaining the stockpile requires regularly taking apart some of the weapons to look for signs of aging, especially in the plutonium and uranium components -- hence why the NNSA's complex of capabilities also includes the production of plutonium "pits" (the essential "trigger" for a thermonuclear bomb) and uranium processing facilities.

When the Obama administration submitted New START to the Senate, it was also required by law to submit a classified "Section 1251 report" describing how the nuclear complex will be maintained and modernized over the next decade. Independent studies have proved time and time again that the Life Extension Programs and the Stockpile Stewardship and Management Plan are working, and that the arsenal will be stable and reliable for decades to come. Many lawmakers, as well as the Obama administration, have thus made the argument that strengthening the Life Extension Programs and providing $80 billion over 10 years for the Stockpile Stewardship and Management Plan and all associated facilities within the nuclear weapons complex is the most sensible way to answer the "modernization" question. The unclassified version of the Section 1251 report, as well as the Stockpile Stewardship and Management Plan, reflect this.

But there are a vocal few who consistently argue that whatever funding is provided for the nuclear security complex simply won't be enough. Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) is the loudest of these opposing voices. After he and several other Republican senators paid a visit to Los Alamos and Sandia National Laboratories at the end of July, he held a news conference on Capitol Hill in which he demanded $10 billion more on top of all the funding that has already been proposed by the Obama administration. He was vague about the money, saying it was necessary, "so that we know that this program is not going to go for a while and peter out," but he didn't clarify exactly what he thinks the additional funding will do. His arguments seem to boil down to two things: a different definition of "modernization" and simply wanting new warheads and possibly even new testing.

Kyl and like-minded policy analysts consistently define modernization as the production of new weapons and new strategic delivery systems. Kyl uses this definition to present the argument that U.S. nuclear systems are dangerously behind the times, and therefore the only way to catch up with the rest of the world is to build new nuclear weapons. His argument has been debunked in a number of ways, most notably that the United States is doing everything short of making new weapons and has also budgeted for extensive modernization of its strategic delivery systems (ballistic missiles, submarines, and bombers). The Obama administration has even hedged on the no-new-nuclear-weapons pledge that it presented in this year's Nuclear Posture Review and has stated that though new warheads are not needed, it is leaving options open for a "full range of [Life Extension Program] approaches," including warhead replacement. In essence, this provides a considerable range of options for the president -- with congressional approval, of course. It's also worth pointing out that the top budget priorities for the U.S. nuclear weapons complex, as defined by the most recent Stockpile Stewardship and Management Plan, are new plutonium pit facilities at Los Alamos and new uranium processing facilities at Y-12 in Oak Ridge, Tenn.

Clearly, the Obama administration has seen to it that the U.S. nuclear weapons arsenal will be funded, maintained, and even expanded over the next 10 years.

So, why isn't this enough for the opposition? Presumably, the only thing that will mollify Kyl and others would be new warheads. During the Bush administration, they almost got them, when Congress initiated a program to explore the design of a completely new nuclear warhead, the first new hydrogen bomb designed in almost 20 years. The warhead became known as the Reliable Replacement Warhead (RRW) because it was supposed to replace older warheads and would be made from components that had already been tested, thus (theoretically) reducing the need for new testing. But the Bush administration discovered that the political, technical, and strategic issues of making a new nuclear warhead and planning for its deployment as an integral part of the U.S. nuclear deterrent were more complex than it had predicted. For example, a study by an independent defense science advisory panel known as the JASON group concluded that there was no guarantee that the new warhead wouldn't have to be tested. And though it would be put together from existing components, the United States would actually be building new bombs -- making Washington less credible in its efforts to pressure new and would-be proliferators to give up their nuclear programs. Congress ultimately refused to fund the RRW in 2008.

There is always the possibility that the RRW will be resurrected; the Nuclear Posture Review doesn't even explicitly exclude the possibility of an RRW-like warhead. It's not hard to imagine that some time in the future, another presidential administration and a different Congress will put the new manufacturing facilities at Los Alamos and Oak Ridge to use as part of a plan for new nuclear warheads. Everything will be in place, ready for Kyl's flavor of modernization. And because the Pentagon has emphasized that it is already upgrading and rebuilding key strategic nuclear delivery systems (including completely rebuilding the Minuteman III missile and upgrading its warheads to more powerful ones, and upgrading strategic bombers), it's fairly clear that the U.S. nuclear deterrent will be a force to be reckoned with for decades to come -- all despite Obama's idealistic vision of a nuclear-free world.

So, regardless of how the opposing sides define modernization, both factions should be pleased with what they're getting as the final package. That's why the treaty has garnered the support of everyone from the directors of the national laboratories and the NNSA to many key military figures and nuclear strategy experts. Opposition to the treaty simply doesn't make sense at this point; after all the hearings and all of the technical analyses, opposing it just looks like cynical, transparent partisan maneuvering. There is no reason to object to the treaty on the basis of the question, "Will the arsenal work?" There's enough money in the pipeline for it to "work" for many, many years to come.