The U.S. continues to face a daunting challenge in Afghanistan, as it aims to bring stability to a country that has been plagued by conflict for decades. The Cipher Brief’s Bennett Seftel sat down with Anthony Cordesman, Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, to discuss why the United States’ strategy in Afghanistan has failed to deliver a desirable outcome and how the Trump Administration should approach the longest war in U.S. history.
The Cipher Brief: It’s been reported that the Taliban controls approximately 30 percent of Afghanistan, the most territory it has controlled since 2001. What more can be done to beat back Taliban advances and stabilize the country?
Anthony Cordesman: First, we need to be very careful about the numbers involved. There are indications that the Taliban increased the number of districts where it has a very substantial presence by about ten percent last year. The difficulty is, what does that actually mean, because if you are trying to minimize Taliban control, you can get districts being reported as under government control when all the government really controls is the capital of that district and sometimes only a few buildings within it.
This is an insurgency. We are talking about an ongoing struggle for hearts and minds, and we are talking about different rebel factions. The fact that the government in Kabul may have an interest doesn’t mean that it’s really the government in control – often it’s a power broker. We really are watching what is an expansion of threat influence. But none of these statistics are particularly reliable. In the past, there has been a tendency to exaggerate government control and to give the government credit if it has some kind of presence in a district capital, even if that presence wasn’t really doing anything and was grossly corrupt.
Now, within this, there is no sort of national solution. We are talking different areas, different branches of ethnic groups like the Pashtuns and other ethnic groups, particularly in the north, and sectarian differences. The country’s economy differs sharply according to urban area, and particularly, according to water and the size of agricultural areas. Part of the problem is that governance is so different in different parts that when you talk about finding a common solution, it doesn’t really work that way. That’s been part of the problem – you are attempting to somehow talk about one-size-fits-all with respect to military forces, local forces, police, economic reform, and governance reform, and in many cases, you simply don’t have the resources to do it. You won’t succeed if you treat every area the same.
One of the problems in strategy—and it’s a critical one—is the need to understand that just because this is a plan that comes out of Washington or what I guess you have to call “Kabulstan,” it doesn’t mean that it works in the country. That’s particularly true because we focus on security – and we have to since people certainly see that as a key parameter – but the Afghan people also see the government’s corruption as an issue nearly as important as security. They see the quality of employment and of the economy as being as much of a problem as the threat. You have to solve this on a civil-military level.
You also have to realize that when you are talking about security, it isn’t a matter of simply defeating the Taliban in the field. It means that the Afghan people can operate an economy and their normal lives can go on. Very often, the focus on Afghan forces has been almost completely on the tactical defeat of the enemy and not on providing stability and security for the people. Changing that is not easy.
TCB: What are some of the ways you can correct this approach?
Cordesman: What you can do from the military side is correct some of the weaknesses in the Afghan Security Forces. This, I believe, is the plan that General John Nicholson, commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, and Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis have talked about. It’s not that simply putting more personnel in is the goal – 3,000-5,000 people in uniform don’t cover a country.
The previous administration made the decision to essentially have the absolute minimum number of advisors possible after combat forces left Afghanistan in 2014 and to remove them as quickly as possible so that there will be nobody left by now. They did not provide train and assist personnel for the Afghan combat units, and they tried to keep American advisors in the rear, partly because there had been problems with Afghan troops attacking advisors, but also because you take casualties if you move advisors forward. But historically, the advisors that count aren’t the ones in the rear.
When you have newly formed forces that are not combat ready, which are rushed into being without experienced and non-commissioned officers, it’s vital to have train and assist people forward. That seems to be the real reason why the commander is asking for several thousand more personnel. If you do that, you can help at the tactical level.
What is not clear is what happens at the level that sometimes is called stability operations or the “hold phase,” because nobody has talked about what’s going to happen to the Afghan police, which has basically become a paramilitary force. It’s paramilitary because the threat demands it, and it’s also paramilitary in part because many of the elements of the justice system simply aren’t there. You can’t have police without courts, jails, and lawyers. There is this illusion that somehow we created a western structure when we didn’t. That’s something where so far, no one has touched upon how you improve stability and security. Putting these extra American personnel in, if the numbers being quoted are accurate, raises serious questions about whether you can do this.
