May 1, 2012  

Stay the course in Afghanistan

A careful transition — not a hasty exit — will pay long-term dividends

The war in Afghanistan has hit a new low. Despite lots of measurable progress — in territory controlled, the growth of the Afghan security forces, the number of Taliban mid-level leaders captured in night raids, the decimation of al-Qaida by drone strikes — the war continues with no end in sight. Just when we needed some good news, we were reminded that war is the province of chance, and chance is often ugly: Marines urinating on Taliban corpses, soldiers accidentally burning Korans, Afghan riots, a murderous rampage by an American that killed 17 innocent civilians, and an uncomfortable number of “green on blue” fratricidal murders. To top it off, a disaffected President Hamid Karzai sounds at times like the Taliban spokesman. All of this comes on the eve of a NATO summit in Chicago, where the alliance must define its future commitment in Afghanistan.

Showing their intolerance for protracted and ambiguous wars, nearly 70 percent of Americans disapprove of the war effort and favor some sort of rapid, undefined exit from Afghanistan. Many politicians want to accelerate the withdrawal of U.S. forces, and pundits question whether keeping any of our 90,000 troops in Afghanistan for another 30 months is worth the effort. Afghan incidents aside, the troops are hard-pressed, U.S. defense priorities are changing and the national debt is now as large as our annual national product. The people want to know: In Afghanistan, is the juice worth the squeeze? The answer depends not on international incidents but national interests, and those interests dictate that we stay the course. We are midway through a graduated transition from fighting to advising a force of 350,000 Afghan soldiers and police personnel, who are already moving into the security lead in two-thirds of the nation.

This strategy, not a hasty exit, is the best path to regional stability.


U.S. defense undersecretary for policy James Miller says the key U.S. objectives in Afghanistan are “to deny safe havens to al-Qaida, and to deny the Taliban the ability to overthrow Afghanistan.” Each of these objectives is important and interactive with the other. Al-Qaida in the region has been severely damaged, but it is opportunistic. Al-Qaida or a successor movement would gladly increase its activity in an unstable Afghanistan-Pakistan subregion, if afforded a chance to do so. The rump of a once vibrant al-Qaida maintains ties with both the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban, and the latter has trained terrorists captured inside the United States.

The Taliban themselves are not just thugs, dictators and serial violators of human rights — they were and are the allies of al-Qaida. While reports of Taliban-al-Qaida tensions have been present for a long time, and the passing of Osama bin Laden disrupted intergroup ties, the Taliban have maintained links to al-Qaida, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and the often more radical Pakistani Taliban. Since 1998, three years before 9/11, various nations have repeatedly asked the Afghan Taliban leadership to disavow al-Qaida. They have refused. The hardcore leaders of the Taliban — Mullah Omar, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and the Haqqanis — are ideological brothers of al-Qaida. David Rohde, a New York Times journalist held captive by the Taliban for seven months, wrote in 2009:

“Over those months, I came to a simple realization. After seven years of reporting in the region, I did not fully understand how extreme many of the Taliban had become. Before the kidnapping, I viewed the organization as a form of ‘Al-Qaeda lite,’ a religiously motivated movement primarily focused on controlling Afghanistan. Living side by side with the Haqqanis’ followers, I learned that the goal of the hard-line Taliban was far more ambitious. Contact with foreign militants in the tribal areas appeared to have deeply affected many young Taliban fighters. They wanted to create a fundamentalist Islamic emirate with Al-Qaeda that spanned the Muslim world.”

No matter how much we want to disassociate al-Qaida and the Taliban, the failure of the Taliban leaders to disavow al-Qaida and their continuing cooperation with international terrorists remains a major obstacle to peace in the region, and a powerful motivation for the alliance to ensure that a stable Afghan government can take the lead in handling its security requirements.

