25 August 2016

*** The Afghan War: Reshaping American Strategy and Finding Ways to Win

By Anthony H. Cordesman 
August 22, 2016 

When President Obama issued yet another statement regarding Afghanistan on July 6th,and once again delayed his plans to cut the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan, he took action that had already become almost inevitable. Even though he had announced his plan to cut U.S. troop levels to 5,500 by the end of 2016 less than a month earlier, a level of only 5,500 troops risked critically weakening Afghan forces and probably losing the war. Keeping the level at 8,400, however, is at best a half measure in meeting Afghanistan’s real needs. 

The United States needs a far more serious review of its strategy in Afghanistan. It needs a conditions-based military strategy that stops focusing on trying to keep deadlines for withdrawal and on total U.S. troop levels, but instead focuses on what it takes to deal with the facts on the ground in Afghanistan and actually win. It needs a strategy that can build sustained public and Congressional support, and provide a proper legacy for the next president. It needs a strategy that can at least try to avoid making Afghanistan an unnecessary pawn in the bitter presidential campaign and to give the Afghans a clear incentive to make critical reforms. 

At the same time, the United States needs a strategy that fully recognizes that counterinsurgency warfare has a civil dimension as important as the military one. If the U.S. needs to provide military support that reflects the actual state of conditions in the war, it also needs to impose “conditionality” on an Afghan government and political structure that has kept Afghanistan as the equivalent of a corrupt failed state. Indeed, the host country regime the U.S. and its allies are seeking to protect has become as much of a threat to creating a meaningful outcome to the fighting as the Taliban and other declared enemies. 

This does not mean seeking to transform Afghanistan into a modern Western state. Wasting money on such efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan has proved to be a dismal and expensive failure. It does, however mean paying attention to the fact that there has been a revolution in military affairs in conventional warfare, but counterinsurgency and irregular/asymmetric wars have to been won at the civil-military level, and require a revolution in civil-military affairs. 

“Nation building” does not require the U.S. to take on “mission impossible” in transforming other states, but it does mean making U.S. military and civil aid and support dependent on the Afghan government showing they have achieved enough political unity to actually win a war and serve the Afghan people. This starts with cutting corruption and power brokering to functional levels, and actually implementing Afghan economic reform plans rather than endlessly recycling the intention to act. 

Imposing conditions on other states is scarcely popular with aid donors and even less so with recipients. However, the functional and ethical needs to impose conditions are too clear in the case of failed states. What passes for non-interference leaves the nation’s people without support and buys time for failed regimes to make things worse. 

This conditionality should also involve strategic triage, rather than – as Hans Morgenthau pointed out decades ago – giving way to the American tendency to turn war into a moral crusade where the enemy is demonized and the ally’s limitations are ignored. The U.S. has many competing domestic needs and other strategic priorities. The U.S. should not withdraw if it can find a cost-effective way to win that matches the strategic value of an effort that is now taking place in a state at the margin of U.S. strategic interest and is no longer the center of a far broader terrorist threat. 

As Robert Osgood also pointed out in the 1950s – at the height of the Cold War – limited wars are wars the U.S. can afford to leave or lose. A U.S. departure from Afghanistan would not materially impact global perceptions of a war that has already been too long and too uncertain for world opinion to see it as critical. There is also a reasonable chance that states like China and Russia would be forced to act, Pakistan could be ignored, and that Afghanistan would be caught up in internal power struggles that would keep any given extremist movement from becoming a major threat to the U.S. and its allies. 

It is unclear that further progress can be made under the Obama Administration. What is clear is that the Administration has other priorities and that it feels it has already taken steps that will make the Afghan War a legacy for the next President that will come to office in 2017. In spite of the debates of past years, Afghanistan is simply not a critical item on the present U.S. political agenda. 

It is one of the many ironies of the current Presidential campaign that the United States is now involved in five wars: Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and Libya. Three of these wars—Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria—involve serious U.S. military commitments that began in 2001, 2003, 2014 respectively, and all will clearly last far beyond the end of the Obama Administration. Yet, none of these wars has become the subject of serious policy discussion or debate in the 2016 campaigns, or a key focus of either Clinton or Trump. Each war continues without a full discussion or debate over the strategic goals the United States has in fighting such wars and how they can be ended. 

The focus on the Afghan war has been largely on how to cut the U.S. effort. The focus on Iraq, Syria, and Libya has been on defeating ISIS with no clear picture for what each state should become, what will happen to its divided sectarian and ethnic factions, how Iranian and Russian influence can be limited, how they will interact with their neighbors, or what will emerge in terms of terrorism or extremism once ISIS is driven out of its “caliphate” and dispersed. The focus in Yemen has been on helping the Saudi-UAE led coalition to defeat the Houthi-Saleh coalition and restore the “elected” government without any clear focus on what comes next. 

If the U.S. is to be ready for more effective action in 2017, however, at least decision makers directly involved in the Afghan war need to look beyond the time-buying compromises that have been made to date. Action in Afghanistan has long lead times, and the U.S. has focused largely on the military dimension of the conflict to the exclusion of taking effective action on the civil side. The Congress has failed to carry out its mission of properly evaluating how U.S. resources are being allocated and spent, and official U.S. reporting on the war lacks a focus on effective action. If the U.S. is to be ready for more effective action in 2017, it needs to consider its options now as well as plans for change. It also needs to move from deadline-based efforts at the military level to conditions-based efforts and recognize that action on the civil side is urgent and means-making aid conditional on Afghan reform. 

This report is entitled “The Afghan War: Reshaping American Strategy and Finding Ways to Win", and is available on the CSIS website at https://csis-prod.s3.amazonaws.com/s3fs-public/publication/160822_Afghan_War_Reshaping_US_Strategy.pdf

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