Guest Blog at AAN: CNAS and a Dangerous Case for Intervention

by Sunny in Kabul on 6/7/2013 · 12 comments

One of the more fun things I get to do as a would-be writer and pseudo-analyst focusing on Afghanistan is guest blog for the Afghanistan Analysts Network. Collectively they’re a group of people with a deep, direct knowledge of events in Afghanistan, and I have nothing but the utmost respect for their work. The fact that they let a hack like me have a go at posting with them on occasion is still cause for genuine wonder on my part. This last week I took a look at the recent Center for New American Security report on the state and future of Afghanistan. Spoiler alert: no snark here. This is as close to genuine analysis as I get.

 The report breaks its assessment and suggestions down to three focal points: the current security situation, the current political situation and a look at the future of US military involvement in post-2014 Afghanistan. The usual platitudes abound, including the always-troubling assertion that more dead Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) are a sign of positive progress. The report also makes some suggestions with regard to a post-2015 “Enduring Force,” and outlines the supposition that the international community needs to take a more direct role in Afghan politics during the 2014 election process. This last bit of suggested US interference in the electoral affairs of a sovereign nation picks up on a co-authored op-ed article by Flournoy and O’Hanlon published on 16 April 2013 in the Wall Street Journal. It is in this section the report moves from banal to troubling, as it advocates for direct intervention in the Afghan democratic process.

More on that last part in a bit but this from their security situation assessment:

Finally, for two to three years after 2014, the United States may need an additional force package of several thousand personnel to help the Afghans finish building their air force, their special operations forces and certain other enablers in medical realms, in counter-IED capability and in intelligence collection.

Using the phrase “may need” avoids the appearance of committing thousands of troops to post-2014 Afghanistan. The reality is that the Afghan Air Force (AAF) and Afghan Special Operations Forces (SOF) are a long way from being able to operate independently. It is true that recent air assault missions have been conducted by the Afghans themselves, but always with US support in the form of Apache attack helicopters and other assets. As a skillset, being able to provide close air support (CAS) or close combat attack (CCA)(1) is far more complex than moving troops and supplies. Training the Afghans for those missions alone is going to take years, and aircraft capable of conducting those missions are only a small part of the weapons’ systems available to the ANSF.

Also worth noting is the buildup of Afghan SOF (see my earlier analysis for AAN here). US SOF are likely to be active in the region for years to come, and acting as “advisers” to Afghan SOF allows the execution of a wide range of counter-terror (CT) missions while operating in that advisory capacity. What is of concern here is the accountability for such forces with the drawdown of a large scale international presence in Afghanistan. Whether Afghan SOF will continue to operate under the same strict guidelines imposed by their American trainers or will conduct themselves as they have allegedly done in Wardak province remains to be seen, but this should concern both international observers and SOF mentors alike.

There’s more to be said about the AAF’s rotorwing capability, but in theory it’s going to be key to ANSF success in the future. More murky is the future of SOF in Afghanistan: recent revelations in Wardak indicate that US-supported Afghan SOF have been engaged in some pretty significant human rights’ violations. Whether that affects the US footprint in Afghanistan remains to be seen.

Beyond the security situation, Allen and company have some recommendations for political actions in Afghanistan by the US. Given the authorship, advocating for interference in Afghan sovereignty was pretty much invevitable.

Fourth, the international community should give technical, moral and if necessary financial support to fledgling Afghan political parties – provided they have inclusive, multiethnic memberships and platforms and promise to eschew violence.

There is no way to interpret financial support to Afghan political parties other than insurance that election outcomes will best serve US interests in the region. Apart from the fact that Afghan law bans foreign financial support for Afghan political parties, Karzai and others will see any of this as support for groups with strong ties to the old Northern Alliance, which will do nothing to bring stability to the process.

And they’re not done with “money as a weapons system,” not by a long shot.

Funds for local economic activities could be used by Kabul for subsequent leverage as well. This pocketbook approach to enforcing respect for central authority is of course a time-honored Afghan method.