The other side of this, and again we come down to a really key issue, is that the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank warned before combat troops left in 2014 that the Afghan economy was already in serious trouble. Population increases were creating higher poverty levels in the countryside, and many of the people who had been pushed into cities were in slums. Polls showed that employment, just at a basic almost subsistence level, was a critical problem. The polls also showed that while the Taliban was not popular, the government was very quickly losing public support after the NATO combat troops were withdrawn. So you have to find a way to deal with the civil side, and there is still no strategy, because there have been talks about making major cuts in aid, not increasing it.
TCB: Some, including Afghan Ambassador to the U.S. Hamdullah Mohib, argue that despite the significant issues facing Afghanistan, progress has been achieved in the last 15 years, such as a functioning parliament and a government that is delivering basic services to Afghan citizens. Could the view of “not winning” in Afghanistan be an issue of perspective or framing?
Cordesman: The Asia Foundation and other polls indicate that when you ask the Afghan people what they think, they don’t share these perceptions.
The fact is that Afghanistan faced really serious problems as troops were pulled out. A lot of the money that was being dispensed was going to Afghan contractors – people in the field servicing U.S. and allied troops. A lot of the ability to maintain an aid presence depended on the troops being there. So for many Afghans, the situation has gotten worse since 2008, that’s a conclusion of both the World Bank and the IMF. They provide a lot of data to show it.
Anyone who has looked at urban areas in Afghanistan, particularly places like Kabul, realizes that driving people out of the countryside and into slums, where there is little or no real employment in Kabul, is not progress. There has been a lot of reporting of progress in areas in Afghanistan, which groups like the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction and other sources have found has been grossly exaggerated – things like the rights of women, education, and healthcare. The economy has become more and more driven by narcotics, which is not a source of stability or popular support. The figures there are very clear, because the efforts to eradicate and reduce poppy growing have essentially collapsed. The poppy areas are now basically increasing, so is the crop, and so is the country’s dependency on what is close to becoming a narco-economy.
This is a set of realities that can be denied to a certain extent for political reasons, but you can’t convince the people they are better off. In a lot of ways, what has happened is that progress was made to raise expectations and then those expectations are not being met.
TCB: What should the U.S. endgame be in Afghanistan? Are there any clear objectives?
Cordesman: That is a critical question. It’s one that Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) asked Secretary of Defense James Mattis in a hearing last week. Essentially, Sen. McCain prefaced it with the thought that there was no apparent strategy in Afghanistan, and the Secretary, who is very frank and forthright, said he was right. That’s a critical point. We don’t have a civil-military strategy. We have a strategy that can deal with the immediate tactical military situation, but not with stability and not with the economic and governance side.
Certainly, this is an area where you could do more. One clear suggestion is to make aid far more conditional on it not being wasted, on an absence of corruption, and on evidence that the aid is actually being used where it’s supposed to go. You can make the troop presence and the aid conditional on Afghanistan actually carrying out reforms, not just talking about them, because we are really into a decade of promises that haven’t been kept.
Another key part of this is for the U.S. to provide the same kind of air support that we have provided in Iraq, which has been absolutely critical in allowing the Iraqi forces to recover territory and move forward, but making that again conditional on the government making progress. Also, putting an end to the divisions between Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah, the Chief Executive of Afghanistan, in what has become a strangely divided government. We also need to push for more reforms and less corruption.
But that requires a coherent strategy. It requires admitting that if you don’t do some form of nation-building, you can’t really secure this country, and that simply defeating the Taliban for a while, when it has a sanctuary in Pakistan, isn’t going to have a lasting result.
Secretary Mattis was asked how to define victory. We have two definitions, and they are very different. One is that the Afghan Security Forces could secure the country with only limited U.S. support. That doesn’t say anything about the quality of life or development or progress in Afghanistan, but you can’t secure the country simply by having Afghan troops; the government has to play a role.
The second definition was that he linked in Pakistan, where the Taliban has a safe haven, and he talked about regional stability. The problem with that is that it’s a great goal but it’s not clear that we have any of the mechanisms or resources to try to stabilize Pakistan, deal with the problem of Iran, and deal with central Asia.
