September 1, 2012  

No time to go wobbly in Afghanistan

Focus on stability, not exit deadlines

In a parody of Army Gen. David Petraeus’ famous assessment of progress in Afghanistan — “fragile and reversible” — the transition process there is fragile and irreversible. There is no turning back. Propelled by the logic of war, economic necessity and war weariness, the allies — the U.S., the 50 nations of the International Security Assistance Force and Afghanistan — are force-marching toward a new strategic paradigm.

In May, President Hamid Karzai announced his forces would soon have the security lead in areas containing three-quarters of the Afghan population. By mid-2013, the Afghan National Security Forces will take the lead in security nationwide, and by December 2014, the ISAF expeditionary force will leave. After 2014, a few thousand members of a new, not yet agreed upon, NATO-based command will only enable, train, advise and support its Afghan partners.

In my assessment, informed by trips to Afghanistan in the summers of 2011 and 2012, transition efforts to date are a collection of accomplishments, complex issues and continuing structural problems. The need for dedicated, creative leadership within the alliance has never been greater.


Among the most significant accomplishments in the transition has been the U.S.-Afghan Strategic Partnership Agreement, followed by similar agreements between Kabul and other allies, as well as China. The world now understands that the U.S.-Afghan-NATO effort will not end in 2014 but, rather, continue until 2024. There won’t be any 1990-style abandonment of the Afghans.

The White House noted: “In this agreement, we commit ourselves to the sovereignty, independence, territorial integrity and national unity of Afghanistan. The agreement is not only a signal of the United States’ long-term commitment to Afghanistan, but it enshrines our commitments to one another and a common vision for our relationship and Afghanistan’s future. U.S. commitments to support Afghanistan’s social and economic development, security, institutions and regional cooperation are matched by Afghan commitments to strengthen accountability, transparency [and] oversight and to protect the human rights of all Afghans — men and women.”

The Chicago Summit Declaration pledged NATO’s “firm commitment to a sovereign, secure and democratic Afghanistan.” Human rights and the decent treatment of women will not be sacrificed on the altar of expediency. At Chicago, the NATO nations pledged to spend $4.1 billion per year to support the ANSF, with the Europeans contributing more than a billion dollars and the Afghans half that.

By this fall, U.S. forces in country will come down from a high of more than 100,000 personnel to 68,000. What happens after that will be the subject of ISAF commander Marine Gen. John Allen’s next assessment.

There has been military progress on many fronts. Afghan and ISAF surge forces have thwarted the enemy, and the number of enemy attacks is down for the first time in years. Moreover, enemy tactics that once featured serious attacks are limited to improvised explosive devices and noisy demonstration attacks, most of which have been easily handled by Afghan forces. Night raids and drone attacks have taken their toll on enemy leadership, and bickering between enemy field commanders and their leadership, safe in Pakistan, has become common. Army Lt. Gen. Mike Scaparrotti, the outgoing commander of ISAF Joint Command, told the Pentagon press corps in June that, while Afghan forces approach 350,000 police officers and soldiers, enemy forces are down from 30,000 to 20,000; 5,000 former insurgents are in the reintegration pipeline; and ISAF-caused civilian casualties were down “by over 52 percent in the past year.” Other experts place great faith in the Afghan Local Police, who are tribesmen trained by allied special operations forces and supervised by the Ministry of the Interior. They will soon be 30,000 strong and could become an important adjunct to the national Army and police.

Afghan Army and police training is much improved, with noticeable progress in marksmanship and literacy. Desertion rates and absenteeism are down. Afghan commanders at all echelons are shifting from U.S.-style systems to ones more appropriate to Afghan organizations and levels of funding. They are learning to use the resources in their organizations to get the job done. While in 2010, Afghan advisers were actively helping their counterparts, this year the dominant theme for advisers is Afghan self-reliance, reinforced by a dose of tough love on the part of allied personnel. Resupply is now exclusively through Afghan channels. Borrowing ISAF helicopters is “out,” and running ground convoys with organic vehicles is “in.” The Army, police and provincial government authorities are also working more closely together through Operational Coordination Centers at the province and region levels.


Still, however, the logistics and support systems, adequate on paper, are sluggish and not “customer-oriented.” People in the field often find themselves waiting for higher echelons or the ministries to complete their onerous paperwork to move supplies that are actually plentiful.

On the U.S. end, we overbuilt the infrastructure for the Afghan Army and police, relying too much on fuel-guzzling generators to provide electricity. Too often, we let Western specifications get in the way of common sense and local standards. To facilitate the Afghan surge, we built numerous police and military training centers, which the Afghans will soon need to shut down, alter or curtail. In the past year, more Afghan-style buildings have been built, and the Afghans have begun to address the problems of redundant training infrastructure.