The only time-honored Afghan method for dealing with a central authority is to try to overthrow said authority: that has always been the challenge with a Kabul-centric approach to Afghan government. Still, for those that would seek to rule, including those groups ostensibly forming “federalist” platforms, the seat of power is in Kabul, and as such it is still very much the “brass ring” in Afghan politics. I would also argue that the “pocketbook approach to enforcing respect” is a more polite way of saying “corruption and patronage,” which theoretically is not a phrase one would want to associate with efforts at insurgent reconciliation.

What’s unfortunate about this report is the lack of a clear path to Afghan sovereignty. It spends the first part spinning the same platitudes observers from Afghanistan have come to except from ISAF and sources like CNAS, and then gets lost in the not-so-subtle advocacy for establishing another US puppet in Kabul. If this were just the case in Afghanistan, that would be worrisome. However, this has been US standard practice for so long when dealing with developing governments that this kind of construct comes as a surprise to no one.

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This post was written by...

– author of 15 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Happily married, cynic, and I long to drink the Kool-Aid. Two tours in Iraq, once as an Infantry officer, once as a Civil Affairs officer supporting a PRT. Now it's civilian development work in Afghanistan since 2009. I want to believe, it's just that the lies are so laughable.

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anan June 7, 2013 at 4:55 pm

Sunny in Kabul, as you know the ANASF are responsible for managing “local police”. It is some of these “local police” that are thought to have misbehaved in Wardak rather than the ANASF themselves. I could e-mail you more stuff on the ANASF if you are interested. Currently they have advisors from 26 countries. I kid you not. Several of the ANASF advisors in Wardak were not from America.

The Afghan Special Forces currently have 14,000 personal. Large parts of them operate independently, as in truly independently.

anan June 7, 2013 at 5:13 pm

I am also a big fan of AAN.

To get to the substance of political intervention:

“First, it should remind Afghans that Americans and others will exercise their own sovereign rights to determine future aid levels once Afghanistan exercises its sovereign right to choose a new leader. The quality of the election process and the quality of the new president’s leadership will both affect decisions on aid. This is just common sense, not a threat.”

This is reality. This is what the Afghans were just told by New Delhi. What they are told by Japan, Russia, Iran, Turkey, everyone.

If the newly elected GIRoA is perceived as corrupt, they will get a lot less international aid and help. Countries such as India, Russia, Iran, Turkey might consider redirecting aid from GIRoA to neo Northern Alliance.

The international community needs to be transparent, frank and united in communicating this.

“Fourth, the international community should give technical, moral and if necessary financial support to fledgling Afghan political parties – provided they have inclusive, multiethnic memberships and platforms and promise to eschew violence.”

This part freaked me out. Not the technical and moral part . . . but the “financial support” part. UNAMA, and the global NGO community needs to provide technical and moral support. But financial support? Is this code about the possibility that the “Deep State” and Gulf are pushing their own candidates in Afghan elections with substantial cash contributions? If this is the fear, what can or should be done about it?


With respect to Karzai’s India request. Karzai was very specific. He basically wants India to be the lead country for the AAF (he asked for a squadron of fighter aircraft). He also asked for a lot of artillery pieces. These are both red lines for GHQ. Obama has not allowed NTM-A and internationals to provide these capabilities to Afghans to date because they cross the red line.

The Indians are considering Karzai’s request. But if they feel the Pakistani response is likely to be too much; they might offer to supply helos and transport aircraft to the AAF, and maintenance training instead. These would also be a game changer on the ground, but not give the Afghans offensive capabilities and CAS capabilities.

What do you think India will do?

Don Bacon June 8, 2013 at 7:48 am

What’s unfortunate about this report is the lack of a clear path to Afghan sovereignty.

I’ve got a whole file on “sovereignty.” Basically, Washington says Kabul has it and the Dunford cabal says it doesn’t (with variations).

