Win, Hold, Fold, or Run? Afghanistan in the Spring of 2019
(Source: Center for Strategic and International Studies; issued May 13, 2019)
The war in Afghanistan is at a critical stage. After some eighteen years of conflict, the United States has still not come firmly to grips with the need to properly assess the tactics and gains by the Taliban and other threats in Afghanistan, the potential ability of the Afghan government to overcome its many critical limitations, and how to choose and actually implement some form of a consistent U.S. strategy in Afghanistan.

This presentation presents a survey of open source metrics and data on the situation in Afghanistan in the spring of 2019. It focuses on the areas where it is possible to map and quantify current developments – recognizing that such indicators can only cover part of the complex issues involved.

It does, however, present material that helps address three key challenges shaping Afghanistan’s future:

-- The need to address all of the key threats involved in the war – including those generated by the Afghan government and U.S. actions.

-- The fact that the U.S. now seems to be on the edge of making hard choices about staying, seeking a peace, or finding ways to withdraw even if a peace is not reached.

-- A long list of critical uncertainties, only some of which can be addressed with any confidence.

The United States currently is pursuing a peace settlement that so far excludes any formal participation by the Afghan government. Its FY2020 budget request does not call for major change in the U.S. posture in Afghanistan, but press reports indicate that the U.S. is considering 50% cuts in its Embassy staff and would like to make major cuts in its military forces and effort.

The Afghan government has made its own attempts to define a peace settlement, but remains deeply divided and faces a Presidential election in September 2019 that raises serious questions about Afghanistan’s future leadership and unity. Afghan security forces are making progress in some areas, but no reliable open source data is available on many aspects of Afghan capacity and no reliable estimate exists of government control and influence over given Districts and the Afghan population. Afghan progress in improving governance and the living standards of the Afghan people seems to be grinding slowly at best, and Afghan ability to meet U.S. demands for improved security forces, governance, and economic progress remains unclear.

At this point, the metrics and data in this study indicate that the war seems to be a stalemate, but one that at least marginally favors the Taliban – despite massive ongoing U.S. air, financial, and advisory support.

This study also indicates, however, that open source reporting on the fighting is highly controversial – to the point where the U.S-led command seems to be cancelling reporting on Afghan government vs. Taliban control and influence and no longer reports on many aspects of ANSF operational capabilities. The summary data and metrics in this study can only provide a partial summary picture of these issues, but the excerpts from SIGAR reporting are particularly revealing.

It is still clear, however, that the Afghan government cannot survive without billions of dollars in annual financial aid from outside powers like the U.S. It is equally clear that it would suffer unacceptable military losses if the U.S. did not continue to provide massive amounts of air support and if the U.S. and its allies did not provide substantial train and assist help to the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) and direct land force support to Afghan Special Security Forces and other elite units. Afghan forces may be making progress, but serious questions emerge as to whether they would (or could) stand on their own without outside support for something like the next half-decade.

The study does not examine the politics of Afghanistan or the current peace efforts in detail. These issues have become too topical and volatile. It does, however, present metrics that show that while the Afghan government continues to pursue reform in many civil areas, its success is questionable at best. Sources like the World Bank, the United Nations, and the U.S. Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction show just how badly governed and corrupt the country still is. They show how serious the challenges Afghanistan faces in terms of poverty and development still are, and its growing dependence on a narco-economy.

And finally, the metrics show that Afghanistan’s deeply divided population is growing at a rate its economy cannot properly support and that it faces critical challenges in employing its youth even if it can achieve some meaningful form of peace, unity, and development.

These civil problems are so critical that they raise serious questions as to whether the country can either create a peace the bring true stability and security, or emerge out of its coming election with a successful enough government to either continue the fight or manage a peace. Afghanistan’s civil threats are as serious as its security threats.


Click here for the full report (125 PDF pages), on the CSIS website.

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