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     Oct 1, 2008
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Why the US is losing in Afghanistan
By Anthony H Cordesman

Most of the literature on the cost of the Iraq War, Afghan War, and "war on terror" focuses on the burden it places on the federal budget and the US economy. These are very real issues, but they also have deflected attention from another key issue: whether the war in Afghanistan is being properly funded and being given the resources necessary to win.

The situation in Afghanistan has now deteriorated steadily for more than five years, an assessment the US intelligence community has agreed to in its latest analysis of the war. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) commander in Afghanistan, General David McKiernan, has noted that violence


was at least 30% higher in September 2008 than in September 2007, and was driven by three factors:
  • The insurgents have adapted their tactics to smaller scale IEDS and ambush type attacks.
  • The US and NATO/International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) have greater presence, and therefore greater contact with the insurgency.
  • A deteriorating condition in these tribal areas of Pakistan. More drugs and insurgents are being sent over the border.

    A new Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) briefing "Losing The Afghan-Pakistan War. The Rising Threat", tells this story in more depth, and how it is reflected in growing Afghan and allied casualties. United Nations and declassified US intelligence maps that show the steady expansion of threat influence and the regions that are unsafe for aid workers.

    Other data show how Afghan drug growing has steadily moved south and become a major source of financing for the Taliban and other insurgent movements. Work by Seth G Jones, a leading Rand analyst, has shown how insurgent groups like the Taliban, Haqqani network, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar�s Hezb-i-Islami (HI); al-Qaeda; and affiliated groups in Pakistan have formed three fronts in northeastern, southeastern and southern Afghanistan that are linked by what he calls "a complex adaptive system" of loosely cooperating groups that act as a distributed and constantly adapting network.

    At the same time, the UN and other assessments summarized in the CSIS briefing show that the Taliban and other groups have steadily expanded their presence and influence in the country side, particularly in the many areas where NATO/ISAF and the Afghan government cannot provide either security or governance. These now include substantial areas in central Afghanistan, in and around the capital, and growing pockets in the north and west.

    This recovery and expansion did not begin to gather serious momentum until 2003 and did not seriously threaten the Afghan government and US-NATO-ISAF forces until 2005. The US had several critical years in which to provide the resources necessary to deter and defeat it.

    Instead of acting decisively and effectively, however, the US failed to provide the necessary resources - a situation that the chairman of the Joint Chief made clear continues to this day in his testimony to the House Armed Services Committee on September 10, 2008:
    � the Chiefs and I recommended the deployment of a Marine Battalion to Afghanistan this fall and the arrival of another Army brigade early next year. These forces, by themselves, will not adequately meet General McKiernan�s desire for up to three brigades, but they are a good start. I judge the risk of not sending them too great a risk right now to ignore.
    If a nation chooses to fight a war, it has to pay enough to win it. A look at the reporting on the overall cost of the Afghan War shows that the US has failed to commit anything like the resources it committed to the war in Iraq. The US has been slow to commit the resources required and has never adequately funded the conflict. The US failed to provide substantial funds early in the war, when national building and stability operations might well have stopped to resurgence of the Taliban and growth of the insurgency, and then reacted to the growth of the threat with inadequate resources and funding of the US military, US aid and diplomacy, and Afghan force development efforts.

    The end result is a consistent failure to provide the resources to allow the US and NATO/ISAF to seize the initiative, and defeat the insurgency. It is also a legacy of underfunding that has progressively increased the length and total cost of the war in human lives, the wounded, and dollars.

    This will be a major challenge to the next president. The problem is not simply US troop levels. It is dealing with a failure to create anything like an effective overall strategy to fight the war, if strategy is defined as a requiring a practical plan to implement and the resources to act.

    Afghanistan is larger than Iraq, has a larger population, has far more difficult terrain to fight in, and has a virtual enemy sanctuary in Pakistan on its eastern and southern borders. It is also a nation which has never had a cohesive government and whose governmental structure was in war or near chaos over two decades before the US invasion. It also never had a military or police force that was more than a fraction the size of Iraq, and had no modern national military forces after 1993.

    While there are no reliable statistics on either country, the CIA data provide as good a rough estimate as any. Moreover, many of these numbers show just how much more serious the nation building challenge is in a country that has never moved towards major economic development in the past, and that Afghanistan faces ethnic, sectarian, and linguistic divisions at least as serious as those in Iraq.

    While there are no reliable estimates of the size of Taliban-HI-Haqqani forces in Afghanistan relative to the size of al-Qaeda in Iraq and its affiliates, the background briefings given by various intelligence organizations indicate that the insurgent threat to Afghanistan - core cadres (the guesstimate of 10,000 is often used for both wars), part time fighters, and associated supporters - is probably at least as large as the insurgent threat in Iraq.

    Recent background briefs also indicate that there are now significantly more foreign fighters involved in the insurgency in Afghanistan than the insurgency in Iraq, although numbers vary so much from estimate to estimate that it is impossible to provide even a reasonable range of numbers.

    A comparison of the cost to date of the Afghan and Iraq Wars, however, reflects the same comparative lack of resources that is reflected in troop levels and in aid personnel. In spite of significant allied contributions, the Afghan War has so far received less outside funding than the Iraq War, and has had fewer combat troops than were committed to the Coalition forces in Iraq at their peak.

    Afghanistan is also a far poorer country, had no savings and capital resources to draw upon once the initial fighting war over, and not oil exports or other economic activity capable of funding the basic needs of its population, much less funding development and strong national security forces.

