The War in Afghanistan: A Strategic Failure Past, Present and Future?

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1 The War in Afghanistan: A Strategic Failure Past, Present and Future? In December 2009 at the United States Military Academy at West Point, President Obama somberly acknowledged that Afghanistan is not lost, but for several years it has moved backward (The Battle For Marjah, 2010). He then announced the implementation of a strategy that was supposed to reinvigorate the campaign in Afghanistan, create momentum behind public support and rectify the previous strategic mistakes that had been made since the Bonn Conference eight years earlier in December Now, in late 2013, it is clear that Obama s strategy has failed. While accomplishing some of its desired operational level aims, critical strategic issues of the past that will hamper prospects for transition to Afghan control, remain and, as this paper will show, so long as they stay unaddressed the chances of Afghanistan experiencing sustainable security, stability and development when the International Security and Assistance Force (ISAF) leaves in 2014 are improbable. The War in Afghanistan truly has been a strategic failure of the past, continues to be a strategic failure at present, and is likely to remain a strategic failure in the future. This paper will be split into three sections; the first will look at the strategic failures of the past, which will be recognized as from 2001 until the change in strategy in 2009, the second will analyze strategic failures of the present, which is deemed to be from this change of strategy in 2009 until now, and the third will assess probable strategic failures of the future, which is the run up to transition in 2014 and beyond : Strategic Failures of the Past Four major strategic issues affected the campaign in Afghanistan from its outset in late 2001 until 2009; the continuing influence of Pakistan, an established war economy and narcotics trade, critical problems with governance including widespread corruption and strategic failures by ISAF over resources and legitimacy. In more detail: Pakistan s support of the Taliban was multifaceted and remained virtually untouched since Its support ranged from the tacit, such as with funding and logistical capability, to the overt, such as providing manpower and even combat support (Maley, 2010, p. 11). Also the provision of harbor areas for groups such as the Quetta Shura Taliban (QST), the Haqqani Network (HQN) and the Hezb-e Islami Gulbuddin (HIG) inside Pakistan inherently limited the effectiveness of ISAF in defeating the insurgency in Afghanistan (Farrell & Chaudhuri, 2011, p. 272). 1 Narcotics, specifically opiates such as heroin, in Afghanistan were allowed to become intrinsically tied with both the insurgency and regional and world economies (Giustozzi, 2009, 1 One should recognize that Pakistan stood to benefit from this relationship as well, using Afghanistan s instability as a geostrategic apparatus and benefitting through a regional conflict complex by basing its own power on mobilizing military capability. 1

2 p. 7). In 2007 the drug trade in Afghanistan was worth $2.7 billion (Sedra & Hodes, 2007, pp ) and in % of the opium produced came from areas affected by the insurgency (Giustozzi, 2009, p. 19). This money funded the insurgency, caused widespread corruption and, most importantly, became established as the main source of income for Afghanistan - something which ISAF was unable to either erode or replace, despite pouring money into schemes to try to substitute opium as the main cash crop. ISAF also failed to make any significant impact on Afghanistan s corruption and failed to implement functional central governance. Corruption was rife at all levels of power and Hamid Karzai s Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan (GIRoA) was seen to be weak, passive and prone to compromise in relation to dealing with the issue (Giustozzi, 2007, p. 19). Meanwhile the institutions envisioned at Bonn in 2001 were not enough to automatically bring stability to Afghanistan and the legitimizing of warlords within the Afghan Interim Authority further weakened Karzai, who is more focused on patronage and alliances, and his ability to project governance over regional level authorities (Maley, 2010, p. 14). Fundamental internal issues also affected ISAF s performance from 2001 to Critical tensions, both political and economic, stemmed from a diversion in strategic goals between the ISAF mission and Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF), part of the Global War on Terror, causing a form of duel legitimacy to develop and reducing ISAFs credibility both within Afghanistan and at home (Rubin, 2006, p. 180). Likewise the shift in focus to Iraq in late 2002 plagued Afghanistan with problems of insufficient manpower and funding, reducing the resources available right when they were required to prevent a resurgence of the Taliban after the initial invasion. Despite some past tactical and operational successes the inability of ISAF to address these four issues prior to 2009 prevented any low level success from being translated into tangible strategic gains. For three years from 2006 very little progress was made, despite the degree of ISAF involvement in the southern and eastern provinces of Afghanistan. The campaign was failing because of its strategic level fallibilities, not because of the actions of men and women on the ground : Strategic Failures of the Present The implementation of a new strategy in 2009, announced by Obama at West Point, was supposed to address the aforementioned past strategic failures of the campaign. This was to occur through the principles of increasing ISAF troop numbers in the southern provinces, improving the capabilities of the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF), empowering local populations, eliminating corruption and narcotics, increasing development resources and forcing Pakistan to end its support of the Taliban (Barfield, 2010, p. 333). The aim of these was to remove the operational-strategic disconnect that had crippled ISAF s attempts to consolidate successes previously. At the operational level General Stanley McChrystal s new emphasis on a Clear, Hold, Build, Transfer population-centric approach to counterinsurgency (COIN) intended to connect ISAF with the Afghan local population and rejuvenated ANSF (Farrell & Chaudhuri, 2011, pp ) while also regaining momentum through 2