Leadership is a continuing problem. The Afghan system has too many less-than-dynamic, often older officers, especially in major headquarters and training centers. In the short run, the ministries will have to put more attention on moving the more dynamic officers into the key command and staff billets. In the long term, wiser heads will have to figure out how to retire the less dynamic who have served honorably for many years. Some of them would no doubt make excellent civil servants, an entity with less talent than the uniformed forces. The Afghan civil bureaucracy remains a giant step behind the security ministries and also needs help.

Enablers — those capabilities that allow a light unit to maximize its combat powers — are short among Afghan forces. Engineers, counter-IED capabilities, artillery and transport helicopters are in short supply. Close-air support is a particular sore point. The Afghan Air Force was last out of the development chute, and it is at an adolescent stage compared with the Army and police. Worse, a contract dispute has held up the purchase of light air support turboprop aircraft for the AAF. Solving this problem will be critical to the performance and confidence of Afghan forces. Proliferating artillery pieces will prove only a partial solution, one that will likely increase civilian casualties. Allied assets after 2014 may be needed to close this gap.

This transition is taking place in the middle of the fighting season. Spirited battles continue in the south and the east, with better circumstances — “a glass more than half full,” according to one Marine commander— in Regional Command Southwest, centered on Helmand province. The German-controlled north and the Italian-controlled west of Afghanistan are calmer than in the past year, and some areas around Herat are downright peaceful.

Despite the progress, U.S. and allied commanders are nervous about redeploying combat elements during the fighting season. One battle-hardened, senior officer told me in May: “They haven’t kicked off the fighting season yet, and I am already pulling folks off the battlefield.” U.S. commanders do not want to risk their hard-won gains. They would like more troops for a longer period of time. At the same time, they realize that transition in their area of responsibility is a fast-moving train. The imperative of bringing Afghan forces up to standard has never been clearer. Closing the gap between U.S.-style arrangements and “Afghan good enough” is a big part of that challenge.

Overall, on the security end, the transition is making good progress, but war is the extension of politics. Military affairs in Afghanistan will be strongly affected by international and domestic political and economic issues. Indeed, problems in these areas will hinder security transition and may, if the alliance is not careful, derail it.

The most significant set of the international problems comes from Pakistan. With 180 million people and nuclear weapons, Pakistan carries great weight in the region. It is obsessed with India and worried about its own territorial integrity. It strongly desires high levels of influence, if not control, over Afghanistan. Pakistan’s economic and political systems are dysfunctional. The elected civil government is weak and in conflict with its dominant military partner. Pakistan is fighting its own costly insurgency against the Pakistani Taliban in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas and contiguous areas. The government and people of Pakistan have suffered more casualties in the war on terrorism than any other nation. At the same time, Islamabad provides a safe haven for the Afghan Taliban, and it uses terrorist groups and parts of the Afghan Taliban, like the Haqqani network, to carry out its policy in Afghanistan. Complicating things, the Pakistani Taliban and other radical groups are creating havoc in Pakistan for political or sectarian reasons. In early June, a Pakistani Taliban group attacked Pakistani security forces from a hideout in Afghanistan, killing more than a dozen and beheading a number of Pakistani soldiers.

The U.S. and Pakistan have had a number of disputes, including cross-border incidents, the Osama bin Laden raid and drone attacks. All of these incidents were seen in Islamabad as an affront to Pakistani sovereignty. By January, bilateral relations had hit rock bottom. Pakistan closed ISAF’s best ground lines of communication into Afghanistan. This cost the U.S. and its partners a few billion dollars but has not resulted in supply problems. Pakistan also stalled reconciliation efforts, perhaps awaiting a better deal, post-2014. There were some signs in early June, however, that reconciliation efforts may be slowly picking up speed. Following an American apology for the border incident in November, the ground lines of communication reopened in the early summer.

The U.S. and its Afghan partners can no longer afford to wait for the leaders of Pakistan to change their strategic calculus. Adm. Mike Mullen, the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, visited 27 times and did not dent the Pakistani worldview. Afghanistan with ISAF’s help will have to develop the capacity to secure itself against Pakistani interference. The alliance must attempt to improve relations with Pakistan, but without wearing rose-colored glasses. The U.S. and NATO will have to take limited cooperation as a given, with finalizing agreements on the reopening the ground lines of communication as a first priority. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta’s recent call for India to do more for Afghanistan’s security was warranted. It may well get Pakistan’s attention and help to make them more cooperative.

A second set of political problems comes from within the alliance. The Chicago Summit declaration had all of the right words, but it was short on specifics. War weariness and economic problems are taking a toll on the ISAF nations. Informal discussions with senior officers and civil officials from European nations suggest many European nations will not seek an active role in the new Afghan mission, post-2014, and that a few are looking to leave before December 2014. While the generals are willing to do more, many of the political leaders are not. The memories of the major terrorist attacks in the U.S., the U.K. and Spain are fading among worries about unemployment and the future of the euro.

