Averting Disaster in Afghanistan

CHRISTOPHER D. KOLENDA — Unless the United States changes its strategy in Afghanistan, that country could experience even greater tumult. 

Editor’s note: This interview was conducted and transcribed by guest contributor Kevin Shi.


The US has been in Afghanistan for over 15 years. How can analysts evaluate the security situation in Afghanistan right now and give a prognosis for its future?

At a strategic level, the situation is an unstable stalemate in that neither side is likely to win outright while both sides maintain international support. The Afghan government is unable to force the Taliban to capitulate, and the Taliban is unable to overthrow the Afghan government. It is unstable because the security situation is declining. As international forces are reduced from nearly 140,000 down to around 10,000, the Afghan security forces are just not quite able to fill that void, leading the Taliban to secure greater gain. Whereas in 2014, the Taliban controlled barely any of the country, today, they control, according to some estimates, at least 10 percent of the districts in Afghanistan and contest about 25-30 percent more. Today, analysts and observers are definitely seeing a shift in the Taliban’s ability to control and contest territory.

The Taliban’s security gains will eventually culminate. How much territory they will be able to gain in the future is almost entirely dependent upon the Afghan government’s ability to reform its governance and security forces. Weakness in both areas prevents them from being able to retain contested areas. The US can help Kabul by ending the self-defeating practice of announcing withdrawal timelines. This, however, will not help very much unless the Afghan government makes serious reforms.

President Trump has previously called the war in Afghanistan a “disaster.” If you were to speak to the new administration, how would you make the case for US engagement in Afghanistan?

The core interest for the US is to prevent international terrorist groups from being able to use Afghan soil to conduct large-scale terrorist attacks against America and its allies.

First of all, there are many reasons to be skeptical about the current approach. The US has spent more in real dollars over the past 15 years in Afghanistan than for the entire Marshall Plan to rebuild Europe after the Second World War. Many of those resources have gone to support very good things, but too many of those resources have been misappropriated by Afghan elites in one of the most corrupt governments in the world. It is absolutely scandalous.

Second, the United States needs to change its approach to Pakistan. Pakistan fears that Afghanistan and India seek to dismantle them. To prevent this, Pakistan provides support to the Taliban and other groups that are killing American soldiers and Afghan soldiers and civilians. The US, in turn, provides Pakistan with $742.2 million in aid and assistance each year and has declared them a major non-NATO ally. Many Afghan suspect that this schizophrenic policy toward Pakistan is designed to keep Afghanistan unstable, thereby justifying American troop presence. Revoking support to Pakistan will not convince the latter to turn against the Afghan Taliban, but will restore some dignity to US policy. At the same time, the US should not dismiss Pakistan’s security fears, but should instead find more effective ways to address them.

The bottom line is that bankrolling a kleptocratic government (like Afghanistan’s) fighting an insurgency that has internal support and external sanctuary in a never-ending conflict is a recipe for expensive failure. One could make that case that improved global surveillance capabilities and global strike capabilities could enable the US to leave Afghanistan now and keep low the possibility of a major terrorist attack originating from the country in the future. Such a strategy could also force Afghanistan’s neighbors to cooperate with one another rather than engage in destabilizing competition. It is certainly possible to make the case to leave.

However, there are greater reasons to stay in Afghanistan. The country remains attractive for international terrorist groups. Working with a friendly government to prevent terrorist return is preferable to relying on unsavory or unreliable actors to do so. The good news is that an increasing number of Afghans within the government and civil society want reform. President Ashraf Ghani has been working very hard to address corruption and malignant activity within the government and security forces. He has many spoilers and blockers in Afghanistan, however, and Washington needs to do a better job of helping him. The case for staying relies on a credible strategy that brings about reform and a favorable and durable end to the conflict. That, right now, is lacking.

