An Analysis of America’s War in Afghanistan

America’s war and occupation of Afghanistan was designed and implemented by the likes of Zalmay Khalilzad without seriously considering the intent and the effects of the war and occupation before the Obama Administration took office. It was from the beginning a futile initiative, politically motivated in order to salvage a U.S.-led political framework put together by Khalilzad in Bonn after the events of 9/11.[1] Now it appears that the motivation to keep together this framework is dwindling; NATO/ISAF and the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) are in a race against time, resources, and the enemy which they may not win. The war in Afghanistan really began in 2009 when President Obama and General Stanley McChrystal provided NATO with immense resources and the counterinsurgency (COIN) strategy to achieve victory against the Taliban and its affiliates and to bolster the Afghan government led at the time by Hamid Karzai. The resources, however, may not last in time for a successful completion of U.S. objectives. For one, American forces are withdrawing in 2021. Also, the U.S. Fiscal Year budget for the Afghan reconstruction effort has declined annually since 2012. There is an assumption that the U.S. and the international community will continue to provide the ANSF with anywhere from 4 to 8 billion dollars per year for the foreseeable future, in addition to trainers. This assumption, in the face of popular pressure in the United States to cut budgets and withdraw from Afghanistan, stands on shaky grounds nonetheless.[2]

After years of mismanagement and neglect on the part of the Bush Administration to defeat and dismantle the Taliban and Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan by focusing on Iraq, U.S. President Barack Obama’s Afghanistan policy began in 2009 with a conjoined focus on Pakistan. Obama saw Pakistan as being fundamental to bringing stability to the Afghan political and security situation. Many observers consider that the Afghan war really began in 2009 with the inauguration of Obama’s Af-Pak policy.[3] Obama’s objectives were detailed and lofty. They included the disruption of terrorist networks in Afghanistan and Pakistan and the degradation of their ability to launch international terrorist attacks, the enhancement of civilian control and stable constitutional government in Pakistan, the development of Pakistan’s COIN capabilities and continued support for Pakistan’s efforts to defeat terrorist and insurgent groups, actively forging an international consensus to stabilize Pakistan, the building of Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) capacity in order to transition responsibility for security to the Afghan government and decrease U.S. troop presence, the building of Afghan government capacity which enables Afghans to assume responsibility in the process of “clear, hold, build, and transfer” territory, the forging of an international consensus to stabilize Afghanistan, and preventing the Taliban from overthrowing the Afghan government.

U.S. special operations forces involved in the fighting in Afghanistan said that a counterterrorism strategy could not work or be sustained without success in the ongoing counterinsurgency strategy. But the gains made through the counterterrorism strategy seemed much more significant than those made through the COIN strategy. Of 30 prominent al-Qaeda figures in the Af-Pak region, 20 were killed – including Osama Bin Laden – from the beginning of the troop surge in 2010 until June 2011. Many American politicians, including former Vice President Joe Biden, have not concealed their belief that a counterterrorism strategy in Afghanistan is the preferred route and has outperformed the more troop-intensive counterinsurgency strategy pushed initially by former Defense Secretary Robert Gates and General David Petraeus.[4]

The initial thrust of the U.S.-led NATO troop surge began early in 2010 and occurred in Kandahar and Helmand Provinces up until September 2010. The security environment improved in some areas of Afghanistan, while it worsened in others, particularly in the North. The Government of Afghanistan established a foothold in the South, and had some success in maintaining its territory. Afghan National Civil Order Police (ANCOP) in Helmand Province proved to be a success, despite its ethnic composition. The entire squad in the Marjah district of Helmand Province was non-Pashtun and despite this situation, the squad was able to peacefully coexist and cooperate with the local Pashtun population. The need for a more effective ANCOP presence throughout the country is needed especially after NATO withdraws from Afghanistan. After the 10th Mountain Division Headquarters arrived in RC South in late October 2010, the U.S. force surge reached its peak by December 2010. Insurgent control diminished in the South, East, and West. Yet the insurgency remained resilient, and continued to hinder coalition progress and undermine the population’s confidence in the Afghan government through an intimidation and murder campaign, the highlight of which was the assassination of Ahmad Wali Karzai in July 2011. COIN operations in Logar, Wardak, Paktia, Khost, and Ghazni also did not eradicate the insurgency.[5]