Many analysts rightly note that in the future, a nuclear-armed Pakistan — with six times Afghanistan’s population — is more important to the United States than Afghanistan. But does a weak or unstable Afghanistan help or hurt Pakistan? Paul Miller, formerly of the National Security Council staff, wrote in a recent edition of World Affairs Journal that “defeating the Afghan Taliban would give the United States and Pakistan momentum in the fight against the Pakistani Taliban. A Taliban takeover in Afghanistan, on the other hand, will give new strength to the Pakistani insurgency, which would gain an ally in Kabul, safe haven to train and arm … and a huge morale boost.”

Helping Afghans stabilize Afghanistan might be the most important gift we can give Pakistan, which is reportedly warming to reconciliation after it has finally realized that its client, the Afghan Taliban, is unlikely to form the core of a responsible government.

The future can be brought into sharper focus by looking at the past. In 1991-92, having helped the mujahedeen push the Red Army out of Afghanistan, we turned our back on the Afghans and left the country to the tender mercies of a civil war that ultimately brought in the Taliban, and later, al-Qaida. Our rapid and precipitous cessation of aid to the Afghans in 1990 — coupled shortly afterward with downgrading our relations with Pakistan over nuclear proliferation concerns — brought about the conditions that fostered international terrorism and incubated the 9/11 attacks on the United States. Had we finished the job in a mature and responsible fashion in 1990, we might not be talking about this issue today. The security and the future reputation of the U.S. both depend on getting the endgame right this time.

Afghan forces, not American forces, will defeat the insurgency, and better Afghan security capabilities are the key to the country’s stability and future prosperity. The United States and its allies are midway through a deliberate, rapidly paced transition plan. In the main, progress has been good. For example, recent testimony by Miller and ISAF Commander Gen. John Allen noted the following improvements:

• Since 2008, the Afghan National Security Forces have gone from 140,000 to 330,000 personnel.

• Afghan Army attrition rates are below 2 percent per month, and the police attrition rate is less than 1.4 percent per month.

• Enemy-initiated attacks are down 9 percent from 2010 to 2011, and down 22 percent in the first two months of 2012 compared with the same period in 2011.

• Since October 2011, 89 percent of combat operations were partnered, and 42 percent were led by Afghan forces.

• By the fall of 2012, Afghan security forces will take the lead for security for two-thirds of the Afghan population.

• By the fall of 2012, 23,000 U.S. troops will be able tocome home.

In all, it is hard to argue with Allen, who testified in March that: “We know there is much hard and deadly work to do. But the progress is real, and importantly, it’s sustainable. We have severely degraded the insurgency.”


Staying the course does not imply static rigidity. Indeed, the course that we are on is about managing a transition to an Afghan lead in every conceivable arena. To carry this policy beyond 2014, three sets of tasks need to be put on the front burner. First, the U.S. and Afghanistan must complete their strategic partnership agreement, which will build the framework for the bilateral relationship out to 2024. The two sticking points to date — the handling of detainees and the administration and control of night raids — appear to be near resolution.

In a similar vein, the U.S. ambassador and his country team need to talk with their Afghan counterparts about a sensitive subject: the next political leadership. Karzai has said he would not violate the Afghan Constitution and run for a third elected term. The U.S. and NATO should take him at his word and work closely with the government to help plan for the next election, while maintaining neutrality and respect for Afghan sovereignty. Discussions on the new election can also be a spur to reconciliation and the reintegration of former combatants, both of which have moved very slowly.

Second, the United States and Afghanistan must move reconciliation and reintegration onto a faster track. They should work closely with Pakistan to get the decent parts of the Taliban to the table. In doing so, they must insist that the Taliban honor the red lines established by the alliance and the government of Afghanistan: renouncing violence, disavowing al-Qaida, and respecting the constitution. Not all of the Taliban will accept these conditions, and “divide and conquer” tactics may be a key to success with the Taliban.

In a similar vein, the United States and NATO must talk to other nations in the region. India, Pakistan, Iran, Russia and all of the countries of Central Asia must be convinced that a transition in Afghanistan and future reconciliation will work in their interest. Indeed, all of these nations have important commercial interests in a stable Afghanistan. Following the work of Fred Starr at Johns Hopkins University, the State Department has begun to work on a New Silk Road initiative — a free trade, transportation, and energy network in Central and South Asia. Afghanistan could become a key node, if not the hub, of this network.

