Five Years Ago, We Assessed the War in Afghanistan for Congress: How Did We Do?
In the 2013 National Defense Authorization Act, Congress asked for an independent assessment of the war in Afghanistan. I led the team that conducted that assessment, and we delivered the results to Congress in January 2014. As we approach the five year anniversary of that assessment — and given the recent increase in U.S. activities to pursue a negotiated settlement to the conflict — it is worth revisiting our major conclusions to understand what we got right, what we got wrong, and what we can learn from both elements about the way ahead.
Our first major finding pertained to the post-2014 threat in Afghanistan. We concluded:
the security environment in Afghanistan [would] become more challenging after the drawdown of most international forces in 2014, and that the Taliban insurgency [would] become a greater threat to Afghanistan’s stability in the 2015–2018 timeframe.
In hindsight, this finding seems both accurate and unsurprising, but it is worth remembering that at the time of our assessment the assumption of the international coalition was that the insurgent threat would decrease in the years following completion of the “surge” in Afghanistan. Perhaps more prescient, though, was our assessment of how the Taliban would become a greater threat:
In the 2015–2016 timeframe, we assess that the Taliban are likely to try to keep military pressure on the [Afghan security forces] in rural areas, expand their control and influence in areas vacated by coalition forces, encircle key cities, conduct high-profile attacks in Kabul and other urban areas, and gain leverage for reconciliation negotiations. In 2016–2018, once the insurgency has had time to recover from the last several years of U.S. and NATO operations, a larger and more intense military effort will become increasingly likely.
As recent, unclassified U.S. government assessments have made clear, this is exactly what the Taliban have done. One illustration of this is the trend in Afghan government control of its territory, which has declined from 66 percent in May 2016 to 56 percent in July of this year. As the figure below shows, the Taliban now control rural areas across all regions of the country and are using those to increasingly contest areas closer to major population centers.
With regard to terrorist groups in Afghanistan, we concluded that al-Qaeda did not pose an imminent threat to the United States and Western nations and “so long as adequate pressure is maintained via U.S. and Afghan counterterrorism operations, the group is unlikely to regenerate the capability to become a substantial threat in the 2015–2018 timeframe.” While this point is largely accurate with respect to al Qaeda, we did not foresee the rise of the Islamic State – Khorasan or the departure of most senior al-Qaeda members from the Afghanistan-Pakistan region to more permissive areas such as Syria and Yemen. Today, Islamic State – Khorasan has eclipsed al Qaeda as the foremost terrorist group operating in Afghanistan, and while U.S.-led counterterrorism operations against Islamic State – Khorasan have kept the group from rapid expansion, it has nonetheless grown to include several thousand fighters and become the foremost executor of high profile attacks (such as suicide bombings) in Kabul.
In terms of the Afghan security forces required to counter these threats, we concluded:
in the likely 2015–2018 security environment, [Afghanistan would] require a total security force of about 373,400 personnel in order to provide basic security for the country, and cope with the Taliban insurgency and low-level al Qaeda threat.
To date, Afghan security forces have been able to prevent the Taliban from overthrowing the Afghan government by force, but they have been unable to militarily defeat the Taliban and have been slowly losing territory — even with the provision of significant support from the U.S.-led coalition. One major reason for this is that Afghan security forces have not been able to maintain the force size that we deemed necessary. While the force did reach a reported end-strength of around 370,000 personnel in late 2014, since then it has declined to a reported size of about 312,000 personnel, due largely to the inability of the Afghan army to recruit enough new soldiers to keep pace with attrition. In addition, these are reported end-strengths. The issue of “ghost soldiers” has been well-known for years and results in only a fraction of the reported end-strength being available for duty on any given day. In other words, Afghanistan’s security forces have not been able to sustain the size we determined they would need, and they are currently shrinking.
Another reason for this is that Afghan security forces remain woefully dependent on coalition support for many of even their most basic capabilities. Five years ago, we stated that Afghan security forces would “continue to have significant gaps in capability that will limit their effectiveness after 2014.” We identified capability gaps in six areas as being the most critical: mobility; air support; logistics (e.g., supply, maintenance, and contracting); intelligence gathering and analysis; communications and coordination among force components; and recruiting and training of people with specialized skills.
I recently returned from my 11th trip to Afghanistan in the past ten years, and I can say that while incremental progress has been made by the coalition in addressing some of these capability gaps (most notably, mobility), overall Afghan security forces remain years away from being independently able to perform these functions. Five years ago, we wrote
these are systemic gaps in capability that can be mitigated via materiel solutions but not closed by them. We therefore conclude that international enabler support—to include advisors—will be essential to [Afghan security force] success through at least 2018.
While that assessment was correct, it was also artificially tied to the timeframe we were asked to examine (through 2018). Having reached that date, and based on the experience of the past ten years, I would now extend that timeline for at least another 5–10 years — and even longer for the Afghan air force given the recent introduction of UH-60 helicopters to their inventory and plans to phase out their Mi-17s on which our training has been focused to date.
