It is past time to leave Afghanistan to the Afghans. The present government of the Islamic Repubic of Afghanistan exhibits the same deficiencies that characterized Afghan leadership for more than a thousand years—it is fragmented, tribal, self-serving, insular and corrupt. The United States is naive to assume that it can, by force of will, impose Western values and morals upon a culture that has endured for centuries. Afghanistan will not be transformed into an idealized Western-style democracy by any amount of continued sacrifice of blood and treasure by the United States and its NATO partners in the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF).
The announced withdrawal from Afghanistan of U.S. and allied troops by December 2014 (with the exception of some yet to be determined number of Special Forces, counterterrorism units and training personnel) comes none too soon.
TOO LITTLE, TOO LATE
Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) began in October 2001 because Afghanistan harbored the al-Qaeda terrorists responsible for the 9/11 attacks against America. The United States set out to eliminate al-Qaeda’s Afghan operational base, and it succeeded in that effort while at the same time joining forces with the Afghan Northern Alliance to topple the repressive Taliban regime that had welcomed and hosted al-Qaeda. Yet OEF has never been a top U.S. priority except in those very early months. By May 2007, the ISAF commanding general admitted as much, saying, “This is a holding action.” At that time, the United States had only 24,000 troops in Afghanistan, while four times that number – over 100,000 American and allied coalition troops – attempted to stabilize Iraq.
The effort to train the army and police of the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) was neither coherently addressed nor adequately resourced until November 2009. Unfortunately, by then it was beyond saving. Moreover, satisfying Washington’s strident demands to produce unrealistic numbers of “trained” Afghan army soldiers and policemen resulted in standards so low that the ANSF has proved inadequate to meet operational requirements.
Although the Taliban regime was overthrown, the United States never committed sufficient forces to Afghanistan to totally defeat the subsequent Taliban insurgency. Since there was insufficient troop strength and inadequate logistic support to eradicate all Taliban insurgents throughout Afghanistan, U.S. and NATO forces had to concentrate on subduing one insurgent “hot spot” and then moving on to the next one that popped up – a tactic the troops call “whack a mole.” Yet without sufficient forces to hold an area permanently, when U.S. and NATO units depart, the Taliban moves back in.
As America’s December 2014 endgame in Afghanistan approaches, comparisons to the U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War are inevitable. Indeed, there are some undeniable similarities in Afghanistan that echo the wasteful catastrophe in that earlier war: generally illiterate societies; long traditions of successful warfare against Western forces that generated experienced, hardened fighters; and protected insurgent enclaves across porous “sovereign” borders.
As in Vietnam, the United States and its allies in Afghanistan typically have fought from huge and extraordinarily expensive Forward Operating Bases (FOBs) that shelter forces which could be more effectively used by deploying them out in the villages to work with the local population. When General David Petraeus led the Afghanistan effort, he did this well, but for far too short a period. In both wars, U.S. forces lacked concentration of effort to provide essential nation-building support for the development of appropriate local village structure and leadership. Instead, in both Vietnam and Afghanistan, the United States fought wars of attrition to attempt to enforce the legitimacy of an inherently illegitimate and corrupt version of a Western style central government. (See Hard Choices, January 2014 ACG.)
LACK OF STRATEGIC FOCUS
America’s objective in Afghanistan since the 2001 overthrow of the Taliban regime by the Northern Alliance and U.S. Special Forces has been to build up the capability of the ANSF and to transition security responsibility to the Afghans as the U.S.-led coalition gradually withdraws. A U.S. residual capability is to be kept in the country to continue advising and training the ANSF and, when necessary, to help coordinate specific surgical strikes to kill or capture the worst of the enemies still operating.
However, the OEF effort has suffered from a lack of coherent, clearheaded analysis of the strategic ends sought by the United States and the ways and means necessary to achieve those ends. Without prudent consideration for the concomitant risks involved, second- and third-order effects were not and are not considered. The United States has never, in over 12 years of war in Afghanistan, clearly specified the ends it seeks. And it is impossible, of course, to implement effective methods to achieve strategic ends without clearly articulating what those ends are. Early in the U.S. intervention in Afghanistan, America’s political and military leaders should have developed a viable, achievable, long-term strategy for OEF, and then they should have vigorously prosecuted this strategy with unity of command, unity of effort, and urgency – none of which has been exhibited in this 12-year campaign.
The U.S. military is exhausted and spread very thin. This means it cannot provide sufficient military force to adequately and simultaneously address all of America’s substantial global commitments. Although the post-Cold War U.S. armed forces drawdown that began in 1990-91 is a major factor, a large part of this inadequacy is due to the extraordinarily long-term commitments to Afghanistan and, until 2011, Iraq. OEF drains the limited, critical resources required elsewhere, but offers no corresponding positive payoff.
