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Gloomy Prognosis for Afghanistan

Interviewee: Stephen Biddle, Professor of Political Science and International Affairs, George Washington University, Adjunct Senior Fellow for Defense Policy, CFR
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor, CFR.org
August 22, 2012

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Stephen Biddle, a leading expert on Afghanistan, says the recent killings of U.S. servicemen by Afghan soldiers and police "threaten political support" for the war in the United States. He says that more important longer-term issues include whether the U.S. Congress will pay billions in support for an Afghan force after the allies leave in 2014, and whether the Afghan government can be persuaded to stop its "predatory" policy of seizing their own people's property. Biddle says he is "significantly less optimistic" than he has previously been about the situation. He adds that the U.S. "ability to drive the war to a successful conclusion on the battlefield is nil at this point." Biddle says that the political settlement is the route out, and when he looks at the kinds of decisions being made about the post-2014 future, he grows concerned that the United States is "undermining the middle- and long-term prospects for settlement by trying to make the war cheaper in the short term."

On Monday, President Obama, talking about the flurry of killings by Afghan soldiers and policemen against allied troops in Afghanistan, said, "We are deeply concerned about this from top to bottom." And shelling from Taliban forces outside Bagram Air Base damaged the aircraft of General Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. What is the significance of all this?

As far as the insider attacks go, there are many immediate concerns, but there are some arguably more important, deeper, longer-term issues that these attacks raise.

The immediate concerns are that they will threaten political support for the war in the United States, given the kind of political and morale effects that fratricidal killings have when they are deliberate and not accidental. And of course, there's also the issue that these killings contribute in a meaningful way to the overall casualty toll for the United States. [The United States recently recorded its two-thousandth death in the war]

The bigger issue this poses involves the larger prognosis for developing [the] Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) that can take over for us. The United States military often tends to behave as though you can create an effective allied military by just running them through the right number of training courses, giving them the right number of weapons, paying salary in sufficient amounts to raise a large enough force. But success and failure in building a third-world military, which is essentially what we are trying to do in Afghanistan, usually turns on soft questions like politics, whether the military in question gets captured by cronyism and politicized--and in this case, whether the politics of their relationship with their mentors works.

But success and failure in building a third-world military, which is essentially what we are trying to do in Afghanistan, usually turns on soft questions like politics, whether or not the military in question gets captured by cronyism and politicized.

The International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) has concluded that the great majority of these insider attacks is not the result of Taliban infiltrators, but is instead the result of a variety of motivations that often turn on conflicts between Afghan forces and American forces over cultural or political or interpersonal issues. If we are going to keep a large Afghan National Security Force in the field and functioning by mentoring them with large numbers of U.S. personnel, you end up having to use officers who have not been trained as foreign area officers or specialists in Afghanistan or South Asian politics and culture. And the insider threat, if in fact its causes are what ISAF now believes them to be, leads one to worry about whether generalist American soldiers, even those who have gotten some specialty training in being mentors and advisers but haven't been doing it for a career, are going to be able to carry off this mentoring responsibility on the scale necessary without creating cultural frictions that could undermine the success of the mission.

Could you talk a bit about where we are right now in Afghanistan?

The thirty thousand troops sent in as part of the "surge" in 2009-2010 are going to return home by the end of the summer but there will still be a little less than seventy thousand U.S. troops in the country. The surge will be over, but the baseline pre-surge force will still be there.

Now what's happening over the course of this summer are two things. One is this withdrawal of the surge forces, and the other is the handing over of lead security responsibility in some particularly important parts of the country to Afghan forces. That combination creates an opportunity for the Taliban to try and test whether the Afghan Security Forces that are picking up a lot of responsibility in a hurry over the course of the summer are up to it. There's been a wave of counterattacks this summer, as there were last summer, where Taliban forces are trying to regain control of areas that they lost. So the tempo of combat is up, the intensity of combat is up, the number of enemy-initiated attacks is way up. The number of Afghan casualties is up.

Can the Afghan forces do the job and "win" the war against the Taliban?

That's probably the biggest single strategic question for the war at this point--whether it is reasonable to expect that the post-2014 Afghan-led war effort has any prospect for succeeding [all allied combat forces are due to depart by the end of 2014]. And one of the key issues is whether the U.S. Congress is going to continue to pay for this activity after most of the Americans have gone home.

