Can the U.S. Win the War in Afghanistan?

By David Pierce
2009, Vol. 1 No. 10 | pg. 1/2 |

Nearly eight years into the war, the security situation in Afghanistan appears to be deteriorating at an increasingly fast past. Areas that were previously secured have been retaken by militants; significant increases in civilian casualties, caused primarily by U.S.-led attacks, have fostered a growing resentment within the civilian population towards U.S. policy in the region; the Afghan government, led by President Hamid Karzai, effectively controls only the capital city of Kabul, while rampant corruption leaves the population disaffected and unenthused; and ongoing challenges continue to grow within the mountainous tribal areas that compose the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, straining U.S.-Pakistan relations and threatening to further destabilize the entire region.1

Military challenges are augmented by what has been the lack of a clear strategy that stretches beyond immediate security concerns. It is apparent at this point that any viable strategy for long-term security and stability in Afghanistan will require a strengthened domestic government—including stronger military and police forces—capable of maintaining the rule of law throughout the entire country, especially in rural areas currently beyond Kabul’s reach.2

Other non-military challenges abound in a country that is among the poorest in the world. According to recent estimates, less than 50% of the adult male population was classified as literate while that number is less than 15% for women. GDP per capita is estimated at $800, while as much as $3 billion annually is collected as the product of  a booming drug trade, which consequently funds insurgent activity.3

A final and significant challenge lies in the fundamental nature of the threat. The “war on terrorism,” as it has been called, is a war against an idea and an ideology. It has yet to be proven whether or not military action can effectively combat such an amorphous opponent.

This article analyzes the prospects for success in Afghanistan in four main sections: Defining Success (I), Key Challenges (II), Moral Considerations (III), and Analysis/Prospects for Success (IV).

Defining Success

In trying to determine the realistic prospects for “success” in the Afghanistan War, it is important to have a concrete definition of what outcomes will be considered successful. Until very recently, the United States has not been clear in identifying tangible goals in Afghanistan, and military strategy has suffered accordingly. The initial goal of routing the Taliban was reached shortly after the invasion began, but the lack of a long-term strategy for stability turned an initial success into a contemporary failure. Furthermore, different departments of government define varying goals in Afghanistan. The U.S. State department defines a broad mission in Afghanistan:

“The United States and its international partners remain committed to helping Afghans realize their vision for a country that is stable, democratic, and economically successful, and to an Afghan government committed to the protection of women's rights, human rights, and religious tolerance.”4

 According to these goals, a successful outcome in Afghanistan extends far beyond a military victory; success would require comprehensive political, economic, and social reform, in addition to military security.

The U.S. Department of Defense also listed four primary goals in a January 2009 report to Congress; these goals are to “build an Afghanistan” that is:

  1. Never again a safe haven for terrorists and is a reliable, stable ally in the War on Terror.
  2. Moderate and democratic, with a thriving private sector economy.
  3. Capable of governing its territory and borders.
  4. Respectful of the rights of all its citizens.5

This definition provides clear boundaries for defining success with the top priority being to increase international and U.S. security.

Many have nevertheless pointed out that setting overly-lofty goals in Afghanistan could, and likely would, preempt our ability to reach them. United States Defense Secretary Robert Gates has pushed the U.S. to realign its focus on a core mission of security, saying “At a minimum, the mission is to prevent the Taliban from retaking power against a democratically elected government in Afghanistan.”[6] He has been a critic of overly ambitious goals—such as establishing a “thriving private sector economy”—and recently remarked, “If we set as the goal [creating] a Central Asian Valhalla, we will lose.”7

In light of these concerns, the U.S. recently concluded a three-month strategic review of the Afghanistan war effort, with the goal being to redefine short- and long-term goals in Afghanistan. On March 27th, President Obama delivered a speech announcing a “comprehensive, new strategy” for Afghanistan and Pakistan, describing the U.S.’s “purpose in Afghanistan” in the following way:

“…If the Afghan government falls to the Taliban – or allows al Qaeda to go unchallenged – that country will again be a base for terrorists who want to kill as many of our people as they possibly can… I want the American people to understand that we have a clear and focused goal: to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and to prevent their return to either country in the future.”8

Even though the goals set forth by different departments of government are not necessarily cohesive, the important thing is to recognize that each is built on a foundation of security.