Training and institutional development of Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) has been an ongoing project since President Obama took office in 2009. In 2010, both the Afghan National Army (ANA) and Police (ANP) met their growth objectives. NATO and ISAF then undertook very important initiatives to raise the quality of the officer ranks in both the ANA and ANP, increase literacy, and to raise pay and improve retention. NATO Mission Training-Afghanistan (NTM-A) also built branch schools to provide skill training for the ANSF in areas such as combat arms, logistics, engineering, and intelligence. These initiatives were complemented by a decree signed by former Afghan President Hamid Karzai for the Ministry of Interior which included an active duty service obligation that commits ANP officers and enlisted personnel to specific obligations while in service. This was considered a major step in the ministry’s institutional development and it signaled that international assistance was making a seriously positive impact on the development of ANSF.[6]

Aside from the “clear, hold, build, and transition” strategy, the entire U.S.-led reconstruction plan intended to complement and reinforce COIN operations in Afghanistan was ineffective. The Afghan Local Police program was one of the few successes.[7] But the successes are overshadowed by the mistakes and the carelessness of reconstruction plans and implementation. Much of the aid money in the last twenty years or so was wasted on unsustainable or unsuccessful development projects. Afghanistan does not have a competitive economic advantage in any area outside of poppy production. Improving governance and development projects have been derailed due to a lack of security throughout the country as well as the incompetence and corruption of the Afghan government. As for Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRT’s), the primary function of PRT’s was to spend money. The pressure to spend money has resulted in a lack of accounting and a rush to start projects regardless of need, sustainability, or results. Projects are often given to local contractors without knowing the background of the company and as a result local power brokers subversive to the Afghan government and the U.S. strategy of strengthening the Afghan government end up being funded. As the United States has learned, more money is not always better. Cutting foreign spending on Afghanistan may enable Afghans and their international partners to better prioritize their needs. Surprisingly, more data is available on military operations and intelligence about the insurgent threat than on the impact of civil spending and aid.[8]

What hinders U.S. efforts in Afghanistan at this point in time is the fact that since there is such an intense focus on withdrawal and the reduction of resources to Afghan reconstruction, the U.S. is simultaneously pursuing goals that only a fully-resourced COIN strategy can achieve. Now, the United States is relying more heavily on “interoperability with specific partners,” which is code for falling back on Pakistan and Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF). U.S. forces are no longer sized to conduct large-scale, prolonged stability operations.[9]

But the withdrawal and the focus on Pakistan had been focal points of U.S. policy toward Afghanistan since 2009. To the bewilderment of many people who have been in denial for the past few years, U.S. involvement in Afghanistan has dwindled and Pakistan has re-emerged as a key player in Afghan affairs. There is no doubt that Pakistan’s internal problems undermine the effectiveness of the U.S-Pakistan strategic dialogue. Minority rights, nuclear weapons, and Pakistan’s support for international terrorism and their sheltering of Osama Bin Laden are issues that the Pakistani government has been held accountable over by the United States. There are also problems within the civilian government in Pakistan brought about by Pakistan’s inclination towards maintaining military rule, which hinders the ability of the Pakistani government to bring about key structural adjustments to Pakistan’s economy and infrastructure. Extremism has also threatened the stability of the Pakistani government and as a result has drawn the sympathy of the United States. But like a double-edged sword, extremism has also undermined the credibility of the Pakistani government in handling their internal affairs, which in turn has adversely affected U.S.-Pakistani relations. Over the past decade and longer, Pakistani COIN forces were deprived by the perceived threat of Indian forces along the Pakistani-Indian border. More troops are allocated to the Indian border in order to maintain a ratio between Pakistani and Indian troops, and thus COIN efforts along the Afghan border are adversely affected. An alternative hypothesis to the lack of engagement in the Af-Pak region by Pakistani forces is that Pakistan may have known that the counterinsurgency effort was futile from the start due to the resilience of the insurgency and the inability of the Afghan government to sustain itself without international help.[10]