It is unlikely that they are going to be able to drive the Taliban out of strongholds that the Taliban control at the time of handoff in 2014. A plausible expectation on what the Afghans will be able to do after 2014 is hold what foreign troops have taken. What that means is that the war is going to be in a condition of long-term stalemate as of 2014, and what that means is that the U.S. Congress is going to be asked to write multi-billion-dollar-a-year checks to keep this war going for a long, long time.

At one point you were rather upbeat about the prospects for a negotiated deal. What's happened to those efforts?

The potential for a deal is certainly still there, and the administration is clearly very interested in it. In fact they have been sweetening their offers recently to try and get talks that are currently deadlocked moving again. And there is still a chance that we can get a deal. There are several big problems that are emerging, though. One of them is that in an attempt to get the waging of the war less costly, we're reducing our bargaining leverage.

[T]he war is going to be in a condition of long-term stalemate as of 2014, and what that means is that the U.S. Congress is going to be asked to write multi-billion-dollar-a-year checks to keep this war going for a long, long time.

The only way the Afghans are going to stay in the field and fighting after 2014 is if we can pay for their army. It's much, much bigger than their government budget can fund. This means that the Congress is going to have to continue to vote for these kinds of resources. The administration is concerned, for good reason, that Congress may not, so the way the administration has been trying to increase the odds that the Congress will keep the funding flowing is by shrinking the size of the Afghan security forces to be funded. They've been floating all sorts of trial balloons about troop reductions and the growth targets for the Afghan National Army and police.

The problem is if you want to make the war cheaper, you probably make it longer. And the only way to make it shorter is to spend more. So the administration is in this bind where they want the war to be shorter and cheaper simultaneously. And that is very hard to do without simply failing.

The second related problem has to do with governance. Any imaginable deal that ends the war will legalize the Taliban as a political actor and give them some offices or ministries in a government. The only way you can prevent them from, for example, taking political control of Kandahar province or Helmand Province, is if you have internal Afghan domestic political competition that can limit the Taliban's control over Afghanistan. It won't work if the non-Taliban Afghan government continues to get increasingly predatory, as we've seen since 2005 or so.

You mean corrupt?

Yes, but the reason I use "predatory" rather than "corrupt" is that increasingly, it involves the taking of things, like people's land. And that creates powerful sympathy for a Taliban that isn't otherwise popular. If the Taliban had to compete with some sort of reasonably tolerable, non-Taliban alternative, they wouldn't be able to take over provinces. The current government of Afghanistan is actively predatory on the population and getting worse over time. If we allow that to continue, we run the risk of making it impossible to prevent the Taliban from taking over far more than they could have taken over militarily on the battlefield.

Successive ISAF commanders have put the overwhelming majority of their effort into security rather than governance. And the problem that sets up is, even if those security improvements proved sufficient to drive the Taliban to the negotiating table and making a deal, it ends up undermining the sustainability of the deal reached. Their behavior in the negotiations strongly suggests that they are already positioning themselves for a post-settlement political process in Afghanistan that they intend to win.

What are the Taliban doing?

One of the big issues in the talks so far has been that the Taliban does not want to negotiate with President Karzai; they want to talk to us. The Taliban says you Americans are the only ones who matter. You're the ones with all the troops, you're the ones with all the guns, and you're the ones with all the money. Another important piece of their motivation is that they are trying to humiliate the Afghan government by suggesting they are nothing but a meaningless puppet as a way of improving their own political standing when the war stops.

That's a rather gloomy prognosis.

I'm significantly less optimistic than I have been, and I have always been no more than guardedly optimistic. I am very concerned about the direction that the war has been taking because of some shortsighted decisions we've made that have undermined our long-term prospect for getting an acceptable result. When people ask the question, "How's the war going?" usually they are focusing on the short term and the battlefield. So the issue usually is: Are casualties up or down? Are we in control of more of the country this month than we were last month? Are civilian causalities up relative to a year ago at this time, or down relative to year ago at this time? Those are all perfectly worthwhile questions, but the more important set of questions has to do with how we get to an acceptable outcome. Our ability to drive the war to a successful conclusion on the battlefield is nil at this point. Political settlement is the route out. And when I look at the kinds of decisions we are making about the post-2014 future, I grow very concerned that we are undermining the middle- and long-term prospects for settlement by trying to make the war cheaper in the short term.

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