Page 1 of 3 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
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
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
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
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
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
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,