Real Assumptions for the Way Forward in Afghanistan

January 9, 2014

With the release of excerpts of former Secretary Robert Gates’ memoirs, reviewers are abuzz about Mr. Gates’ views of President Obama’s approach to Afghanistan. While Gates agreed with President Obama’s decision to “surge” troops into Afghanistan, he assessed that the president “doesn’t believe in his own strategy, and doesn’t consider the war to be his. For him, it’s all about getting out.” Gates described President Obama as “skeptical if not outright convinced [the strategy] would fail.”  Gates’ disapproval is directed at President Obama’s lack of faith in the mission, rather than problems with the mission itself.

Perhaps this public accusation will, counterintuitively, give President Obama some room to reveal his own doubts about the campaign in Afghanistan, thus far closely held, and reorient Washington’s assumptions as decision-makers take a hard look at the shape of the post-2014 mission.

As I explained in my article last week, a handy rule of strategy-making is to first list the assumptions that undergird the strategy’s logic and to identify any risks that might interfere with those assumptions. And in that same article, I criticized the optimistic assumptions of a post-2014 strategy document signed by International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) Commander, General Joseph Dunford, and our man in Kabul, Ambassador James Cunningham.  The document offered wishful thinking on the compatibility of U.S. and Afghan views of conflict, and on the possibility of free and uncorrupt national elections.

As an alternative, I offer the following goals and assumptions, which are both more realistic and more likely to serve our national interests than the ones that continue to lead us astray in Afghanistan and seem likely to do so even beyond 2014.

National Goals

  1. Political and military containment of transnational militant threats;
  2. Stabilization of the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan (GIRoA)—the institutions, not Karzai and his cronies—in order to keep it in power around Kabul, the north, and the west, and urban centers in the south and east; and
  3. Regional Stability.

Assumptions and Risks

  1. There will be some sort of Bilateral Security Agreement and Status of Forces Agreement;
  2. There will be a NATO Train, Advise, and Assist mission at the end of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) mandate;
  3. GIRoA and U.S. strategic goals will continue to conflict during the “Transformation Decade” (for more on this, please see my article from last week);
  4. In terms of regional stability, Pakistan’s internal stability is more salient than Afghanistan’s;
  5. Pakistan will continue to support non-state armed movements seeking to topple the Afghan government no matter what the United States does;
  6. Anti-government forces will regain some level of control over rural areas, especially in the south and east, to include key terrain districts and approaches to strategic urban centers;
  7. The Afghan State can only endure, even if the south and rural east are lost, if the Afghan National Security Forces endure;
  8. There will be some fragmentation within the security forces – especially in the Afghan Uniformed Police and the Afghan Local Police—due to factional differences, defections, desertion, infiltration, and hedging;
  9. GIRoA revenue generation will not cover operating expenditures, including increased security spending, and development costs for the foreseeable future;
  10. The forthcoming presidential elections could result in a number of outcomes, to include Karzai staying in power, an anti-Karzai coup, a corrupt but procedurally democratic election that leaves the winner with low popular legitimacy, or a free and fair election. Each outcome will impact a NATO support mission in different ways;
  11. “Reconciliation” between GIRoA and its armed opponents is unlikely in the foreseeable future; and
  12. Development aid has had, and will continue to have, a questionable impact on the viability of the Afghan state.

Unless Washington decides to recalibrate its goals and assumptions in light of the experiences of the last few years, the United States should get used to disappointment.


Ryan Evans is the assistant director of the Center for the National Interest. He is the editor-in-chief of War on the Rocks.


Photo credit: isafmedia