Strategic Failure? Talk Without Hope? Tactical Success? Spend Not Build (And Then Stop Spending)?
The US faces hard decisions in the Afghanistan/Pakistan War that are growing steadily harder as the time before transition runs out, the US faces growing budget pressures, and the situation in Pakistan and Afghanistan becomes more unstable. The Burke Chair has prepared a report that assesses the chances for strategic success based on new US government, UN, and NGO reporting.
The report addresses the grim fact that the US is on the thin edge of strategic failure in two wars: the war in Iraq and the war in Afghanistan/Pakistan. Yet failure may never reach the point of outright defeat in either country.
Iraq may never become hostile, revert to civil war, or come under anything approaching full Iranian control. Afghanistan and Pakistan may never become major sanctuaries for terrorist attacks on the US and its allies. Yet Iraq is already a grand strategic failure. The US went to war for the wrong reasons, let Iraq slide into a half decade of civil war, and failed to build an effective democracy and base for Iraq’s economic development.
The US invasion did bring down a remarkably unpleasant dictatorship, but at cost of some eight years of turmoil and conflict, some 5,000 US and allied lives and 35,000 wounded, and over 100,000 Iraqi lives. The Congressional Research Service estimates that the dollar cost of the war to the US alone is over $823 billion through FY2012, and SIGIR estimates that the US and its allies will have spent some $75 billion on aid – much of it with little lasting benefit to Iraq.
The outcome in Afghanistan and Pakistan now seems unlikely to be any better. The US, however, has yet to present a credible and detailed plan for transition that shows that the US and its allies can achieve some form of stable, strategic outcome in Afghanistan that even approaches the outcome of the Iraq War.
Far too many US actions have begun to look like a cover for an exit strategy from Afghanistan, and the US has never provided a credible set of goals – indeed any goals at all – for the strategic outcome it wants in Pakistan. Unless the US does far more to show it can execute a transition that has lasting strategic benefits in Afghanistan and Pakistan well after 2014, it is all too likely to repeat the tragedy of its withdrawal from Vietnam.
Such a US strategic failure may not mean outright defeat, although this again is possible. It is far from clear that the Taliban and other insurgents will win control of the country, that Afghanistan will plunge into another round of civil war, or that Afghanistan and Pakistan will see the rebirth of Al Qaida or any other major Islamist extremist or terrorist threat.
However, the human and financial costs have far outstripped the probable grand strategic benefits of the war. Given the likely rush to a US and ISAF exit, cuts in donor funding and in-country expenditures, and unwillingness to provide adequate funding after 2014, Afghanistan is likely to have less success than Iraq in building a functioning democracy with control over governance, economic development, and security. Worse, Pakistan is far more strategically important and is drifting towards growing internal violence and many of the aspects of a failed state.
Even if Afghanistan gets enough outside funding to avoid an economic crisis and civil war after US and allied withdrawal, it will remain a weak and divided state dependent on continuing US and outside aid through 2024 and beyond, confining any strategic role to one of open-ended dependence. As for a nuclear-armed Pakistan, it is far more likely to be a disruptive force in Afghanistan than a constructive one, and there is little sign it will become any form of real ally or effectively manage its growing internal problems.
There are no obvious prospects for stable relations with Pakistan or for getting more Pakistani support. The Karzai government barely functions, and new elections must come in 2014 – the year combat forces are supposed to leave. US and allied troop levels are dropping to critical levels.
It is time the Obama Administration faced these issues credibly and in depth. The US and its allies need a transition plan for Afghanistan that either provides a credible way to stay – with credible costs and prospects for victory – or an exit plan that reflects at least some regard for nearly 30 million Afghans and our future role in the region. It needs to consider what will happen once the US leaves Afghanistan and what longer term approaches it should take to a steadily more divided and unstable Pakistan.
Even if the US does act on such a plan and provide the necessary resources, it may not succeed, and Pakistan may become progressively more unstable regardless of US aid and actions in Afghanistan. Any de facto “exit strategy” will make this future almost inevitable.
The most likely post-2014 outcome in Afghanistan, at this point in time, is not a successful transition to a democratic Afghan government in control of the entire country. Nor is it likely that the Taliban will regain control of large parts of the country. Rather, the most likely outcome is some sort of middle ground where the insurgents control and operate in some areas, while others are controlled by various Pashtun groups. Some form of the Northern Alliance is likely to reappear, and the role of the central government in Kabul would be limited, or caught up in civil conflict.
US needs to start now to examine the different options it has for dealing with a post-2014 Afghanistan that is far less stable and self-sufficient than current plans predict, and make real plans for a Pakistan whose government and military cannot move the country forward and contain its rising internal violence. As is the case in Iraq, strategic failure in the Afghanistan/Pakistan War cannot end in a total US exit. The US must be ready to deal with near and long term consequences.