Then there is the issue of sanctuaries for terrorism. The problem we are already seeing is that when this war started, we went into Afghanistan because it was the center of al Qaeda’s operations. Well, the center of al Qaeda’s operations now are Yemen and Pakistan. When we talk about the center of extremist terrorism, we are talking about Iraq and Syria and affiliates that are in north Africa, sub-Saharan Africa, central Asia, and South Asia.
Securing Afghanistan is only one of the objectives, and you may have to make trade-offs between them. One of the problems we have is that the new Administration has called for and is conducting a study about how to deal with the threat of terrorism, but it has no broader strategy as of yet. It constantly talks about the Islamic State (ISIS), but that’s only about 11-percent of the terrorist incidents, even in the Middle East and North Africa, and something like three to five percent of the extremist terrorist threat. Defeating ISIS is important, but it doesn’t solve anything by way of the broader regional sets of issues.
TCB: Pakistani officials, and in particular the Pakistani Ambassador to the U.S., maintain that the Pakistani army has put the Taliban “on the run” and that the country is no longer providing safe haven to the Taliban. Does that Taliban still maintain safe havens in Afghanistan?
Cordesman: First, the Taliban leadership is clearly all based in Pakistan. Second, the Pakistani military has made some progress, but is, for example, the Haqqani network, the most lethal and extreme element of the Taliban, still based in Pakistan? Yes. It clearly is.
We’ve had now more than a decade of Pakistani explanations about how things are getting better, and the fact is they are not. General Mattis made it quite clear that the situation is not in any sense headed towards collapse, but it does continue to slowly deteriorate.
TCB: The U.S. has wavered on its air support for the Afghan Security Forces. What is the reason for the shifting policy on air strikes? Could an increase in air strikes enhance efforts to beat back the Taliban?
Cordesman: First, for a variety of reasons, the U.S. has not consistently released precise statistics on the number of operations nor kept them up to date. But it’s quite clear that when the Afghan forces have come under pressure, there has been an increase in the number of strikes. Where this is going is far less clear. That’s not been mentioned in any of the press or media reports on the requests of Gen. Nicholson and on what plans the Secretary of Defense may announce for dealing with Afghanistan.
But one thing is quite clear. When you have a very large, inexperienced army, which today has time and again had to use its one well-trained counterinsurgency force to rescue large parts of the less capable forces, air power is critical. When you can bring air power to bear with precision strikes with the intelligence and targeting capabilities we have, and when you have trained advisors and technical people forward with the Afghan forces to ensure you minimize civilian casualties, what you’ve seen in Iraq and to a lesser extent in Syria is that it can have a tremendous impact in empowering local forces, not only in defense, but in going on the offensive.
The Afghan air force is still two to three years away from the point where it can take on the air mission. This is just as much a critical part of having any workable security approach as is putting in more train and assist personnel.
TCB: The White House recently announced it would grant the Defense Department the authority to determine troop levels in Afghanistan. Is this the right approach?
Cordesman: If you think back to what happened when the White House tried to develop a strategy for the last eight years, almost anything has to be better. The reality of this is that the President can delegate authority. He doesn’t do it as if somehow he created a well between the White House and the Department of Defense. The Secretary continues to report to the President. The National Security Council continues to review each decision. If anything goes wrong, it isn’t going to be somehow concealed in the Pentagon. And the president only delegated this decision after months of reviewing and having his staff review plans and options. It was not something where you suddenly had a decision without prior planning in consideration. So a lot of this has been sharply misinterpreted. The fact is, the Secretary of Defense reports to the President, and I think that this President is going to be as demanding as any of his predecessors in terms of performance.
TCB: What are some of the issues that the current administration must consider when developing its Afghanistan strategy?
Cordesman: There are several issues that must be considered. We are now talking about being in Afghanistan on a conditions-based level probably well beyond 2020. That’s a long time, and we’ve been there a long time. That will be not grossly expensive, but it certainly isn’t going to be free. If we put people forward, men and women in uniform and contractors, there are going to be casualties. Any of those casualties raise the issue of is this worth it and are we confident that out host country partner is going to do what it can and must.
So all of these issues have to be addressed. They are a key part of strategy. It isn’t the number of people in uniform you add, it isn’t some kind of mysterious military solution, and it isn’t throwing in more aid. You need to show that you have all of the elements to justify a prolonged effort. That is something that is going to be an acid test of this new administration’s approach to Afghanistan.