Anthony Cordesman and Adam Mausner: A Race Against Time
Our recent trip to Afghanistan revealed that the U.S.-led coalition is much better resourced and has a far more realistic grasp of the problems facing them than in previous years. The International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) has achieved major tactical successes in the south, clearing and holding much of the former Taliban heartland -- and ISAF is unlikely to lose this territory in the near term. By 2014, much of the country outside Kabul will probably still have nonexistent, inefficient, or corrupt governance -- but a number of good programs and good people are in place working on this and progress is being made. The Afghan economy, while deeply troubled, is also improving.
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It was all too clear from our visit, however, that ISAF is in a race -- a race against time, resources, and the enemy -- that it simply may not win. Aid funding will probably peak in fiscal year 2012 and decline substantially thereafter. Military and civilian personnel will begin to withdraw this year and will continue to do so through 2014. Without substantive and demonstrable progress in the next year, resources are likely to drop even faster.
The realism we encountered among senior leaders in Kabul was reassuring, and programs have been put in place to deal with almost all the major problems facing the war effort. Although these programs hold great potential, potential does not win wars.
But even if many of the current efforts are successful in Afghanistan, there are several long-term problems with the overall strategy that still need to be addressed:
1. COIN vs. CT
This debate is not one of tactics. These two strategies -- counterinsurgency (COIN) and counterterrorism (CT) -- are different in their grand strategic goals. The counterinsurgency strategy is far more ambitious. It aims to gradually build up the Afghan government while degrading the insurgency so that eventually the Afghans can take over the bulk of the fighting while their government remains stable and their economy develops at least enough to maintain this stability.
The counterterrorism strategy dispenses with most of this and aims to prevent terrorist groups from forming sanctuaries in Afghanistan through Special Forces raids, building up Afghan security forces, and drone strikes. A CT strategy will dramatically lower the aid given to the Afghan government and economy. This is why senior leaders in Afghanistan were almost universally against the CT strategy -- it will essentially abandon most of the programs they have been working on for years.
The COIN vs. CT debate is thus the wrong debate. These are not two comparable strategies that aim to achieve the same goals with different means. These are two different strategies with different goals. The White House needs to determine what its goals are in Afghanistan and whether they are achievable given resource constraints -- backed by substantive analysis and a full assessment by U.S. and ISAF commanders.
The deteriorating situation in Pakistan has revealed another fundamental problem with the current strategy in Afghanistan. Pakistan is much more important than Afghanistan in virtually every way: It is larger; it has a significant number of terrorist training camps and sanctuaries, including for al Qaeda; and, perhaps most significantly, it has nuclear weapons. The United States can no longer depend on Pakistan cooperating in its border region and moving against militants on its territory. More importantly, the United States must come to terms with the very real possibility that Pakistan may become a failed state in the medium term. A failed or failing state with nuclear weapons and multiple anti-American terrorist groups operating freely is a U.S. national security nightmare and must be prevented at all costs.
There was a growing disconnect between the transition planning of various coalition efforts and the potential of the Afghan government's negotiations with the insurgents to render them moot. Negotiations may result in the Taliban joining the Afghan government, gaining autonomy in parts of Afghanistan, forcing an accelerated withdrawal of U.S. troops or even aid personnel, or restricting women's rights and other human rights in all or part of the country. Negotiations may even restrict U.S. basing options, which could prevent even the more limited CT strategy from working.
4. TRANSITIONING TO WHAT?
Almost without exception, every program we saw in Afghanistan had at least a conceptual transition plan, and many had far more than concepts. Yet it is still unclear how all these plans knit together to ensure any kind of lasting "victory" once transition takes place. What is lacking is an overall picture of what Afghanistan will look like in 2014 and exactly how ISAF's transition plan will get it there.
COIN in Afghanistan is winnable. Given a great deal of resources, a flexible leadership, and several more years, the current strategy can succeed. But at this point resources and time are running out. Senior leaders were realistic about the problems facing them, and many recognized that they were in a race against time, resources, and the enemy. But few fully realize that they are now losing this race.
This does not mean that the current strategy cannot succeed within resource limits. It means that Washington must determine what its end goals are in Afghanistan, whether they are achievable, and what resources it is willing to spend to achieve them. The United States should not promote a comprehensive COIN strategy and then under resource it. Nor should U.S. leaders enact a CT strategy and expect all the results that only a COIN strategy can achieve. But a decision must be made, and once made it must be swiftly carried out -- because the enemy has already made its decision.
Anthony Cordesman holds the Burke chair in strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) and is the author of more than 70 books on military affairs. Adam Mausner is a research associate and program manager at CSIS and is the author of five books on Afghanistan and Iraq. Cordesman and Mausner recently released a detailed report on their recent trip to Afghanistan, from which this article is drawn.