3 large scale operations such as Operation MOSHTARAK. 2 The gains of this new approach to COIN would be complemented by the ending of Pakistan s support for the Taliban and by reducing corruption within the Afghan authorities, enabling operational successes to translate into strategically tangible gains, unlike the past experiences of ISAF. Fundamentally, as Michael Clarke (2009), director of the Royal United Services Institute, recognized at the time, three requirements would have to be met for the new strategy to succeed - it had to create a perception of winning so that support for the campaign in Afghanistan could be maintained, it needed to create a consensus for action within ISAF 3 and it also had to help to solve the wider regional crisis affecting central and southern Asia, including that of the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. Since 2010 and the implementation of the new strategy it has become abundantly clear that it has failed to make a significant impact on ISAF s campaign to stabilize Afghanistan and has, if anything, widened the operational-strategic disconnect it intended to address. This is because operational successes of McChrystal s population-centric COIN have not been translated into a perception of winning, either within Afghanistan where it was required to swing the population towards supporting ISAF over the Taliban, or at home where a perception of winning was needed to maintain support for the resources required. The desire to continue the commitment in Afghanistan has been lost and as a result the surge of 30,000 troops announced by Obama only stayed within Afghanistan for two years (Cordesman, 2012b). 4 The strategy has been further undermined by the political deadline for withdrawal in 2014 which prevented a consensus of action developing and allowed other members of ISAF to end their commitment, as well as giving undeniable confidence to the insurgency - as if confirming the much quoted Taliban saying of you have the watches but we have the time. Despite the success in developing the current size of the ANSF, over 350,000, and its apparent ability to take the lead in providing security for almost 90% of the Afghan population, critical issues remain which the strategy failed to address. Aside from not implementing the judicial reforms required, corruption, especially within the Afghan National Police and the Afghan Local Police, remains rife due to the continued importance of the narcotic industry while the legitimacy of the Karzai government is dubious after the 2009 presidential elections and the 2010 parliamentary elections were both marred by widespread fraud. Despite a key objective of McChrystal s approach being to redefine the fight, and increase transparency within the GIRoA, this has not occurred (Farrell & Chaudhuri, 2011, p. 284). The present relationship between Afghanistan and Pakistan remains a serious strategic obstacle as well, one which the 2009 strategy did not change. In fact, since 2009, U.S. and Pakistani relations 2 The largest ISAF joint operation of the war, involving 15,000 American, British and Afghan troops, intended to clear out Marjah in Helmand Province, February/March And the 42 nations within it. 4 Troop levels falling from their peak of 98,000 in FY 2011 to just 68,000 in FY