The United States has been consistently unwilling to acknowledge the truth about Afghanistan: it has been, and will continue to be, a tribal society of fragmented villages ruled with an iron hand by warlords. There is no respect at all throughout Afghanistan for the central government in Kabul, and deservedly so – President Hamid Karzai’s government is inefficient, self-serving and notoriously corrupt. There are a few honest, conscientious and patriotic Afghan leaders; however, their efforts are too often thwarted by the country’s corrupt senior leadership.
Despite billions of dollars in foreign aid over a dozen years, Afghanistan’s infrastructure remains primitive and underdeveloped. In Kabul, the capital city of over 3 million inhabitants, less than 15 percent of the population has piped water service and less than 5 percent has sewer access. The city has no trash removal and fewer than a dozen traffic lights. There are only five fire stations in a metropolis the size of Los Angeles. Despite 12 years of U.S.-led coalition effort, it is obvious that there is no viable government and certainly no rule of law.
This is particularly a tragedy for the young people of Afghanistan. Over 65 percent of the Afghan population is under the age of 25. Many are fairly well educated and struggling to obtain more education. They are earnest, smart young people who want security, progress, democracy (albeit of a construct for Afghanistan), a reduction in corruption, and a quantum leap in capability for their country and its government. During the conduct of systematic and exhaustive inspections and liaison visits to all 50 police stations, installations and checkpoints in Kabul province in 2011, it was highly gratifying to see the thousands of boys and, more astonishing, girls in clean, neat school uniforms walking to and from schools carrying their Western-style backpacks. However, when the United States departs at the end of 2014, those schools – particularly for girls – will quickly be closed, and education for all Afghans will, in large part, be severely restricted or stopped completely.
There also exists a clash of cultures between Afghans and Americans that inhibits the ability of the United States to influence further development of Afghanistan. Many Afghan cultural norms run directly counter to some of Americans’ most sacred principles regarding basic human rights. In particular, the systematic ill treatment and abuse of women and children drives an enormous psychological wedge between the ANSF and Americans embedded with it as advisers and trainers. Yet the U.S. military prefers to soft-pedal this very real schism, pretending that the problem is that Americans – who have witnessed the abuses firsthand – do not understand Afghan culture, and “solving” this problem by ordering up more sensitivity training.
The current trends in Afghanistan are obvious, horrendous and reflect problems that have existed for years. The facts show it is long past the time that the liabilities of OEF have outweighed any advantages:
- Improvised Explosive Device (IED) Attacks: From 2010 to 2011, the number of IED attacks rose more than 100 percent, and it also climbed in 2012 and 2013. Taliban insurgents have shifted their increasingly effective IED attacks from primarily ISAF targets to softer ANSF and Afghan civilian targets. Although the attacks have produced fewer fatalities, the number of attacks and the number of resulting military personnel and civilians wounded has increased.
- Insider Attacks: Each year since 2008, the number of insider attacks – “friendly” Afghan police and army security forces striking U.S. and coalition personnel – has doubled. Such attacks are simple to mount and effective, since they allow attackers to get within striking range before the “friend” is revealed to be a “foe.” They also have a psychological impact since they inevitably implant some level of distrust in the minds of U.S. and coalition personnel working closely with Afghans.
- Number of Assassinations: The killing of Afghan government officials and leaders at all levels is a significant and demoralizing issue in Afghanistan. However, the number of assassinations is not tracked accurately by the U.S.-led coalition because most incidents are treated as civilian crimes. Further masking the true number of assassinations is the fact that the ANSF generally ignores all but the killing of the most influential Afghans.
- ANSF Police and Army Desertion Rate: More than 25 percent of Afghan police and army security personnel desert per annum, largely because there is no penalty for desertion. This rate had decreased slightly in 2012, but it is now increasing due to the impending U.S. and NATO withdrawal.
- Loss of U.S. Aid Through Waste/Corruption: Much of the billions of dollars in U.S. aid and resources provided to Afghan army and police has been squandered, destroyed, ill used, hoarded for use in future civil wars, or sold for personal gain. The exact amount is unknown because it cannot be realistically inventoried. Afghanistan’s government makes no real effort to reduce corruption, graft and bribery when these crimes are committed by government officials or those in the good graces of the Karzai regime.
- Conviction/Incarceration of Criminals: The only Afghan criminals who are caught and subsequently convicted in Afghan courts are those who have offended the existing regime or local warlords. And even those who are convicted often use their political connections and/or bribery to gain their release outright or to arrange for facilitated escapes from custody.
- Security Status of Afghanistan: The true status of the security of each of the 34 Afghan provinces – totally candid assessments based on verifiable facts – remains unknown since only “whitewashed” information is made available.
The United States and most of the world has benefited from the ouster of the Taliban from much of Afghanistan and the decreased ability of Afghanistan to be used as a base of operations and support for al-Qaeda. However, the point of diminishing returns has been passed. The United States can and should contain any residual, externally focused capability of al-Qaeda; but it should accomplish this by the use of armed drones, long-range bombers and limited Special Operations Forces on the ground for target acquisition and surgical military strikes on targets of opportunity.