Nevertheless, the U.S. is depending on Pakistani forces to help with the situation in the Af-Pak region once the transition takes effect in 2021.  One sign that America is investing in Pakistan to play a constructive role in Afghan affairs is the State Department’s Foreign Military Financing (FMF) and International Military Education Program (IMET) which began investments in Pakistan during the Obama Administration aimed at modernizing and improving Pakistan’s military. American assistance to the Pakistani civilian government and military indicates that the United States will rely on Pakistan to deal with the Af-Pak region as it had in the past. USAID disbursed millions of dollars to the Pakistani government since the passage of the Kerry-Lugar-Berman legislation. A dual focus on Afghanistan and Pakistan on the part of the United States, which represents the balanced approach that the Obama Administration generally took on foreign policy issues and has largely continued under the Trump Administration, has necessitated a closer relationship between Kabul and Islamabad than had existed in the past. In 2001, the United States lopsidedly favored the Northern Alliance strategy to the disappointment of the Pakistani government and the insurgency which is supported by Pakistan. Things are different now than in 2001, and the U.S. now has a balanced approach in the sense that it supports the Afghan government while also taking Pakistan’s interests into consideration. A Department of State survey taken in late 2010 showed that 66 percent of Pakistanis wanted their country to have better relations with Afghanistan. 57 percent of Pakistanis agreed that Afghanistan and Pakistan share a common interest in fighting terrorism. However, only 47 percent of Pakistanis wanted Afghanistan and Pakistan to work together in fighting terrorism, with 36 percent opposed. Despite U.S. insistence that the insurgency be contained with Pakistani help, there remains no clear path toward defeating the insurgency in Pakistan, despite the upsurge in Pakistani troop deployment. Between January and March 2011, Pakistani troop deployments increased to 147,000, up from 80,000 in 2001-2003. Yet the Pakistani military was unable to “hold” and “build” areas in which it conducted operations and met stiff resistance from militants in FATA, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Orokzai, and Mohmand.[11]

The U.S. troop surge in Afghanistan, which was started by the Obama Administration in the beginning of 2010, came to an end in September 2012. The irony is that the United States, according to Rajiv Chandrasekaran, carried out a counterinsurgency operation against the will of Hamid Karzai and the Afghan leadership they intended to protect since it sandwiched the Afghan government between the U.S. and the insurgency. The counterinsurgency effort of the United States in Afghanistan actually bolstered the insurgency and made peace less likely between the Afghan government and the Taliban, despite the fact that the United States began a peace process between the Afghan government and the Taliban in 2010. Concerned with the aims of the U.S. counterinsurgency effort, the Pakistani ISI provided arms and intelligence to at least half of insurgent commanders operating in the Afghan venue in the spring of 2011.[12] The United States recklessly decided to operate in an area which Pakistan – through its clients – maintains strategic depth. It is hard to determine whether the so-called “gains” in the South and East of the country made by the U.S. counterinsurgency effort can be held by the ANSF beyond 2021. The United States thought that by increasing their troop presence while simultaneously increasing Afghan troop levels during the surge and then launching an offensive in the South and East of the country all while withdrawing would somehow extend the control of the Afghan government into these areas permanently. This was merely an illusion. In reality, limited amounts of U.S. special operation troops conducted specific operations against specified targets in the South and East of Afghanistan while the ANSF for the most part stood aside and allowed the U.S. special operations forces to go on with their business. Defections from the Afghan army have also been on the rise.[13] The U.S. troop surge, one can contend, was intended simply to send a signal to those opposing the Bonn Agreement of 2001 that the Bonn Agreement and its beneficiaries – which were for the most part the Northern Alliance – would retain their position of power at least for the duration of the American troop presence. Afghan politics is a game of signal-sending, and whoever can send a signal of strength to the opposing side can essentially retain power. This happened in the 1980’s when the Afghan Communists brought the Red Army into Afghanistan as guarantors to their political survival. Likewise, the United States has essentially been used as a tool by the Bonn beneficiaries within a local power struggle between various groups in the Afghan political scene. The Bonn beneficiaries – once enemies of each other – thought that by coming into a power-sharing agreement in 2001, those outside of the Bonn framework could be excluded and ignored. That situation can no longer last and as part of the transition effect and the withdrawal of the United States as the major guarantor of the Bonn Agreement, the Bonn framework must either be re-worked or broadened by Afghans themselves in order to prevent an explicit war between the Bonn beneficiaries and those excluded from the Bonn framework.[14]

