Meeting the Real World Challenges of Transition

from Center for Strategic and International Studies
Published on 23 Jan 2013 View Original

By Anthony H. Cordesman

Jan 23, 2013

The more one looks at Afghanistan today, the more likely it seems that Transition will at best produce a weak and divided state and at worst a state that either continues its civil war or comes under Taliban and extremist control. More than a decade of Western intervention has not produced a strong and viable central government, an economy that can function without massive outside aid, or effective Afghan forces. There are no signs that insurgents are being pushed towards defeat or will lose their sanctuaries in Pakistan, and outside aid efforts have generally produced limited benefits – many of which will not be sustainable once Transition occurs and aid levels are cut.

There has also been a steady erosion of outside support for the war – first in Europe and increasingly in the US, where some 60% of Americans no longer see a prospect of victory or any reasons to stay. While governments talk about enduring efforts, each time the US and its allies have reviewed their Afghan policy since 2010, their future level of commitment has seemed to shrink and more uncertainties have arisen.

The Burke Chair at CSIS has prepared an overview of current trends and their implications for Transition to and beyond 2014. This analysis has been prepared for a NATO Defense College conference and is now available in draft form for comment and suggested revisions.

Some recent trends are positive. The meeting between President Obama and President Karzai in early January 2013 had some reassuring aspects. President Karzai moderated his initial demands and criticisms. President Obama seems to have committed the US to keeping relatively high US force levels through the 2013 campaign season, to requesting the kind of economic aid from Congress that could help Afghanistan get through the economic shock of ISAF force withdrawals and cuts in outside spending, and to helping the Afghan Army stay at levels near 200,000 through FY2017 – if necessary.

Both sides moved away from the tensions that led the US to talk about a “zero option” for US forces in Afghanistan after the end of 2014 and seemed to agree on the need for a realistic strategic agreement that would give the US a presence in, and access to, several bases after 2014, with suitable immunity for US troops.

At the same time, a detailed analysis of recent US government, ISAF, and World Bank reporting on the current level of progress in Afghanistan makes it all too clear that the many claims of progress are false or unverifiable, spin is being substituted for transparency and integrity, and far too little real-world progress has been made in correcting the mix of problems and failures that needed to be addressed during the Tokyo and Chicago conferences in 2012 – failures analyzed in detail in a previous Burke Chair study – Afghanistan: The Failing Economics and Civil-Military Aid Efforts of Transition – which is also available on the CSIS web site at

No clear plans have emerged for annual aid spending or for the size and basing of future troop and aid efforts, while new tensions quickly emerged over issues like US special forces trainers for the Afghan Local Police. Plans for any new offensive campaign in the East were abandoned, and the political climate in the US moved towards a sharper downsizing of the probable US commitment after 2014 and more rapid cuts in US troop levels and spending between the end of the campaign season in 2013 and the end of 2014.

Moreover, a realistic appraisal of the current situation in Afghanistan shows that it will presents serious – and potentially fatal – challenges to even a fully-resourced Transition effort. These challenges include major problems in Afghan leadership, governance, the economy, and forces – as well as for the US and its allies.

Afghans must do far more to assume responsibility for their own future and make things work on Afghan terms. As a result, the hardest choices have to be made by Afghans. They have to make changes in leadership, governance, economics, and the ANSF that show there is a real incentive for the US and its allies to support and fund a real Transition strategy.

At the same time, there is an equal need for far more US and allied realism about what can be accomplished, the need for serious aid well beyond 2014, and commitment to working with the Afghan government to develop meaningful plans. Without major efforts on both sides, Afghanistan may muddle through in spite of this mix of Afghan, ISAF, and donor problems. The more Transition is treated as an “egress strategy,” the more likely “Afghan good enough” is to turn into “Afghan failed.”

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