As to the future of post-U.S. Afghanistan, here is what seems most likely in the wake of the American withdrawal:
- The mission to withdraw all but a small fraction of the remaining U.S. and NATO troops by December 2014 will continue. However, the exact number of U.S. forces to remain in Afghanistan is still inexplicably unannounced by America’s political and military leadership. This could frustrate NATO nations that consequently may accelerate their forces withdrawal time schedule, which in turn raises the possibility that the United States may decide to pull out more troops faster than originally scheduled.
- IED and “friendly” Afghan insider attacks will continue to increase because they are effective and difficult to counter. The lack of meaningful background checks on Afghan recruits exacerbates this threat. Attacks likely will reach a point at which the remaining U.S. troops will be unable to effectively cope with the rising level of violence, which will cause them to retreat to the FOBs in a primarily defensive posture, using drones, airstrikes and artillery to retaliate.
- The reduced number of U.S. forces and contractors who remain as advisers/trainers will face increasing risk. Therefore, their ability to conduct any work with the Afghans will be extraordinarily limited by the decreasing security situation. The effort and ability to provide guidance and assistance will correspondingly diminish.
- U.S. Special Operations Forces will remain in some form and in some strength to facilitate strikes on key “high value targets.” However, such strikes may be significantly limited by the Karzai government’s pressure to curtail them. The situation in Afghanistan may replicate the severe restrictions the United States faced as it withdrew from Iraq when any police or military action had to be vetted and approved by “warrants” sought from Iraqi courts – which often, predictably, compromised the security and secrecy necessary for mission success.
- Significant and daunting problems will have to be surmounted to move U.S. and NATO materiel and equipment out of Afghanistan by road to Pakistan and on to Karachi for shipment by sea. Much of it will be abandoned at enormous cost to U.S. taxpayers. U.S./NATO materiel that remains behind in Afghan hands will be non-functional in 12 to 18 months.
- Once U.S. and NATO forces depart in significant numbers, the Karzai government will implode and competing Afghan factions will take control. In fact, factions already predominately control much of Afghanistan’s hinterlands. Kabul, along with the rest of the country, will be splintered into separate power blocks under local warlords. Within a year or two of the U.S. withdrawal, Karzai and most of his leadership either will be dead or will be outside of Afghanistan living on U.S. dollars they have secretly hoarded in foreign bank accounts.
- ANSF army and police forces will quickly disintegrate into factions loyal to one warlord or another.
- Lawlessness – rioting, fires, bombings and shootings – will become widespread in Kabul, Kandahar, Mazar-e-Sharif and Herat.
- Thousands will try to flee Afghanistan via the Khyber Pass, until the Pakistanis close this primary exit due to their own security concerns – more Taliban in their cities and the potential for again being overrun by Afghan refugees.
- Huge caches of ANSF weapons and ammunition will be seized by Afghan warlords who have the power to take them. Already, much of what was to be distributed to the ANSF during the U.S.-led coalition mission has been hoarded by Afghan leaders to bolster their own forces against competing groups.
- Afghanistan will again, as was historically the case, divide into tribal fiefdoms controlled by warlords. Some of these fiefdoms will be consolidated by the resurgent Taliban coming back from secure bases inside Afghanistan or returning from Pakistan to take control.
- Sharia law and strict Islamic customs will be reimposed. Women again will be relegated to subservient status. The Afghan intelligentsia likely will be killed or forced to flee the country to survive. This exodus of Afghanistan’s “best and brightest” will deprive the country of further use of their educated and progressive collective intellect.
- Poppy growth will explode (if the crops can be revived and sustained) to provide a steady source of illegal drug income for the Taliban (as was historically the case).
- The Afghan government and economy will be short a minimum of 1 billion dollars per year to properly sustain the 352,000-man ANSF. These security forces cannot be maintained at current levels without a huge cash infusion from the United States that America cannot reasonably afford. The United States will probably provide some lesser amount to support the ANSF, but this will result in Afghan security forces of smaller size and inadequate capabilities.
This is a sad and disturbing picture. As with Vietnam, the United States – both its political and its military leadership – failed to plan and to prosecute the Afghanistan war intelligently, consistently and with the urgency and capability necessary for success. Most lacking in OEF has been the disciplined intellectual integrity that is absolutely essential in order to develop, resource and aggressively implement a coherent national strategy.
Colonel (Ret.) William V. Wenger served 42 years in the U.S. Army as Infantry, Airborne Ranger. He volunteered for multiple tours in Iraq and Afghanistan and was a senior adviser, as well as a tactical adviser, to the Iraqi and Afghan police and armies. He served three years on the U.S. Army War College faculty and is currently a U.S. State Department contractor developing curriculum and teaching at the Republic of Georgia Command and General Staff College in Tbilisi.
Originally published in the March 2014 issue of Armchair General.