Once the United States withdraws, it is more than likely that Pakistan – and even China and India – will be the external actors playing the biggest role in Afghan affairs. Pakistan and the United States restored full military and intelligence ties after relations hit a low point in 2011. Full cooperation between Islamabad and Washington is critical to U.S. efforts to stabilize Afghanistan before most NATO troops withdraw by 2021. According to statements made by Pakistani Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar a few years back: “There was a fairly difficult patch and I think we’ve moved away from that into a positive trajectory.” Khar added: “We are coming closer to developing what could be common positions. We wish to see a responsible transition in Afghanistan.”[15] The statements made by the former Pakistani Foreign Minister suggest that Pakistan is again becoming relevant to the political situation in Afghanistan and that there will not be a repeat of the Bonn process where Pakistan and its Afghan clients were excluded. Pakistan wants and will seek leverage in any negotiated settlement of the conflict between the Afghan government and insurgents. Pakistan senses that the Afghan government will be a weak and vulnerable body after America’s withdrawal and that the post-withdrawal situation will be such that the Northern Alliance will be vying for power against the insurgency which Pakistan supports.[16]

Furthermore, Pakistan blames U.S. internal politics as well as the U.S. approach to Pakistan over the last decade for not bringing about a solution to the Afghan conflict. Pakistan considers the U.S. perception of the Taliban as being “wrong” and considers a peace deal with the Taliban as being “revolutionary.” Congress’s demands to be consulted on Af-Pak affairs, their opposition to Guantanamo Bay detainee transfers to the Afghan government, and their opposition to a Taliban political office were once inhibitors towards a resolute solution to the Afghan conflict. However, there is now a consensus that Pakistan’s role is “crucial” to reconciliation in Afghanistan. Pakistan, however, needs assurances that their “security interests” will be protected in Afghanistan which translates essentially into Pakistani control of Southern and Eastern Afghanistan through proxies that the Afghan government is currently fighting. Concessions made to Pakistan in order to get it to move the peace process forward in Afghanistan will include placing limitations on Indian penetration into Afghanistan, the solidification of the Durand line, the inclusion of the Taliban in the Afghan government, and the sweeping up of anti-Pakistani groups along the Afghan-Pakistani border.[17]

As far as India is concerned, the Afghan government has dragged it into Afghan political affairs in order to counterbalance Pakistan in Afghanistan at a time when Pakistan is seeking to fix ties with India. Afghan President Hamid Karzai used to make high-profile trips to India to meet with business leaders in India as well as with Indian leaders. President Karzai requested from Indian business leaders to invest in Afghanistan and asked the Indian Government for help with training and supporting Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF). In June 2012, former U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta called on India to do more to support both the Afghan economy and security forces as Western nations prepared to end their combat missions in 2014. India, however, is focused more on economic engagement and is cautiously considering military support for Afghanistan out of fear of provoking Pakistan.[18]

China has also emerged as an interested player in Afghanistan after the United States announced its intent to withdraw. In September 2012, China and Afghanistan signed a set of security and economic agreements which commit China to Afghan affairs. The deal signaled Beijing’s interest in establishing a foothold in Afghanistan ahead of a NATO withdrawal. Zhou Yongkang, China’s domestic security chief and senior member of the ruling Communist Party’s Central Politburo, met with President Hamid Karzai in Kabul. Zhou Yongkang is the highest level official to have ever visited Afghanistan. As part of the agreement, China will “train, fund, and equip” the Afghan police force. Zhou told Karzai that China will actively participate in Afghanistan’s reconstruction. This came after former President Karzai voiced his concerns about strategic pacts signed with the United States. But China is interested in furthering its investments in Afghanistan’s estimated three trillion dollars’ worth of natural resources and not necessarily the internal affairs of Afghanistan or the sustainability of the Bonn Framework.[19]

