As the NATO summit on Afghanistan approaches, former infantry officer Patrick Bury addresses the imminent strategic failure of an unpopular war.
Former infantry officer and author of ‘Callsign Hades’, Patrick Bury, recently conducted research on the Afghanistan campaign for an international security organisation; the views expressed here are his own
With the NATO summit on Afghanistan due to take place in Chicago this weekend, world leaders will be forced to focus on solutions to this long and unpopular war.
The killing on Saturday of two British servicemen again highlighted the increasing ‘Green on Blue’ attacks by Afghan security personnel on NATO soldiers, while US Marines urinating on corpses, Korans being burnt, the murder of 17 Afghan civilians by a renegade American sergeant and a large attack on Kabul have all represented serious political setbacks.
These setbacks have been all the more significant now given that the military campaign cannot save the West from long-term strategic failure.
This is not to say the military have failed in their mission. In the regions where they have been sufficiently resourced, strong tactical and operational gains were made during 2010/11 in the key provinces of Helmand and Kandahar.
The transition of security duties to Afghan forces also remains on schedule. However, these successes have not translated into the strategic nor ultimately, the political gains the surge was designed to deliver.
In the 2007 Iraq surge for example, violence decreased by about 70% in five months. In doing so it created the space within which governance and the rule of law could begin to be established. Twelve months into the surge in Afghanistan, the U.N estimated that violence had risen by 39%; governance remains patchy at best.
Furthermore, violence is increasing even in areas that are meant to be secure: attacks in the Kandahar region rose by 13% over the winter 2011/12 period. Attacks in the East were up 3%. Taken together, these figures indicate that in the two regions where insurgent violence is most concentrated, attacks have continued to rise, even during the traditionally more benign winter months.
Meanwhile, support from NATO populations for the war is at its lowest level ever (27 percent in the U.S), France and Australia have already announced accelerated withdrawal timetables and progress toward a political settlement has stalled.
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A December 2011 US national intelligence estimate concluded that pervasive corruption and Kabul’s incompetent governance had undercut the surge’s security gains and that president Karzai’s government might not survive a NATO withdrawal at all. Basic metrics support this view.
The central statistic of the Afghan campaign is an economic one. Although it has experienced rapid economic growth recently – the IMF estimates Afghanistan’s GDP to be over $19 billion. Without the inflation generated by over 100,000 NATO troops and their support staff, the country’s GDP is historically close to $12 billion.
The cost of training and equipping the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) is forecast by the U.S to be $4-6 billion a year for the foreseeable future, depending on their size. Thus, funding its security forces will cost Afghanistan about a third to a half of its GDP every year. This is simply unsustainable.
Of course, the U.S and its NATO allies are aware of this. Reports suggest that the U.S will continue to provide $5 billion next year; it hopes NATO members will make up the $1.3 billion difference. However, so far the alliance has only raised $550 million (Britain has given $110 million), leaving a significant shortfall in ANSF funding.
Moreover, the long term sustainability of even this amount is questionable. With Europe’s financial woes continuing, it will become increasingly difficult to justify funding an unpopular and distant war that could eventually see NATO governments supporting one side in a civil war.
Here, the echo of the Soviet experience in the country begins to reverberate loudly. When the Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan in 1989, they continued to fund and equip President Najibullah’s forces.
With Soviet support, the beleaguered president was able to cling to power, gradually ceding some 90% of the country to the Muhajideen insurgency as his army’s appetite for the conflict waned. However, when the Russians turned off the money tap in 1992, Najibullah’s regime rapidly crumbled.
NATO knows that the ANSF in their current form are unsustainable. Next year, the U.S will cut in half the $11.2 billion it gave the ANSF for 2012; the net result being that, after a rush to reach ANSF manning of 352,000, the force will be reduced just as it hits this target.
The latest NATO figures indicate that Afghan forces currently total 344,000, but given the long term questions over sustainability, a force of about 230,000 is now being considered more realistic.
Forces this size would fall far short of the number required by NATO’s own doctrine to successfully conduct a counter-insurgency campaign. Such doctrine holds that one counter-insurgent is required for every 20-25 members of the population.
Even given the geographic concentration of Afghanistan’s insurgency in the south and east of the country, the 230,000 figure falls far below this ratio. By comparison, Iraq, which has a similar population to Afghanistan, has over one million army and police personnel for its 30 million citizens.
Simply put, even ignoring Pakistan’s hand in Afghanistan’s affairs, without a large and sustainable security force to suppress the insurgency, the government will be unable to hold the areas NATO forces have fought hard to clear. The only way to avoid this scenario is through some sort of political settlement.
However, in the short term at least, a political settlement seems unlikely. The Sunday assassination of Maulvi Rahmani – a top negotiator for Karzai’s high peace council with strong links to the Taliban – has highlighted the continuing precariousness of the negotiations process.
Mahaz-e Mullah Dadullah, a hard line insurgent faction, has claimed responsibility for the killing. Their actions indicate that many factions of the Taliban remain opposed to any negotiated settlement that would deny them the return of to an Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.
Meanwhile, secretary of state Clinton has not spoken pro-actively on negotiations in over a year. Ahmed Rashid, a leading Afghan analyst, recently indicated that the main reason for this is due to disagreements within the U.S administration over whether the negotiations process should be prioritised at all.
Yet some sort of a political settlement is now the only way the West can prevent Afghanistan’s slide into civil war. Otherwise, on their current trajectory, the basic metrics of its eleven year investment of blood and treasure in Afghanistan point towards strategic failure.
When combined with the qualitative evidence of widespread corruption the complete picture is even worse: a lack of popular support for the Afghan government, an internal Pashtun/non Pashtun divide, an impending shortfall in aid as military assistance is cut and the continuing undermining of stability by Pakistan provides the context within which the quantitative evidence must be understood.
Reports that former northern alliance warlords have begun re-arming in preparation for the Afghanistan that NATO leaves behind, suggest they understand the ground truth better than those meeting in Chicago this weekend.