Defining Success in Afghanistan

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Video-Defining Success in Afghanistan: An Interview with Frederick Kagan

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. The current American and Coalition strategy is making progress and should be continued. Since President Obama, NATO allies, and the Afghans have agreed that troops will be present in Afghanistan through 2014, the policy does not require substantial modifications at this point. This paper is thus primarily a report on the current situation in Afghanistan and a consideration of some of the prospects and challenges ahead. Our principal recommendation is that the U.S. and its allies should continue to resource and sustain the strategy now being executed, which is the only approach that can secure their vital national security interests in Afghanistan.

Situation Update

  • The New Year finds the situation in southern Afghanistan fundamentally different from what it was at the start of 2010.
  1. The Taliban has lost almost all of its principal safe havens in this area.
  2. Its ability to acquire, transport, and use IED materials and other weapons and equipment has been disrupted.
  3. Local populations have stepped forward to fight the Taliban with ISAF support for the first time in some important areas.
  4. The momentum of the insurgency in the south has unquestionably been arrested and probably reversed.
  • The insurgents do not have momentum anywhere in RC(East). Coalition operations continue to disrupt them in Greater Paktia and are increasingly pushing into their safe havens and support zones in Ghazni, Logar, and Wardak. Insurgents have not been able to conduct a coordinated campaign in Nangarhar or Konar or to make much use of isolated safe havens they retain in Nuristan.
  • Despite alarmist reports from the Intelligence Community and elsewhere, the insurgency is not gaining strength in northern Afghanistan and is extremely unlikely to do so.
  • Direct action operations against terrorists, insurgent leaders and facilitators, narcotics labs, and other key nodes of the various networks that support unrest in Afghanistan have increased both in pace and in effectiveness.
  • From a military standpoint, the counterinsurgency is going reasonably well, insofar as it is possible to judge over the winter. Challenges remain in the areas that have been or are being cleared, and the requirements for the next series of operations are becoming apparent.
  • The theater remains inadequately resourced. The shortfalls, however, are considerably more likely to protract an otherwise successful campaign than they are to make it fail.
  • Political progress has been much more limited, but that is to be expected this early into the implementation of the new strategy. It is too soon to judge the effectiveness of the current approach in this area.
  • The real test of the security gains in southern Afghanistan will come in late summer 2011, when the insurgent fighting effort can be expected to reach its peak. The seasonal nature of enemy activity makes judging the depth of progress before then extremely difficult.


The progress made over the last 18 months is real, but so are the challenges ahead. The corruption and illegitimacy of the Afghan government and the persistence of sanctuaries for insurgent groups in Pakistan are the two main concerns generally raised about the feasibility of success. Governance problems are at the center of any counterinsurgency effort and success in this area is ultimately a sine qua non for overall success. Cross-border sanctuaries are also a common feature among long-lasting insurgencies. We assess that significant progress is possible in Afghanistan without any fundamental change in the nature of the Pakistani sanctuaries, and that such progress will likely lead to a reduction in the effectiveness of those sanctuaries that success requires.


Improvements to Afghan governance will come through greater local participation in representative institutions in the Pashtun areas. This is not a foreign, ideological drive to "democratize" Afghanistan, but rather a recognition that local representative institutions are the foundation of Pashtun tribal culture.

Pashtun cultural traditions, which have eroded over time and can fairly be said to be norms only in some areas, have been produced by skeptics of success in Afghanistan as evidence that the Pashtuns are fundamentally unconquerable and also ungovernable. The fact that the U.S. and its allies are trying neither to conquer nor to govern Afghanistan is often lost in this discussion. The issue at hand is not whether Westerners can govern Afghanistan, but whether or not Afghans can and, if so, what such an Afghan government would look like. The history of Afghanistan before 1978 (and even, to some extent, since then) strongly suggests not only that Afghanistan is governable, but that there is considerable consensus among Afghans about the general shape the government should take.

The current government structure runs counter to traditional Pashtun expectations about the relationship between local communities and the central government because it excludes the communities from having a meaningful voice in almost any decision. It hyper-empowers the executive vis-à-vis representative bodies at every level. This imbalance of powers generates a feeling of alienation and resentment among many Afghans, particularly Pashtuns. It has also facilitated discriminatory and predatory government behavior that fuels a sense of injustice and, therefore, passive and active support for the insurgency. Corruption and abuse-of-power must be addressed by the United States because they fuel the insurgency. Our challenge is not eliminate corruption in Afghanistan but to help the Afghan political leadership behave sufficiently in accord with Pashtun norms that groups that now feel marginalized and preyed-upon see an advantage in at least tolerating the new order.

The emergence of a functional and credible local security program in 2010 is perhaps the most striking and unexpected development--and potentially one of the most important. The Afghan Local Police (ALP) program is designed to extend the reach of Afghan and Coalition forces to rural areas rather than to replace them. Perhaps more importantly, ALP empowers villages and clusters of villages--not tribes--to resist the Taliban by supporting the consensus decisions of local elders arrived at in traditional Pashtun ways. It brings these traditional local structures into coherence with the central government at the level of the district--ALP sites are subordinated to district chiefs of police. This program offers a promising view of what at least part of the ultimate political solution to this conflict might look like.


The persistence of insurgent sanctuaries in Pakistan is a major challenge for the success of our mission in Afghanistan. It is not, however, insuperable. Insurgencies with cross-border sanctuaries have two vulnerabilities--the loss of the sanctuary itself and the loss of the local networks required to make use of it. Afghanistan is not beset by hordes of insurgents flooding across the border, but rather by the movement of leaders, small numbers of highly-trained fighters, munitions, weapons, and other supplies. These assets require numerous and effective networks within Afghanistan to move, to sleep, to hide, and to operate.

The current strategy focuses on those local networks both by attacking them with direct action and by conducting clearing operations, governance efforts, and other elements of traditional counterinsurgency operations. The U.S. has also been conducting limited operations against the sanctuaries themselves. The durable solution to the challenges we face in Afghanistan requires appropriately balanced action and success on both sides of the Durand Line with the recognition that our efforts should be concentrated on the areas we can directly affect--i.e., the places where we have soldiers on the ground, rather than in areas where we do not.


Success in Afghanistan is hard enough that one might prefer to find another way than counterinsurgency to attain our goals. The search for such different paths is natural and understandable. It will not, however, yield meaningful alternatives capable of ensuring America's core national security interest, namely, preventing a resurgent transnational terrorist safe haven.

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 transnational terrorist groups that thrive in the political vacuum that the insurgency creates. As long as local networks willing to support extremists exist and can 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.

Frederick W. Kagan is the director of the Critical Threats Project at AEI. Kimberly Kagan is the president of the Institute for the Study of War.

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