Thus, the transition effect and America’s anticipated withdrawal from Afghanistan has triggered a flurry of activity around Afghanistan on a regional and international level. As it has in the past, Pakistan will most likely emerge as the key external player in Afghan affairs. However, Pakistan’s involvement may not necessarily have a positive impact on the current Afghan government, which has survived on the basis of the 2001 Bonn framework and NATO support. The current Afghan government, according to the International Crisis Group (ICG), most likely will collapse after America’s withdrawal. In all likelihood, Pakistan will play a role in creating a new Afghan government that will re-adjust the Bonn framework in a way in which its interests and the interests of its clients will be accommodated, as was the case when the former Soviet Union withdrew from Afghanistan a few decades ago. After two decades of international focus on Afghanistan and the attempts of the Western world to transform Afghanistan into a secure and stable country, the bulk of the responsibility of transforming Afghanistan will now fall squarely on the shoulders of its neighbors.

SOURCES USED

Adam Azim, News Summary, November 14, 2012.

Adam Azim, News Summary, November 28, 2012.       

Adam Azim. News Summary, November 13, 2012.

Adam Azim. News Summary, September 24, 2012.

Adam Mausner and Anthony H. Cordesman. “The War in Afghanistan: A Trip Report”. Center for Strategic and International Studies, June 20, 2011

Anthony H. Cordesman. “The New US Defense Strategy and the Priorities and Changes in the FY2013 Budget”. Center For Strategic and International Studies, January 30, 2012.

Middle East Institute. “Discussion: Is There a Political Solution to the Afghan Conflict” October 9, 2012.

Rajiv Chandrasekaran. The Afghan Surge is Over: So did it Work? Foreign Policy, September 25, 2012.

U.S. Department of State. “Report on Afghanistan and Pakistan, March 2011 (Unclassified)”


[1] Middle East Institute. “Discussion: Is There a Political Solution to the Afghan Conflict” October 9, 2012.

[2] Adam Mausner and Anthony H. Cordesman. “The War in Afghanistan: A Trip Report”. Center for Strategic and International Studies, June 20, 2011

[3] Middle East Institute. “Discussion: Is There a Political Solution to the Afghan Conflict” October 9, 2012.

[4] Adam Mausner and Anthony H. Cordesman. “The War in Afghanistan: A Trip Report”. Center for Strategic and International Studies, June 20, 2011

[5] U.S. Department of State. “Report on Afghanistan and Pakistan, March 2011 (Unclassified)”

[6] U.S. Department of State. “Report on Afghanistan and Pakistan, March 2011 (Unclassified)”

[7] Adam Mausner and Anthony H. Cordesman. “The War in Afghanistan: A Trip Report”. Center for Strategic and International Studies, June 20, 2011

[8] Adam Mausner and Anthony H. Cordesman. “The War in Afghanistan: A Trip Report”. Center for Strategic and International Studies, June 20, 2011

[9] Anthony H. Cordesman. “The New US Defense Strategy and the Priorities and Changes in the FY2013 Budget”. Center For Strategic and International Studies, January 30, 2012.

[10] U.S. Department of State. “Report on Afghanistan and Pakistan, March 2011 (Unclassified)”

[11] U.S. Department of State. “Report on Afghanistan and Pakistan, March 2011 (Unclassified)”

[12] Rajiv Chandrasekaran. The Afghan Surge is Over: So did it Work? Foreign Policy, September 25, 2012.

[13] Ibid

[14] Middle East Institute. “Discussion: Is There a Political Solution to the Afghan Conflict” October 9, 2012.

[15] Adam Azim, News Summary, November 28, 2012.

[16] Middle East Institute. “Discussion: Is There a Political Solution to the Afghan Conflict” October 9, 2012.

[17] Ibid

[18] Adam Azim. News Summary, November 13, 2012.

[19] Adam Azim. News Summary, September 24, 2012.

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