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The Limits of Success -- The War in Afghanistan

Written by Matthew Fehrs, Assistant Professor of Political Science

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The status of American progress in Afghanistan is a paradox. Since President Obama announced he was increasing the U.S. troop commitment by 30,000, U.S. and NATO forces have experienced tactical successes, particularly in diminishing Taliban influence in Helmand Province. And CIA Director Leon Panetta estimates that there are fewer than 100 Al Qaeda operatives in the country.

On the other hand, a general pessimism exists about the success of the U.S. mission both here and in the troubled country. President Obama’s latest review of the war notes that “gains remain fragile and reversible,” while a recent CNN poll found only 18% of Americans believe that the U.S. is winning. The question this raises is how the U.S. effort in Afghanistan can simultaneously be both a success and a failure.

The resolution to this paradox rests on the fact that the eventual fate of the Afghan state is beyond the control of the United States. While the U.S. can certainly marginally influence the outcome of what happens in Afghanistan, its role is not determinate. This is because even if the U.S. military strategy is a success, it is operating in the context of an extremely weak state with a dysfunctional government. In light of these facts, the U.S. mission in Afghanistan needs to focus on a minimally acceptable outcome for withdrawal.

The first area of concern is the low capacity – or the ability of a state to carry out basic functions − of Afghanistan itself. The journal Foreign Policy has published a “Failed States” index since 2005, and over the past six years Afghanistan’s state capacity has decreased to the point that in 2010 it ranked sixth in the world, narrowly behind the anarchic Democratic Republic of Congo.

States with such limited capacity fail to carry out many of the most basic tasks: providing security, offering a functioning legal system, and building and maintaining infrastructure. Research has shown that low-capacity states are at very high risk for further violence that may endure for decades. Furthermore, the fact that 13 of the countries listed in the “bottom 20” of the 2005 Failed States report remained there six years later shows that the process of increasing state capacity is slow and uneven.

Not surprisingly, increasing state capacity has been a core component of the new U.S. strategy in Afghanistan. Where the Afghan state has failed to provide services, the U.S. military seeks to build infrastructure and provide security. Unfortunately, this effort is significantly undermined by two endemic problems. First, as in many low-capacity states, Afghanistan suffers from serious corruption, leading Transparency International, a global coalition, to rank it as the second most corrupt country in the world. Second, most Afghan citizens have little connection to the central government in Kabul and little reason to hold it accountable. Instead, the two most important groups in the lives of Afghan civilians – the U.S. military and insurgent groups – are completely outside their control, leaving them to wonder about the purpose of the government in Kabul.

The problem of low capacity is compounded by the increasingly fragile state of Afghan democracy. History shows that creating a stable, rightsbased democracy is a long and fraught process. Unfortunately, democracy is not a machine where you flip a switch and it is “on.” Rather, there are numerous examples of states like modern Russia that begin to democratize, only to get stuck in political purgatory, neither fully democratic nor fully authoritarian.

Freedom House data show Afghanistan declining from “partly free” in 2005 to “not free” in 2010. Widespread allegations of fraud marred President Karzai’s re-election in 2009, and U.S. officials have been frustrated by his mercurial personality.

However, even under the best circumstances, creating new democratic regimes from scratch is an exceedingly difficult undertaking. Recent research has shown that the vast majority of foreign-imposed democratic regime changes end in failure. Furthermore, research has also shown that states transitioning from authoritarian regimes to democracy are particularly likely to engage in domestic and international conflict. Therefore, combined with low state capacity, mountainous terrain, safe havens in Pakistan, and a history of ethnic conflict, Afghanistan’s political instability is another factor increasing the likelihood of future violence.

The intersection of the Afghan problems of low state capacity, an illegitimate government, and U.S. involvement is the current counterinsurgency campaign conducted by coalition forces. In both Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. has faced insurgents who fight sporadic battles and then melt away into the civilian populace. Undoubtedly, the U.S. has become much more successful at fighting a counterinsurgency than it was a decade ago. Unfortunately, counterinsurgency campaigns tend to require significant manpower and, as we have already seen in Afghanistan, last a long time. Whereas conventional wars tend to be relatively short, the average duration of counterinsurgency campaigns since 1945 is 11 years. Research by political scientists shows that the average duration of a counterinsurgency campaign after a change in strategy (which the U.S. undertook in 2009) is nine years and no state that waited as long as the United States to alter its strategy (eight years) has ever won.

The three thorny issues listed above – low state capacity, fragile democracy, and insurgent warfare − help explain the paradox of simultaneous success and failure for the United States in Afghanistan. In the narrow context of the counterinsurgency campaign, the U.S. has experienced a number of successes in the past year. However, in the larger context of creating a functional, stable, democratic state, the hurdles for the United States are significant. Even if conditions were to improve in Afghanistan, the most likely outcome for the next decade is a weak, authoritarian state with ongoing violence. This is because the eventual outcome in Afghanistan will be determined largely by situational factors over which the United States has little control: state capacity, poverty, ethnic tensions, volatile neighbors, and political instability.

With this in mind, U.S. efforts should focus on triage: making the best of a bad situation. In this endeavor, we should pursue the dual goals of leaving an Afghanistan that is as safe as possible for its citizens and a place where international terrorists will not receive safe haven. With the latter goal largely accomplished, the U.S. should concentrate on the former.

It is likely that in order to create stability, the U.S. will have to broker deals with unsavory characters (as it did in Iraq) and resign itself to the fact that Afghanistan will remain undemocratic for some time. In other words, we would do well to heed the words of former ambassador John Galbraith: “Politics…consists in choosing between the disastrous and the unpalatable.”