My new CNAS report “Focused Engagement” shows how Washington should modify its strategy. The doomsday scenario is the US stays in Afghanistan another five years but fails to change the strategy. The Afghan government’s dependence on international support will grow, the kleptocracy will continue wholesale theft of American taxpayer dollars, and US soldiers will keep getting wounded and killed. Eventually the American people and Congress will just say “enough is enough.” This is what happened in Vietnam. If that occurs five years from now, then the collapse of the Afghan government would be catastrophic. This could return Afghanistan to a 1990s-style civil war, which would provide the best opportunity for groups like al-Qaeda and ISIS to grow there. For these reasons, the current US approach of sending money and troops but paying little attention to Afghanistan is the most dangerous.

In your June 2015 Foreign Policy article, “Saffron Revolution 2018,” you enumerate the doomsday scenario mentioned above. What steps should the US and international partners take to prevent that scenario and ensure a desirable outcome?

First of all, Washington and Kabul have to get on the same page. For the last 15 years, the US — the principal backer of the Afghan government — and the Afghan government have had no common strategy for how to win or conclude the war. That is an absolutely appalling situation. It is impossible to get on the same page as partners if one does not have a certain glue that holds that partnership together and holds one another accountable. The first thing that must be done is developing a common strategy.

The second thing that Washington must do is get serious about conditionality. The Afghan government needs to fulfill its obligations and earn the military and financial support that the US is giving it. Afghanistan is the top recipient of American aid and assistance on the planet. The government needs to take more seriously its obligations in return for that support. People like President Ashraf Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah absolutely do take these obligations seriously, as do many elements of the current Ghani Administration. However, there are many powerful elites and warlords who are so invested in advancing the kleptocracy that they are blocking the reforms. Conditionality of US support is critical to helping President Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah achieve the kind of reforms that are necessary to drive down corruption levels. It  will not be fixed overnight, but progress must be made in reducing corruption and improving governance.

Right now, there are too many Afghans who believe their government is predatory and kleptocratic. That kind of belief can drive people to the Taliban for protection and support. It is critical to improve governance and US conditionality can help Afghan policymakers to achieve that goal. Finally, the US needs to stabilize international presence and stop self-defeating withdrawal timelines.

With regard to a military strategy or military-support strategy, how could the US and its international partners engage with the Afghan government on security?

Well, what are the most realistic outcomes? Provided both sides keep receiving their current levels of international support, the Afghan government is not going to defeat the Taliban, and the Taliban is not going to overthrow the Afghan government. There is no reason to believe that international support is going away any time soon. Instead, one is left with the likelihood that a peace process is the most probable way to achieve a durable and favorable outcome. While policymakers and military commanders may wish to defeat the Taliban, it is simply not going to happen. The Taliban can wish all they want to overthrow the Afghan government, and that will not happen either. The challenge is to get both sides to recognize that the likelihood of further military gains is not going to outweigh the cost. That realization ultimately leads to three priority efforts:

The first priority effort for the US is helping the Afghan government to stabilize the battlefield. It can achieve that goal in a couple of ways. First, the US ought to announce, provided the Afghan government meets their requirements, that it will maintain current levels, or even an enhanced level, of support as long the Afghan government wants it. There must be that sort of predictability, such that there is no doubt in anybody’s mind that the US is going to continue supporting the Afghan government. However, such aid cannot be open-ended, unconditional support. The US needs to have a game plan that rewards or penalizes the Afghan government and elites based on measurable performance metrics.

The second priority effort is regional diplomacy that backs Afghanistan as a neutral power in return for credible commitments of non-interference by the neighbors. Right now, Afghanistan is surrounded by predatory neighbors who engage in activities that destabilize Afghanistan. You have this sort of “Great Game” competition in which Afghanistan’s neighbors try to prevent others from gaining influence. One of the primary rivalries in the region is of course the India-Pakistan rivalry. This involves Afghanistan because Pakistan fears that Afghanistan will become a client state of India and be used by India to undermine the territorial integrity and security of Pakistan. India fears Pakistan gaining control of Afghanistan. Thus, one sees emerge a constant tug-of-war that is pulling Afghanistan apart. Iran, Russia, Saudi Arabia, and others also have their own interests and agendas.