Congress also asked us to examine the anticipated total costs of the Afghan security forces. Five years ago, the U.S. government had extremely spotty data on the component costs of the force, so we used two basic models to generate an estimated cost of the force of $5 to $6 billion per year. Today, the government’s understanding of Afghan security force costs is much more granular, but our overall estimate was relatively accurate — the United States appropriated $4.92 billion in fiscal year 2019 to the Afghan Security Forces Fund, which covers most, but not all Afghan security force costs.
Having assessed the future threat and the requirements for Afghan security forces to counter that threat, we projected that if Afghan forces were successful in countering the insurgency through 2018, that “a negotiated political settlement to end the war would become much more likely in the 2019–2023 timeframe.” So what does our look back suggest about the veracity of this finding?
At the strategic level, the past five years have made clear that so long as the international coalition is willing to support the government of Afghanistan and its security forces with both funding and military assistance, the Taliban cannot militarily conquer the country. On the other hand, it has also shown that so long as the Taliban retain their sanctuary in Pakistan and their sources of revenue and external state support, they cannot be militarily conquered by Afghan security forces. The recent increase in U.S. and Taliban talks could be interpreted as an indicator that this has been recognized by both sides and therefore suggests that our conclusion is correct, insomuch as a prolonged strategic stalemate may increase the likelihood of a negotiated settlement.
However, below the strategic level it is clear that the momentum in the security sector is with the Taliban. Today, the Taliban have effectively surrounded at least six provincial capitals and reports from the field suggest that they are increasing their hold as the governing entity in rural areas. This suggests that, while the two sides may have reached the conclusion that prolonged fighting will not accomplish their strategic goals, their respective negotiating positions are not static: The Taliban are slowly improving their position by taking and controlling more of the country, while the position of the Afghan government is slowly eroding due to declines in the size of its conventional security forces (and commensurate overuse of its special operations forces). Likewise, the position of the United States is eroding due to the declining influence of the Afghan government and its own political impatience. It is no wonder therefore that U.S. Special Representative for Afghan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad has been so aggressive in his pursuit of a settlement.
So five years after our assessment for Congress, what did we get right? It seems that our threat assessment was largely accurate at both the macro level (the threat would increase) and the micro level (the Taliban would pursue a rural-to-urban, “outside-in” approach to eroding government control of the country). Our assessments of the rate of capability development and associated costs of Afghan security forces were also largely accurate. What did we get wrong? We failed to anticipate the rise of the Islamic State as a virulent new strain of extremism in Afghanistan and we did not foresee that Afghan security forces would be unable to maintain their authorized end-strength even with substantial coalition assistance.
What can we learn from this retrospective? I would offer three insights. First, much of what is currently happening in Afghanistan was anticipated five years ago. Detailed analysis of Afghanistan’s recent history, the geopolitics of the country and the region, and U.S.-led efforts to build Afghan security forces made clear that at best very limited progress could be expected over the course of five years. We should therefore be very cautious about any future projections of progress in the security sector of Afghanistan, as many of the same variables that have frustrated our efforts to date (e.g., corruption) will remain for the foreseeable future.
Second, while the realization of both the United States and the Taliban that they cannot win this conflict militarily means that prospects for a strategic settlement are as good now as they have ever been, the tactical negotiating positions of the parties to the conflict are shifting in favor of the Taliban. Thus, to get a deal within the next year as Khalilzad has publically stated, the U.S. and Afghan governments may need to grant concessions that are more generous than some may deem currently warranted, in order to convince the Taliban that they will not get a better deal simply by waiting. Another option would be for Washington to increase its commitment of troops and resources in order to improve its negotiating position by reversing (or at least blunting) the tactical momentum of the Taliban, though in the current U.S. political climate this seems unlikely.
Last, while al-Qaeda has largely been a non-factor in Afghanistan over the past five years, this is due both to persistent U.S.-led counterterrorism efforts and the unexpected rise of Islamic State – Khorasan. The lesson here is that while the strategic trajectories of a large-scale, indigenous insurgency in Afghanistan were relatively predictable, those of global terrorist groups such as al Qaeda and the Islamic State are much less so. As a result, the United States should be extremely careful in its calculus regarding the future of such groups and what that means for a negotiated settlement, since the prevention of further terrorist attacks from Afghanistan is the one true vital national interest that the United States has in the country.
Dr. Jonathan Schroden directs the Center for Stability and Development, and the Special Operations Program, at the CNA Corporation, a non-profit, non-partisan research and analysis organization based in Arlington, Virginia. His work at CNA has focused on counterterrorism and counterinsurgency activities across much of the Middle East and South Asia, to include numerous deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan. You can find him on Twitter @jjschroden.
Image: Cpl. Zachary Nola