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For Afghanistan, A Wind Of Change From Washington
Posted by on December 8th, 2010

From our partners at

 A Guest Post by Keith Boyea

The Washington political winds have changed, but unless you closely observed such things, you may not have felt the breeze. Yesterday, the Center for a New American Security (CNAS), a well-connected Washington DC think tank, released a report on Afghanistan titled, Responsible Transition. The report lays out a strategy for the United States to lessen its investment in Afghanistan while still securing America’s interests in the region.

The report is good news for people like me who want to end the Afghan war, because it signals a change in thinking for very serious people that make up the Washington consensus. That’s probably the best thing that can be said about the report: In the tenth year of war in Afghanistan, the Washington elites are finally considering ways to bring it to an end.

With that faint praise aside, the report’s “Balanced Strategy” for exiting Afghanistan consists of a three tiered political approach and a military transition from US led to Afghan led operations. I’ll argue that none of these approaches will work and that the United States should work to extricate itself from Afghanistan far in advance of the 2014 sustainability date laid out in the report.

The authors, David Barno and Andrew Exum, begin their political approach with what they call a “Top-Down Approach.” They spend several paragraphs pointing out just how impossible the Afghan government really is. According to the report, 69 percent of the Afghan government is financed by foreign governments, and since President Karzai took office in 2002, “Vast outlays of international resources have been wasted, stolen, and diverted…” In 2009, Afghanistan was rated the most corrupt country in the world.

The prescription for this problem, according to the report, seems to be a revamped economic strategy. The authors trot out the old and discredited arguments about the benefits of road building, and call attention to the vast mineral wealth recently discovered in Afghanistan; even though some experts say extracting those minerals would require 10 years and a billion dollars, assuming security conditions were safe enough to begin work. Additionally, the authors call for the development of a “functioning legal system that makes investment attractive to both Afghan entrepreneurs and foreign investors.” Regrettably, the International Crisis Group says, “Afghanistan’s justice system is in a catastrophic state of disrepair.”

Barno and Exum then suggest a “Bottom-Up Approach” that compliments the top down approach. “The United States should now adopt a stronger bottom-up approach to governance, investing in those local power structures and leaders who best represent the local populations, in lieu of the Kabul-centric approach favored until now.” This makes at least one area expert uncomfortable, and rightly so. Pouring significant resources in to local power brokers risks putting the locals at odds with the American installed government in Kabul. The authors recognize this risk and good on them for that. It isn’t clear, though, how the United States can cultivate local governance without alienating the national government in Kabul.

The third leg of the political approach focuses on Pakistan. The report rightly recognizes the double game the Pakistanis have been playing in regards to Afghanistan, and calls for the United States to take a tougher stand—publically if necessary—with Pakistan. However, if the recent Wikileaks released cables have taught us anything, it is that American influence in Pakistan is more limited than anyone previously believed. Threatening Pakistan with military action is more counterproductive than anything; a recent American raid into Pakistan caused the Pakistanis to block a key American supply line into Afghanistan. Additionally, pressuring Pakistan to “do more” has been a piece of advice issued by nearly everyone—this really isn’t new.

While the political strategy is merely problematic, the military transition plan is complete fantasy. According to the report, “The overall concept of operations is to bring the U.S. and allied military power down …to a smaller and more sustainable number while largely substituting Afghan National Security Forces trained and advised by the United States and its NATO allies…” The fantasy in that statement is that the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) is unlikely to be ready to take on such a task in any acceptable time frame.

In June 2010, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) found (.pdf) that NATO had consistently overrated the ANSF’s capabilities. The SIGAR report also documented other deficiencies including, “logistics problems, personnel attrition, inadequate personnel authorizations, infrastructure challenges, corruption, and drug abuse and illiteracy.” The low capability of the ANSF is evidenced in their performance. In what was to be a showcase of ANA capability, in August of this year, the Afghan National Army led an operation that the New York Times dubbed a “debacle.”

Capability aside, the size of the ANSF is a perpetual concern. Growing the ANSF to raw numbers large enough to take over the fight will be, well, challenging. According to the man in charge of training the ANSF, Lt Gen Bill Caldwell, NATO would have to train 141,000 new soldiers and police in order to grow the force by 56,000 by October of 2011. That is a staggering number—over 13 months NATO would have to train about two and a half times the number of soldiers they actually need.

So, if the political strategy is problematic, and the military strategy is a fantasy, how should we think about this report? I am of the opinion that this report is somewhat of a correcting measure for CNAS. Last year, CNAS published a report called Triage (.pdf) which advocated a population-centric counterinsurgency (COIN) strategy. CNAS advocated COIN even though all the factors I described above were evident at the time Triage was published. President Obama took their advice and agreed to a somewhat more modest COIN campaign. Unfortunately, but not unexpectedly, the COIN campaign failed to change the conditions in Afghanistan. Think about that: Just 14 months ago, CNAS argued for a resource intensive, long term COIN campaign in Afghanistan and now they are searching for ways to get out. In that respect, this new report is the closest you’ll ever get to an admission of failure by DC insiders.

Lastly, I think the report misses some serious consequences for the United States if it chooses to stay in Afghanistan through 2014. 2014 happens to be the end of Hamid Karzai’s second term as President of Afghanistan. He is constitutionally limited to two terms, but President Karzai does not have a reputation for rationality. Karzai may put the United States in the very uncomfortable position of running for an unconstitutional third term. Even if Karzai steps aside, “every election in Afghanistan has been worse than the one before.” While some may see this as a call to stay and oversee the 2014 election, I see it as a potential for another four years of heavy American involvement in Afghanistan. The best case scenario for 2014 is one in which the election is only half-way corrupt. The temptation for the American policy making elite will be to re-affirm the United States’ commitment to Afghanistan, which would keep American troops in Afghanistan for many more years. This is to be avoided, as the United States should envision a world without any troops in Afghanistan. Pie-in-the-sky? Maybe, but it is something CNAS doesn’t even consider.

Our guest blogger today is Keith Boyea, a graduate student at Georgetown University studying international affairs and an Air Force veteran of OIF and OEF.

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