Third, the United States must reinvigorate and reorganize the coalition for the post-2014 period. The war in Afghanistan is a NATO operation. Even after the U.S. surge, U.S. allies and partners account for 30 percent of the forces there. Our European allies have delicate political systems and weak economies. Their populations have always been more ambivalent on the fight in Afghanistan than the U.S. population. Sadly, with the upcoming U.S. election, leaders on both sides of the aisle have generally hesitated to lay out a specific plan. Such a plan must provide for economic assistance, security assistance, trainers, advisers and support personnel. At best, Afghan air transport and close air support assets will require allied help until 2017.

At the Chicago summit in May, the United States, the leader of the alliance, must galvanize support for Afghanistan. Before the summit, the administration should draft a proposal and share it with key leaders in Congress and U.S. allies. Partners who cannot for one reason or another participate on the ground should be asked to contribute to a security assistance fund to help the more able allied nations help the Afghans.


Here is the core of a potential proposal, the “15:20 Program,” which I first advanced in Small Wars Journal in January. Assuming that reconciliation and peace will take another five years, NATO should commit $20 billion per year, and more importantly, keep 15,000 allied military personnel on the ground for military assistance, air and logistical support, and counterterrorist activities. As the Afghan government gains strength and its revenues grow, allied manpower and funding can be reduced.

The allies’ initial $20 billion might include up to $6 billion for the Afghan security forces, and $4 billion for economic assistance to the government and people of Afghanistan, much of which for accountability can be routed through international trust funds and mechanisms that put money under the control of local community councils. The remaining $10 billion would go to defray the expenses of the 15,000 allied men and women who will serve there.

The 15,000 personnel would include 6,000 advisers for Afghan security forces, headquarters and training establishments. There should also be an allowance for 4,000 personnel to man headquarters, intelligence elements, and logistics units. The remaining 5,000 personnel spaces would be split among an international helicopter support unit, an airmobile quick reaction force to protect allied personnel and embassies, counterterrorist forces and a robust air support element. As necessary, allied air support can of course be supplemented by carrier-based aviation and unmanned aerial vehicles based outside of Afghanistan.

Economies can be made by consolidating all U.S., NATO and ISAF headquarters into one entity, merging NATO support elements, and working hard to obtain the maximum amount of international support. Logistically, the much-reduced flow of men and materiel into Afghanistan could, if necessary, go mainly along the northern distribution network through Central Asia.

Fiscal hawks may say that this is too large a financial stake in a country like Afghanistan. Fifteen thousand troops and $20 billion from the alliance, however, represent only 11 percent of the strength of the current expeditionary force, and less than 17 percent of the current U.S.-only outlays for the war. Other critics will say that the 15:20 Program is too much for a country with such a weak government and a small annual economic product. This is a poor metric. The long-term importance of a country cannot be judged by its level of development or its lack of wealth, especially after 34 years of war.

In 1952, the Republic of Korea was as poor, corrupt and looked down upon as Afghanistan is today. Our continuing investment in security and stability there stopped communist aggression and allowed for the development over decades of one of the world’s great democracies and most vibrant economies. Afghanistan may never become another South Korea. When the war subsides, however, with a trillion dollars’ worth of strategic minerals and better security, Afghanistan will have an economic base to support a better future.

In conclusion, the United States and its allies should not repeat the mistakes of the early 1990s in Afghanistan by turning a deliberate transition into an abrupt, hasty withdrawal. Governments here and abroad must keep their interests in full view and not be distracted by horrific incidents. In Afghanistan, thoughtful perseverance, not a dash to the exit, will pay dividends in the future.

Joseph J. Collins teaches strategy at the National War College. A retired Army colonel with a decade’s service in the Pentagon, he was the deputy assistant secretary of defense for stability operations from 2001 to 2004. The views expressed here are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of any government agency.