    Resourcing the war
    There are differences in the estimates of the relative cost of the Afghan and Iraq Wars, but there is a broad consensus as to the cost of direct expenditures by the federal government in terms of budget authority. The most recent work by Amy Belasco of the Congressional Research Service shows that the total budget authority for the Afghan War now totals $171.1 billion for expenditures over eight fiscal years (counting the FY2009 bridge funds as part of FY2008) versus $653.1 billion for six fiscal years of the Iraq War.

    Accordingly, expenditures have been 3.8 times higher on Iraq to date, and the average expenditure on Afghanistan per years has been $21.46 billion versus $108.9 billion for Iraq - the average expenditure on Iraq has been roughly five times higher.

    Comparative costs are only part of the story. The US made the same fundamental mistakes in both wars. It entered them without any plan to conduct meaningful stability operations, to take on nation-building tasks, or to fight a major insurgency. This grand strategic failure occurred as a result of decisions made by the George W Bush administration in spite of warnings from many experts in the US military, US State Department, the US intelligence community, and outside experts. This failure contributed immensely to the US and allied casualties in both wars and to their length, total cost, civilian casualties, collateral damage, and opportunity costs.

    There was, however, a fundamental difference in the way in which the Bush administration reacted to the challenges it faced after the initial moment of conventional victory. The US reacted almost immediately by making massive expenditures on US forces in Iraq and economic aid. Total funding rose from $53 billion in FY2003 to $75.9 billion in FY2004, S85.5 billion in FY2006, $133.6 billion in FY2007, and $149.2 billion in FY2008.

    These figures were radically different in the case of Afghanistan. The US effectively failed to resource a steadily more serious insurgency as it developed during FY2002 through FY2006 .

    The Bush administration simply did not fund the war it had to fight. It never committed anything like the aid resources necessary to support a "win, hold, build" strategy, in spite of the fact that Afghanistan - unlike Iraq - did not have substantial funds left over from the previous regime and a major ongoing stream of income from oil exports.

    There was a never a year in Afghanistan where the US made a major aid commitment as it did in FY2004 in Iraq, when it committed $19.5 billion in funds for foreign aid and diplomatic operations. Moreover, the US wasted two critical years - FY2001 and FY2002 - by providing only token funds for foreign aid and diplomatic operations ($800 million in FY2001 and FY2002).

    Given the fact that a start up aid program takes at least a year to begin to be effective, often takes 14-18 months to go from authorization to a start up on the ground, and then takes months to years to complete, this was a major failure. The Administration never seemed to realize that it needed to take the initiative to shape the broad politico-military battlefield, and dominate the situation before the Taliban-HI-Haqqani-al-Qaeda could react. For all the US talk of shaping the decision-making cycle, it was the US that has reacted to enemy gains and actions since 2002.

    Authorizing money versus spending it
    There are no detailed data available on actual spend out rates for aid, but the data on Department of Defense authorizations versus obligations provide a rough idea of just how important the time gap is between authorizing and executing.

    The same report by Amy Belasco reports that Department of Defense obligations for FY2001-FY2008 totaled $444.2 billion or 77% for Iraq; and $100.4 billion or 18% is for Afghanistan and other "war on terror" activity.

    The budget authority for the same period was $808 billion, with $616.2 billion going to Iraq and $187.2 billion going to Afghanistan and other "war on terror" activity. (Note that like the other data, these figures include other "war on terror" activity in the totals for Afghanistan.)

    These numbers indicate that only 72% of the money authorized for Iraq has been obligated (which is not the same as actual spending or any form of actual activity on the ground), and only 63% of the money for Afghanistan and the "war on terror". Ironically, the rate of obligation is slower for the Afghan conflict although it has been a much longer conflict.

    In terms of how low the average monthly obligation rates have been in the Afghan War versus Iraq, nothing approaching that level of effort has occurred in Afghanistan.

    Under-resourcing the US defense effort
    There are no clear formulas for deciding what level of forces or military spending is needed to win a war. What is clear, however, is that underresourcing, and underreacting to the growth of the threat, allow an insurgency to grow and potentially win, and that deploying decisive resources and forces as early as possible enable a force to both deter the growth of an insurgency and to defeat it.

    The growth of Department of Defense spending on Afghanistan not only lagged far behind spending on Iraq, it failed to provide adequate funding during the critical years immediately after the Taliban�s defeat in 2002.

    What is equally striking about the relative defense efforts is that the US approached the early years of the Afghan War as if could declare "mission accomplished", and all that was required was peacekeeping and aid. In the process, it was able to obtain substantial support from NATO and other countries that showed great sympathy for the US after the events of 9/11, and obtain substantial money and forces for the peacekeeping and aid missions.

    At least partly because of the demands imposed by the war in Iraq, however, US and allied forces never reacted to the steady rise in threat activity by deploying adequate US troops, military weaponry, and contractor support - all of the capabilities made possible by adequate spending by the Department of Defense. The US instead attempted to pressure its allies and NATO to increase their force levels and spending, and convert from a peacekeeping to a warfighting mission.

    It is a tribute to nations like Canada, Britain and Denmark that they took on a major warfighting mission in southern Afghanistan. It is scarcely a tribute to the US that it sought to obtain more than it could from allied countries, which lacked the domestic political support, and often the kind of power projection resources, necessary to make a major shift in mission.

    In fact, US attempts to use NATO as a substitute for US forces were not the "ultimate test of NATO", but rather the result of a US failure to react to the resurgence in Taliban-HI-Haqqani activity from 2004 onwards that was made possible by a progress US failure to deploy adequate resources.

    This was scarcely a matter of dollars alone. US commanders repeated asked for more US forces as the insurgency intensified. It was only in 2007 that the US officials have openly recognized realities that should have been clear half a decade ago, and it was not until 2008 that the US began to seriously respond.

    Even then, the increase in US forces fell far short of what was required. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates made this point, 

    Continued 1 2

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