For sovereignty:
–SecState Clinton, in Kabul on Jul 7, 2012: Afghanistan is a ‘major non-Nato ally’.
–President Obama, Jan 11, 2013: “Starting this spring, our troops will have a different mission — training, advising, assisting Afghan forces. . . .And finally, we reaffirmed the Strategic Partnership that we signed last year in Kabul — an enduring partnership between two sovereign nations.”
–State Dept spokeswoman Nuland, Apr 6, 2013: “We have our own channels to all of those countries with regard to the importance of supporting Afghanistan’s sovereignty, its ability to manage its own future itself in security terms, in political terms, in economic terms,”

Anti- sovereignty:
-State, May 2013: “Secretary Kerry also affirmed that he and President Karzai remain committed to the same strategy and the same goal of a stable, sovereign Afghanistan, responsible for its own security and able to ensure that it can never again be a safe haven for terrorists.
-Obama hedges in January 2013: “… by the end of next year, 2014, the transition will be complete – Afghans will have full responsibility for their security, and this war will come to a responsible end.”
-General Dunford the military czar doles out “sovereignty” to Karzai: “we’re balancing increased Afghan sovereignty with a continued presence of coalition forces here who exercise a piece of that sovereignty by definition because we’re in the middle of a conflict.

If Afghanistan is not sovereign then anything goes, which is why Karzai often makes outlandish remarks.

Madeleine June 8, 2013 at 8:07 am


Jeremy Kotkin June 10, 2013 at 3:36 am

anan, at June 7, 2013 at 5:13 pm-
What’s especially troubling about that part of the report that you pointed out (“…the international community should give technical, moral and if necessary financial support to fledgling Afghan political parties – provided they have inclusive, multiethnic memberships and platforms and promise to eschew violence.”) is that had the authors bothered picking up a copy of the Afghan Constitution, they’d have seen that their recommendation is expressly illegal under Afghan law (Article Thirty-Five, Ch. 2, Art. 14: …… The citizens of Afghanistan have the right to form political parties in accordance with the provisions of the law, provided that….. [they] Should have no affiliation to a foreign political party or sources.).
But they’re too wrapped up in their own Pollyanna recommendations to know when they’re so far off the mark that it makes the report largely laughable. The report, ostensibly written to guide us towards helping to secure Afghan sovereignty, is so ignorant of Afghan law that it actualy makes recommendations which would defeat that same soveriegnty. The rest of the report is largely equally flawed but that’s for another post.

anan June 10, 2013 at 7:55 am

Suspect different authors wrote different parts of the report and that each author did not exhaustively read every part of the report.

What other explanation could their be? How else could “if necessary financial support to fledgling Afghan political parties” have crept in there?

There report is better in other sections. The vast majority of the ISAF medivac capability is used for ANSF and Afghans. A bridging force would enable ISAF medivac to be drawn down less rapidly, saving the lives of thousands of ANSF.

Even with ISAF medivac, ANSF KIA recently have been about 400 a month. The ANSF are also desperately short of rotary aviation, artillery, ISR, signals, C2 operations centers and maintenance. All of these combat enablers could be withdrawn more slowly from the ANSF if there is a bridging ISAF enabler force.

Jeremy Kotkin June 10, 2013 at 8:13 am

The report is a failure for exactly the reasons you point out. A bridging strategy to what end? Three more years of fighting their war for them – providing the ways and the means – so neither they nor us will achieve our ends anyway? The ANSF are going to lose soldiers and police. They won’t have ISR. They won’t have effective rotary or arty and a host of other enablers. We couldn’t get them ready in how many years previous; does anyone outside of the Better War advocates at CNAS think we can successfully cram it into another year or so? If we were concerned about saving the lives of the ANSF, we’d force the government of Afghanistan to deal with the insurgency. Not the way we superficially have, mind you, but really dealing with the insurgency.

The part about financial support to GIRoA political parties “krept in” because of faulty logic on the think tank’s part from day 1 regarding Afghanistan.

anan June 10, 2013 at 10:53 am

The ANSF describe things differently.

