Rosy Assumptions: U.S. Strategy in Afghanistan Post-2014


 Last year, Ambassador Cunningham and General Dunford signed the U.S. Civil-Military Strategic Framework for Afghanistan, which claims to “articulate the strategic vision guiding United States Government (USG) efforts to achieve U.S. national goals in Afghanistan” up until and including the so-called “Transformation Decade” of 2015-2024.  It states:

U.S. national goals during the Transformation Decade are to support GIRoA [the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan] so that together we can defeat al-Qa’ida and prevent Afghanistan from slipping into chaos. To best meet these goals, the USG will focus on governance and socio-economic development; training, advising, and assisting the ASI [Afghan Security Institutions] and ANSF [Afghan National Security Forces]; and strategically posturing to continue counterterrorism efforts.

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 this document attempts to do just that. With violence in Afghanistan just as high as it was before the “surge” (if not higher – the Department of Defense decided to stop releasing information on enemy-initiated attacks), the American taxpayer could reasonably expect a candid re-assessment of the assumptions that have guided American strategy in the Hindu Kush in recent years.  The analyst could hope for at least a partial departure from the narrative, now resembling Swiss cheese, that we are leaving Afghanistan a more stable and secure place. Both the taxpayer and the analyst in me are disappointed.

Some of the ten assumptions listed are highly problematic – dangerous even – which undermines the entire strategy.  As whole, the list reveals that American official strategic thought has not yet come to terms with the shortcomings of our venture in Afghanistan, particularly as they relate to the viability of the Afghan state and its security institutions. I address the three most problematic assumptions here and will offer an alternative list of assumptions in a another article, with the perhaps naïve hope that 2014 becomes the year the United States adopts a more realistic outlook in Afghanistan.

“GIRoA’s strategic goals remain generally congruent with U.S. goals in Afghanistan through the Transformation Decade.” 

The Afghan government’s interests and the strategic goals that follow have less overlap that we are led to believe. Both parties have an interest in the survivability of the Afghan government, its institutions, and its security forces’ effort to secure its territory against the Taliban insurgency.  However, the U.S. and Afghan governments have an inherently different view of the war and – consequently – a different view on the path forward.  In the words of former Ambassador Karl Eikenberry:

U.S. military commanders diagnosed Afghanistan’s problem as an indigenous insurgency, albeit one made worse by the insurgents’ access to sanctuaries in Pakistan. By contrast, Karzai and many of his compatriots diagnosed the problem as militant extremism, exported from Pakistan but cleverly masquerading itself in local garb. So while U.S. military commanders argued that a long, costly counterinsurgency campaign in Afghanistan was necessary to decisively defeat al Qaeda in the Central and South Asian region, Karzai consistently held that the so-called insurgency was mostly a “Made in Pakistan” product that Islamabad was forcefully exporting across the border.

The world was given a stunning reminder of the Afghan view of the war when the United States discovered and put a halt to a bid by the Afghan National Directorate of Security to build cooperative ties with Pakistani Taliban militants with an eye toward using them against the Pakistani state, much as the Pakistani ISI sponsors the Afghan Taliban.

The U.S.-Afghan strategic outlook is not a shared one and it is dangerous to build U.S. strategy on the faulty assumption that it is.

“An inclusive, credible, and transparent presidential election will be held in 2014, allowing for a peaceful transfer of executive authority with an outcome widely accepted by Afghans.”

If Afghanistan has a credible and transparent presidential election, it will be nothing short of a miracle, and at the very least we have to have a plan that considers alternative scenarios. These include Karzai staying in power, an anti-Karzai coup, a corrupt but procedurally democratic election that leaves the winner with low popular legitimacy, a corrupt but procedurally democratic election that is violently contested by various candidates with different factions in the security forces taking sides.

“The security environment in population centers and key terrain districts will pose obstacles, yet it will allow implementing partners to continue their assistance activities and for COM [Chief-of-Mission] personnel to adequately monitor and evaluate progress.”

A couple years ago, the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) identified almost 100 “key terrain districts,” which were to be the focus of security, governance, and development efforts. And indeed, while ISAF was at its height, considerable operational progress was made in most of these districts. But now, some of these districts, especially in the south and east, are already being ceded to the insurgency as ISAF forces have drawn down to overwatch. And the notion that Chief-of-Mission personnel, which seems to indicate civilians employed by the State Department and USAID, will be in a position to access these areas in a meaningful way to monitor and evaluate progress is questionable, at the very least.


The assumptions are followed by a “risks” section, which numbers fewer than 200 words in an 8000 word strategy document.  It warns that “gains in security, governance, rule of law, and socio-economic development may not be as robust as expected, or those gains may not be preserved when NATO and the international community presence declines.”  Considering this is already taking place, this should have been slotted into the list of assumptions, where it could serve as a more direct influence on the strategy.  Unfortunately, the risks identified by Ambassador Cunningham’s team and General Dunford’s planners do not include the possibility that U.S. and Afghan strategic outlooks may diverge and the presidential elections might not proceed as the international community hopes.  The idea of security force fragmentation is not even considered as a remote possibility. The document, as whole, paints a picture of an Afghanistan that sounds nice enough, but unfortunately is not likely to materialize.

I hope I’m wrong.


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


Image: 2nd Lt. Daniel Koszalka, 1st Squadron, Combined Task Force Dragoon, US Army