Defining Success in Afghanistan – ISW January 2011 Newsletter Feature

Securing Afghanistan is a vital requirement for American national security.  I recently published a report, co-authored with Fred Kagan and co-published by ISW and the American Enterprise Institute, in which we lay out the criteria for success in Afghanistan and our assessment of the 2010 campaign.

Success in Afghanistan is the establishment of a political order, security situation, and indigenous security force that is stable, viable, enduring, and able—with greatly reduced international support—to prevent Afghanistan from being a safe-haven for international terrorists. This objective is the most narrowly-constrained goal the United States and its allies could achieve in Afghanistan that would support our vital national security interests.

One year after President Barack Obama’s decision to adopt the current strategy and send additional resources to support it, there is reason to have confidence in that strategy even as there are continuing causes for concern.

The troops of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) have done unprecedented damage to the insurgency within Afghanistan in 2010. The clearing of insurgent safe-havens within Afghanistan, increased efforts to secure and patrol key lines of communication, and local security initiatives have reduced the insurgency’s capacity. The true test of this year’s progress, however, will come in the summer of 2011 when we can better judge the extent to which the enemy has been able to rally and re-attack areas that we believe we have secured.

Progress on the political front has been much more halting, though that is not surprising. As we saw in Iraq in 2007, political progress often lags behind security progress. It would nevertheless be naïve to imagine that simply reducing the level of violence in Afghanistan will naturally drive the country’s leaders to govern better. Moreover, America and its allies should not aim—and are not aiming—to remake Afghanistan in their image or according to their ideals.

Indeed, improvements in Afghan governance will come through greater local participation in representative institutions in the Pashtun areas. Political progress will take even longer to achieve and to gauge than security progress. The Afghan government will have to demonstrate increased willingness to punish egregious corruption and abuse of power that increase passive support for the insurgency, to curtail practices that favor some groups at the expense of others, and to foster working relationships with local representative bodies in insurgent-prone areas.

The Afghan insurgent groups that pose the greatest danger to the success of our mission in Afghanistan are the Quetta Shura Taliban and the Haqqani Network. Leaders of these networks have sought refuge in Pakistani sanctuaries that provide space for insurgent leaders to hide out, raise funds, plan, recruit, train, rest, and refit. The persistence of insurgent sanctuaries in Pakistan presents a major challenge for the success of ISAF’s mission in Afghanistan. Targeted strikes of insurgent leaders, however, historically have not been able to disable permanently an insurgent or terrorist network. Direct action operations against insurgent leaders in Pakistan and Afghanistan must necessarily be complemented by effective counter-insurgency within Afghanistan itself—including the elimination of local insurgent networks, the development of effective Afghan security forces, and the establishment of a stable Afghan government.

It is not possible to deny safe haven to terrorists in Afghanistan without also pursuing a counterinsurgency strategy. The neutralization and ultimate defeat of the insurgency is a necessary prerequisite for preventing the return of al Qaeda and other terrorist groups that thrive in the political vacuum that the insurgency creates. As long as local networks willing to support extremists operate freely in Afghanistan, terrorists will be able to use those networks, however intense our direct-action operations might be. The current counterinsurgency strategy is the only approach that can disrupt and ultimately eliminate those local networks, thereby preventing the terrorists from returning to Afghanistan and ensuring that America achieves its vital national security objectives. In short, we must succeed in Afghanistan.  We can do so with the strategy and resources currently in place.

You may contact our office to request a copy or download the paper from our website,