The Looming Catastrophe in Afghanistan

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by Joshua Foust on 5/23/2012 · 6 comments

This past weekend, I attended the NATO Summit in Chicago. There I heard from many heads of state, foreign ministers, defense ministers, secretary-generals, officials, and analysts about what NATO is doing and how it’s evolving into an enlightened global actor for peace.

The challenge with what I heard is that a lot of is little more than gussied up magical thinking. While NATO’s broader issues merit discussion (I did some of that for U.S. News here), the way it is approaching Afghanistan leaves much to be desired.

Though the session was off the record, I did have the opportunity to ask a senior ISAF official if there had been any progress in developing a plan to fund the continued expansion and operation of the Afghan security forces. He was a bit dismissive and non-committal, and simply referenced that ISAF has done “sustainment studies.”

Sorry, but that doesn’t cut it. One of President Obama’s priorities going into the summit was to get NATO member country pledges to fund the transition strategy. While he got a promise from new French President Hollande to withdraw early only their combat troops (and not their support troops — whatever that means), Obama did not get pledges to fully fund the transition strategy. That’s a major failing, considering the entirety of the strategy rests on funding the ANSF basically forever.

(I discuss many of the open holes in the current strategy in an update to a report I wrote for my think tank, The American Security Project, last week.)

But the other part of the Afghanistan strategy that needs to be addressed is the issue of Pakistan’s supply lines. I’ve supported the administration’s decision to build the NDN and its relationship with the Central Asian regimes because it gives the U.S. an alternative to the toxic relationship with Pakistan and provides a means to circumvent Pakistani leverage over the U.S.

But, as I argue in an op-ed for The Hill, while the U.S. can actually run the war just fine with the NDN, it really cannot end the war with the NDN — at least in anything like a reasonably expensive way.

NATO might be able to run the war without Pakistan, but it cannot end the war without Pakistan. There is so much equipment in Afghanistan, so many vehicles, so much ammunition, so much trash and construction material, that the NDN could never hope to accommodate all of it by NATO’s 2014 end date for combat operations. Furthermore, some of the governments along the supply route, like dictatorial Uzbekistan, are morally reprehensible regimes that should not be rewarded with surplus combat equipment. So the Pakistani supply routes must be reopened….

If the Pakistani supply lines cannot be reopened, then the withdrawal from Afghanistan will become a lot messier. Just as the Russians left tons of equipment, supplies, buildings, weapons and vehicles behind in their mad rush back north after the Geneva Accords were signed in 1988, so too will the United States and NATO leave an unimaginable cache of valuable equipment and materiel behind as they leave over the next two years.

Among the many other clouds in all the silver lining coming from NATO’s official statements about the war, I think this looms the largest of all. The war in Afghanistan is heading toward catastrophe when the years of magical thinking at the policy level come crashing into the uncompromising brick wall of reality. I hope someone in charge will bother to pay attention, but honestly… I don’t think anyone will. And by the time it all comes crashing down, it will be someone else’s problem anyway.


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This post was written by...

– author of 1848 posts on Registan.net.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from Registan.net. His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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{ 6 comments }

Don Bacon May 24, 2012 at 7:58 pm

Thanks for this.
Another huge planning gap is for what in the trade is called combat support and combat service support. Air support, medical, engineers, maintenance, supply — ANA can’t do it.

According to the Brookings Afghan Index, one ANA kandak (of 158) is capable of operating independently. The definition of “independently” is a Caldwellian (he’s gone) enigma.

And that’s just the military. How about the paramount political? Karzai’s exiting, new elections, a US inclination to go with someone like Abdullah who is allied with the United Front — Northern Alliance, Iran, India, Tajik, Uzbeck — who are anti-Talban/Pakistan. Turmoil, anyone?

Looming catastrophe — you got that right. But it’ll happen after Obama gets re-elected, so who cares. /s

Don Bacon May 24, 2012 at 8:15 pm

And then there is the economic catastrophe you’ve written of previously. The cut-backs in foreign aid and construction, the eviction of 100,000 plus from the ANA, etc. Put technically, the GDP will plummet.

Unilaterally end a war? I’d say the enemy has a vote.

Johnny Matrix May 29, 2012 at 12:54 pm

Don – I am an advisor for that Kandak at this time…knock that one off the list…they are not independent – JM

Don Bacon May 29, 2012 at 5:31 pm

Thanks. Brings back advisory memories, 9th South Vietnamese Infantry Division, ’63-’64. Similar situation. Best of luck to you.

RScott May 30, 2012 at 8:14 am

And not mentioned in any of this discussion is the role of the narcotics industry, the government involvement, being part of the reasons for the rejection of the government by most of the people, the Pashtuns at least. And as long as the government is not seen as legitimate by a sizable number of the people, it wont make any difference how many police and army people are trained. With lots of support, they can hold out like those after the Soviets left but nothing much will change…my biased view. And of course, much of the local economy at present is based on the narcotics industry.

Don Bacon May 31, 2012 at 7:08 am

The Taliban wiped out poppies in the south but the U.S. changed that. I suppose the CIA is involved.

Agriculture in general seems to be in trouble. “The overall agricultural production, the backbone of the national economy, dramatically declined over the past couple of years due to drought as well as persistent fighting and instability in rural areas, despite the fact that only twelve percent of the land is arable and less than six percent currently is cultivated.”–Xinhua

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