4 have worsened due to drone attacks in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) of the North West Frontier and also because of the May 2011 raid to kill Osama bin Laden (Cordesman, 2012a), a further example of the dual legitimacy that has developed between ISAF and OEF. The border between Pakistan and Afghanistan remains porous and the past forms of support Pakistan has provided the Taliban since 2001 remain unchallenged in the present, hampering the ability of ISAF to defeat the insurgency, even with the resources committed in the 2009 strategy, and allowing the Taliban strategic depth. As a result the War in Afghanistan is moving into a phase of transition with many of the strategic issues that have historically plagued it still in place. The next section will assess the likely effect these are to have on transition, as well as the likelihood of the outcome in Afghanistan being one that ISAF is able to accept as success Onwards: Towards Transition and Future Strategic Failure? With the recognition that the change in strategy from 2009 to present has not accomplished its desired aims the situation within Afghanistan as it moves towards transition does not bode well for its future. The process of transition is very much well underway and while some threads seem to be progressing more or less to plan, such as the transfer of control to the ANSF, predicting a stable outcome when ISAF leaves Afghanistan in 2014 is dubious at best for a number of reasons - many of which are aforementioned strategic issues that have plagued the campaign since its commencement and have been inadequately dealt with by the change in strategy over the last four years. The most important requirement that Michael Clarke (2009) stated the 2009 strategy needed to address was to create a perception that the campaign in Afghanistan was leading somewhere, a perception that ISAF was winning, so that the resources the country requires during transition and beyond would be willingly committed. The strategy did not have this effect and as a result popular war fatigue in ISAF nations and the economic situation in the west have been, and are likely to continue to be, crippling on the amount of support Afghanistan receives through and post transition (Cordesman, 2012a). The campaign has been historically under resourced due to the War in Iraq and other factors and this is set to continue. At the Bonn Conference in November 2011 Karzai requested $10 billion a year until 2025 yet, despite the Tokyo Conference of 2012 pledging $16 billion over four years, this length and amount of commitment seems unlikely (Cordesman, 2012b). Currently the ANSF are almost wholly dependent on foreign military spending while any prospects for economic development remain poor without sufficient outside aid. As such the chances of widespread Afghan stability occurring within the next decade are low, meaning resource and funding support must continue beyond the process of transition and the immediate future. Even if sufficient aid were to persist Afghanistan remains within an unsteady regional dynamic, particularly in relation to Pakistan but also in terms of the wider south and central Asian region, that will certainly have a destabilizing effect on the short term outlook of the country. Pakistan continues to present a strategic issue. Poor relations between the US and Pakistan and Pakistan s failure to secure the FATA, along with its tacit support of the Taliban, will represent a significant challenge to stability in Afghanistan post 2014 (Cordesman, 2012b). Further to this Pakistan itself is likely to 4