The US has been trying for 15 years to find a “sweet spot” that makes everyone happy. Washington ought to accept the proposition that such an outcome is impossible. Policymakers cannot accommodate everybody’s wishes or desires. Instead, they are left with either picking winners and losers, or working with the Afghan government to adopt a stance of regional neutrality, and working with the neighbors on a policy of non-interference in Afghanistan and developing a way to enforce that.

Reducing the destabilizing competition in Afghanistan will help stabilize the battlefield and will help the third key effort: creating the building blocks of a peace process.The US ought to work with the Afghan government and others to find a credible third party facilitator who can begin to build solid foundations for a peace process. This peace process must occur on three levels. It needs to occur at a regional level with Afghanistan’s neighbors, the national level, and the local level. This is a process that may take 10-15 years to unfold. Afghanistan has been at war for nearly 40 years. There are two generations of Afghans who know nothing but conflict, and putting the right building blocks in place for peace will take patience.

Shifting the discussion to the Afghan security forces, the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF) have previously faced significant challenges, including lack of unity, high attrition rates, high casualty rates, as well as issues with civilian casualties. How can analysts evaluate the ANDSF as a professional fighting force, particularly in its main burden of fighting the Taliban?

The ANDSF is very mixed and its effectiveness depends on the leadership. On the one hand, many senior officials purchase their positions. People pay a lot of money to be a police chief, a logistics officer, a unit commander, etc. This situation creates incentives for these officials, who have purchased their positions, to want to win that money back. This is not a donation out of a sense of patriotism and loyalty to the government. They are paying with the expectation of making a return on their investment. This situation is creating incentives to prioritize personal profit over performance on the battlefield. Where that is most acute, one tends to see the lowest performance levels for the police and army. Where that is less prevalent, one tends to see better performance. The police and army also tend to perform better where the US has had sustained long-term relationships. In the east and southeast of the country, the Afghan army is doing pretty well and consistently better than places where the US-led advisory effort was only six months at a time.

I have fought alongside Afghan forces. When they are well-led, Afghan forces fight very bravely. Afghan forces who believe in their government and their leadership are going to continue to stand and fight. Those who do not will run. Nobody wants to put his or her life on the line for a corrupt leader who is stealing food, selling fuel and ammunition, and is tactically incompetent. Part of the conditionality in reform efforts mentioned above has to include security sector reform and political reform. The performance of military commanders, police chiefs, and governors has to be under review. In places where the situation is getting worse, these officials ought to be fired. It may not be entirely their fault, but somebody has to be accountable for security and governance getting better in Afghanistan.

What gives you optimism about Afghanistan’s future?

I have a lot of faith in Afghanistan and the Afghan people. If they were satisfied with the levels of corruption, you would  not have 90% of the Afghan population saying that it is a problem in everyday life. Afghans are very upset about the political situation and that should motivate the US to work with reformers like President Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah to make a government of which the people can be proud. They have suffered almost 40 years of conflict.

Afghans are among the most generous and thoughtful people I have ever met. The young people I meet in Afghanistan, who have had the chance to get an education they never would have received pre-2001, are now entering business, government, and civil service. They are the hope for the future. As long as the US keeps the faith, and the Afghans keep the faith, Afghanistan may have a very bright future as this generation grows. Afghanistan has a lot of potential, but that potential is in a very fragile place right now. I hope that the US and the Afghan government can work together to make that future more assured.


CHRISTOPHER D. KOLENDA is an Adjunct Senior Fellow at the Center for a New American Security and a Senior Fellow at the Center for Global Policy. He recently served as the Senior Advisor on Afghanistan and Pakistan to the Department of Defense senior leadership and has served four tours in Afghanistan.

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