“Three more years of fighting their war for them” The ANSF are fighting their war themselves already. They already control battlespace across all of Afghanistan, do the vast majority of the fighting and bear the vast majority of the casualties. 203rd and 215th Corps increasingly provide their own enablers. 209th ANA Corps is making progress.

There have been several examples across Afghanistan of the ANA successfully using D30s for accurate indirect fire and fire support. The ANA, however, needs a lot more arty pieces and ammunition. They have asked India for this, since ISAF/NTM-A turned down Afghanistan’s request for additional arty. India is also prevaricating since this crosses GHQ’s red line. The ANA already regularly fire at Pakistani security forces east of the Durand with D30s, and will almost certainly use additional arty pieces to fire at Pakistani targets.

The Afghans are doing a decent job with their existing rotary. They have asked for more helos. [Indians are more likely to fill Afghanistan’s rotary request. In my view Russia should be asked to donate additional helicopters beyond the helicopters they have already donated. It does not take many trainers to train the AAF to maintain helicopters.]

“We couldn’t get them ready in how many years previous” This was deliberate ISAF policy since this crossed GHQ’s red line. The fielding of the ANSF only really began around November 30, 2009. Obama sharply cut back the proposed McChrystal/Petraeus/Caldwell ANSF build in 2010. Probably to save money and avoid antagonizing GHQ and Saudi Arabia.

I have been told by ISAF service members that they suspect the reason the ANA was not allowed to use their D30s for indirect fire support until recently was because ISAF opposed it. [Partly because they were afraid of Green on Blue, even though the ANA were much better at indirect fire than ISAF conventional forces thought. Maybe partly to appease GHQ?]

“If we were concerned about saving the lives of the ANSF, we’d force the government of Afghanistan to deal with the insurgency. Not the way we superficially have, mind you, but really dealing with the insurgency.”

Karzai has tried. If Karzai pushes any harder, the 62% of Afghans who are not Pashtuns and many Pashtuns would hang him from a lamp-post. The ANSF are a reality on the ground. The ANSF can sabotage any peace talks they want at will. Why would Karzai be willing to plummet his popularity by trying to make an unpopular deal with the Taliban that won’t stick and that would be sabotaged by his own side?

Any deal with the insurgency means a formal strategic agreement with the Pakistani Army. On what planet would any deal with the Pakistani Army pass the Afghan parliament in 2013? The new government that will be elected in 2014 is likely to be much more overtly anti Pakistan and anti Taliban than Karzai.

You do realize that “the international community should give technical, moral and if necessary financial support to fledgling Afghan political parties – provided they have inclusive, multiethnic memberships and platforms and promise to eschew violence.” is code for supporting Afghan political parties that are open to negotiating a deal with Pakistan and the Taliban.

Have you heard some of the things that flag officer generals in the ANA, ANP and NDS say about Pakistan? Sometimes even in public?

Don Bacon June 11, 2013 at 8:44 am

The ANA soldiers can’t fire a rifle accurately, preferring to spray bullets toward villages. Just imagine what they could do with howitzers.

anan June 11, 2013 at 9:37 am

Expanding anecdotes into generalities and stereotypes. Real professional. How much does the Deep State pay you?

ANA Commandos can’t fire a rifle accurately? Really?

There are many examples across Afghanistan of the ANA using their D30s for accurate indirect fire. D30s are being used to provide fire support for ground troops in contact with the enemy. The ANA on their own transports D30s across mountainous terrain.

203rd and 215th ANA Corps have conducted Corps level operations providing their own enablers.

Don Bacon June 11, 2013 at 8:46 am

General Allen: “Afghan forces defending Afghan people and enabling the government of this country to serve its citizens. This is victory.” heh

This Is What Winning Looks Like
Part 1
Part 2
Part 3

anan June 11, 2013 at 9:40 am

Good program. It showcases competent professional ANA. ANA who are not expanding the security bubble beyond what their resources and sustainably protect.

Does the Taliban similarly abuse young boys? Pakistani Army?

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