Without security, other goals are inherently unattainable; as Cordesman and Burke write, “One can only shape the future if one can survive the present… No improvement in other areas can succeed without more security.”9 Based on these premises, two core goals can be surmised, without which one can reasonably assume most or all other goals can not be met:

  1. Minimize the influence of the Taliban, al-Qai’da, and other insurgent groups, which directly undermine the security of the Afghan state and the region; 
  2. Increase the authority of the legitimately elected domestic government, to the point where a durable rule of law can be maintained by local military and police forces, throughout the Afghan state.

It is difficult to imagine a way in which the Afghanistan War might be called “successful” without meeting these fundamental conditions.

Key Challenges

The number of current challenges facing U.S. and international forces in Afghanistan is numerous and growing. It is clear and now widely accepted that the U.S. is not winning the war. The situation has deteriorated and 2008 was confirmed as the “deadliest year” since the war began, for U.S. troops10 and Afghan civilians alike.11 This fact underscores some of the leading challenges in Afghanistan.

The first and most immediate challenge is the consistently expanding insurgent activity throughout the country, and especially in and along the Afghan-Pakistan border region. “Military clashes” increased by 33% in 2008, with other metrics following in similar suit: IED attacks (+27%), direct-fire incidents (+40%), and surface-to-air fire (+67%) all increased considerably.12 Aside from making the region more physically dangerous, the increase in insurgent autonomy also challenges core goals of the mission, which include reducing the ability of the Taliban to establish authority.

The drive behind the rebounding insurgency stems from multiple factors. One of those factors, which is representative of a bigger problem, has been the ability of Taliban and al-Qai’da fighters to establish safe-havens in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and Baluchistan region of Pakistan, along the Afghanistan border.13 This issue has primarily been addressed with the use of remotely-piloted drone aircraft, which have had a 183% increase in use since 2006.14 However, though the strikes have been praised as relatively effective, a significantly increased effort on the part of Pakistan is needed to reduce the prevalence of safe-havens. This situation was declared by President Obama as an “international security challenge of the highest order.”15

Another factor in the rebounding insurgency has been inadequate resources, especially in the form of U.S. troops on the ground. The undercut in funding for Afghanistan has been a serious and unfortunate side-effect of the war in Iraq. As one analyst testified to the Senate Armed Services Committee, “Afghanistan is larger and more populous than Iraq. It is more isolated and inaccessible. It is far poorer and less developed. And it has been in civil war for the past thirty years.”16 This description emphasizes the challenge U.S. and international forces face, which are exaggerated by depressed troop levels. Military generals and analysts agree that additional forces would increase pressure on insurgent activity and help shift the trend in a more positive direction. Increasing troop deployments and resource allocation to Afghanistan could be a key strategy in controlling violence and insurgent activity.17

The increasing levels of civilian deaths over the past year, as exemplified by the rising use of drone aircraft in cross-border attacks, represent a further challenge facing the mission in Afghanistan and Pakistan; and in fact, this situation can be thought of more effectively as a risk than a challenge. The risk is that local populations continue to become disillusioned and exhausted with the U.S. mission, causing essential domestic support to falter,  and potentially increasing support for the opposition and pushing a sustainable peace further out of reach. As one reporter commented on the rising death toll in Pakistan, “this risks provoking a strong anti-American nationalist reaction in a Muslim nuclear-armed power of 176 million people.”18 But this risk also extends to a political level: both President Karzai of Afghanistan and President Zardari of Pakistan have faced decreasing domestic and regional popularity as the conflict has claimed more civilian lives.19 For a mission that depends on the success and stability of domestic government as a core tenet to securing the region, civilian casualties are a significant risk.

In considering the political realm as a central strategic pillar for long-term stability, it is important to observe that President Karzai currently wields little power beyond the capital city of Kabul.20 This represents a barrier, on a fundamental level, to making Afghanistan work on its own. Without a functioning domestic government it is impossible to establish a legitimate rule of law, and without a reduction in general lawlessness throughout the country stability will be difficult or impossible to achieve. This problem signifies the broad and essential challenge of effective state building; beyond security, effective state building takes into account political, economic, social, and psychological factors.21 In the short-term, the state building effort needs to focus on extending security to the rest of the country. This can be done through a bolstering of Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF), which will require both human (for training) and economic resources. Under the new strategy announced by President Obama, the U.S. has set a goal of increasing Afghan Army and Police forces to a combined total of 216,000 by 2011.22 In the long-term, and as the ANSF increasingly takes control of their country, it is essential that non-military institutions continue to expand and encourage development on economic and social fronts.

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