5 become more unstable as aid to the region dries up and U.S. focus begins to pivot east, as many predict it will - a worrying prospect especially considering Pakistan s nuclear capability and uneasy relationship with its neighbors. Indeed, for lasting development to occur in the future, Afghanistan needs support from within the central and south Asian region as well as from the West (Royal United Services Institute, 2012). However political tensions, such as that between Pakistan and India, as well as ethnic tensions between the majority Pashtun Afghanistan and its northern neighbors Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, reduce the likelihood of this occurring. ISAF recognizes that the centre of gravity in a COIN operation is the population that hosts the insurgency and, above all else, stability in Afghanistan after transition under the current GIRoA is reliant upon the Afghan population. However there are two key factors that are likely to prevent the winning over of Afghan civilians. Firstly because of a lack of trust in the GIRoA and ANSF. McChrystal emphasized three fundamentals of COIN in 2009; legitimacy, credibility and capability, yet in Afghanistan corruption continues to permeate all levels of governance preventing any form of trust developing between the Afghan people and their leaders (Cordesman, 2012a). Add to this the regular crimes, such as kidnapping and rape 5, committed by the Afghan police (This is What Winning Looks Like, 2012), as well as the skewed ethnic composition of the Afghan National Army 6 (Younossi, et al., 2009), and the chances of unilateral support for the GIRoA and the ANSF going forward are unlikely. Secondly the Taliban, recognizing this same idea of the importance of winning over the population, will do everything in its power to undermine the GIRoA and show the Afghans their own legitimacy, credibility and capability. By laying its cards on the table and revealing that it will leave by the end of 2014 ISAF has prevented any chance of meaningful negotiations taking place with the Taliban (Cordesman, 2012b). The insurgents have no need to make concessions because in the near future they know that they will be free from ISAF attempting to prevent them reasserting control, which they will clearly endeavor to do, especially in the majority Pashtun southern provinces such as Helmand, Kandahar and Oruzgan. As such the prospects of the War in Afghanistan continuing to be a strategic failure in the near term future are high. Fundamental issues remain unaddressed, many of which have been prevalent for a number of years, and these will undermine both the ability of ISAF to successfully transition out of the country as well as the capacity of the GIRoA to stand alone post Conclusion The lack of tangible gains from over decade of war is due to a failure to address numerous issues at the strategic level, many of which, such as Pakistan s influence on the conflict, have been intrinsic in 5 See Ben Anderson s documentary This Is What Winning Looks Like (Vice.com, 2013) for an insight into the actions of the Afghan police, and ISAFs inability to stop them. 6 Hazaras and Uzbeks are underrepresented, Pashtuns are approximately accurately represented and Tajiks are overrepresented, especially in positions of power such as officers and NCOs. 5

6 the past, in the present and look likely to continue to be intrinsic in Afghanistan s future post Transition has become a byword for exit, yet that is all it really is. Within the current economic and political climate the costs of committing further resources to improve the strategic outlook for Afghanistan outweigh the benefits of this commitment. To paraphrase Ben Anderson (2012) we are leaving not because we have achieved our goals but because we have given up on them - ISAFs mission to create a functioning state able to maintain sustainable security, stability and development has not succeeded. The War in Afghanistan since 2001 has been, is currently and will continue to be a strategic failure. Daniel Hunt completed his BA in Conflict Studies with Military History at the University of Exeter in He is attending the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst in 2014 with sponsorship from the Princess of Wales s Royal Regiment. 6

7 Bibliography Barfield, T., Afghanistan: A Political and Cultural History. Princeton: PUP. Clarke, M., RUSI Analysis. [Online] Available at: [Accessed 29 October 2013]. Cordesman, A., 2012a. Center For Strategic and International Studies. [Online] Available at: [Accessed 29 October 2013]. Cordesman, A., 2012b. Center For Strategic and International Studies. [Online] Available at: [Accessed 29 October 2013]. Farrell, T. & Chaudhuri, R., Campaign Disconnect: Operational Progress and Strategic Obstacles in Afghanistan, International Affairs, 87(2). Giustozzi, A., War and Peace Economies of Afghanistan's Strongmen. International Peacekeeping, 14(1). Giustozzi, A., Decoding the New Taliban: Insights from the Afghan Field. Columbia: CUP. Maley, W., Afghanistan: An Historical and Geographical Appraisal. International Review of the Red Cross, 92(880). Royal United Services Institute, Towards a Stable Afghanistan: The Way Forward, London: RUSI. Rubin, B., Peace Building and State-Building in Afghanistan: Constructing Sovereignty for Whose Security?. Third World Quarterly, 27(1). Sedra, M. & Hodes, C., The Search for Security in Post-Taliban Afghanistan. Adelphi Papers, 47(391), pp The Battle For Marjah [Film] Directed by Ben Anderson. USA: Home Box Office. This is What Winning Looks Like [Film] Directed by Ben Anderson. USA: Vice.com. Younossi, O. et al., The Long March: Building an Afghan National Army. Santa Monica: RAND Corporation. 7

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