A third set of political problems come from the host government in Afghanistan. While the Karzai regime still maintains some support among the Afghan people, it is widely viewed among elites as weak, corrupt, ineffective and cantankerous. The 2014 election will be a political watershed. Karzai himself has told President Obama and American diplomats that he “will not and cannot” run again. Given serious problems in the last presidential election there, our embassy is treating the elections as a top priority. Helping in electoral matters, however, is politically sensitive, and the Afghans jealously guard their sovereignty. Still, electoral coalitions are forming, and the 2014 election, as challenging as it may be, offers some hope of a better and more effective government in Kabul.

Were not a war, a withdrawal of many allied troops and a national election a sufficient set of problems, Afghanistan in 2014 may also encounter an economic downturn. Propelled by foreign aid, Afghanistan’s legal economy has grown rapidly and consistently. That may be coming to an end. For example, the Office of Management and Budget estimates U.S. nonmilitary aid spending from all sources will fall by more than a third between fiscal 2012 (nearly $15 billion) and 2013 (about $10 billion). This downturn will take place years before the Afghan government receives extra revenue from the exploitation of strategic minerals. Donor nations and international financial institutions will have to be on guard against the effects of a major recession in this dirt-poor, conflict-prone nation.


In Afghanistan, the allies have become transfixed on the calendar when the objective has always been a condition. The allies set out to create a stable Afghan partner, capable of defending itself and being an effective partner on the war on terrorism. As Obama noted at the Chicago Summit, the allies have made great progress in achieving their “core objective of defeating al-Qaida and denying it safe haven, while helping the Afghans to stand on their own.” The Lisbon Summit target to remove the ISAF expeditionary force by 2014 served a necessary forcing function, but the allies now should modulate their policy based on conditions on the ground. In a similar vein, the allies need to make sure financial plans are based on realistic conditions. For example, the sum of $4.1 billion to support the ANSF was based on a scenario that would enable the Afghans to reduce their security forces by 120,000, beginning in 2017. Those assumptions are sensitive and might require the active cooperation of the Taliban! No wonder the Afghan Ministry of Defense refuses to take such a reduction as a serious proposal. Schedules and security assistance levels need once again to heed conditions on the ground, not vice versa.

At this delicate point, the alliance needs to dampen instability. To do this, Allen and his successor need to have the authority, if necessary, to keep the remaining 68,000 U.S. forces until the end of 2014. This will help ISAF hedge against Taliban surprises and better support the ANSF in combating the insurgency and securing the election. To enable the ANSF to succeed, ISAF military authorities will have to provide the ANSF the enablers they need to fight. Some of these capabilities may be provided by stay-behind forces, others may be lent to Afghanistan and still others transferred from departing allied forces.

As noted above, close-air support is a key enabler in short supply in the Afghan forces. The contract dispute over the light air support plane will keep it from arriving in time. In the meantime, subject to conditions on the ground, the ISAF nations may have to provide CAS sorties to help the Afghan forces after December 2014. It may also be necessary to cooperate with the ANSF more closely on using ISR assets. An alternate fix to the CAS problem would be to give the Afghans some or all of the 100 A-10 jet aircraft being retired from the U.S. Air Force. With ISAF having 30 months remaining, an expeditious transfer of the A-10 could enable the Afghans to rely on their own Air Force to get the job done. The U.S. and its partners would also save the money they plan to spend on the turboprops.

The U.S. needs to refine plans for international personnel support. It appears the alliance will support the $4.1 billion to fund the ANSF. The Tokyo Conference in July pledged $16 billion in economic assistance over the next four years, a goodly sum. Manpower for the advise-and-assist mission, however, will be more difficult. NATO force planners in June still were short pledges of a few allied battalions needed for the fight in 2013. Few NATO nations stand ready to pony up the advise-assist-support capabilities needed to help the Afghans, post-2014. I have argued in these pages that such a force, coupled with counterterrorism units, could reach 15,000 personnel. Few in NATO would argue against that arithmetic, but even fewer think such numbers are likely. The alliance soon needs to design the post-2014 force, and a Pentagon-Foggy Bottom sales force needs to get on the road to push the allies to do their fair share.

The need for mature leadership and statesmanship has rarely been so great. It would be easy for the U.S. and its partners to be distracted by economic problems, their own war weariness or the aftermath of the upcoming elections, but we must avoid a race to the exit. Great powers and great alliances should not leave the field before the end of the game. The U.S did that in 1990, opening the door for radicals and terrorists. As a nation and an alliance, we would do well to remember British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s warning to President George H.W. Bush over Iraqi-occupied Kuwait in August 1990. In Afghanistan, this is no time to go wobbly.

JOSEPH J. COLLINS teaches strategy at the National War College. A retired Army colonel with a decade of service in the Pentagon, he was the deputy assistant secretary of defense for stability operations from 2001 to 2004. This article is largely based on trips to Afghanistan in the spring of 2011 and 2012. The views expressed here are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of any government agency.