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Anders Corr: A hard lesson for Afghanistan -- sink or swim

Since the war in Afghanistan started in 2001, insurgents have killed more than 3,400 international soldiers and over 13,000 Afghan soldiers. More than 20,000 Afghan civilians have died. Estimates of insurgent deaths range from 20,000 to 35,000. Total costs to the U.S. alone for the war and related programs, such as veterans' health care, will reach $2 trillion to $3 trillion.

     Yet in 2014 the Taliban are closer than ever to returning to power in Kabul.

     U.S. President Barack Obama's objective in launching a 140,000-man surge in the international troop presence in 2011 was to transition security responsibilities to the democratic Afghan government and some 352,000 Afghan security personnel.

     But the government and poorly paid Afghan forces proved corrupt, inept and uncommitted. The surge failed to eradicate insurgents but did mark the start of a wise gradual drawdown toward what is planned as a 1,000-troop security detail in 2017.

     Why wise? Because the costs of the war are too high given increasing insurgent strength and territorial gains. The sluggish Afghan army is bottled up in provincial capitals and military bases, Afghan police are widely implicated in human rights abuses, and ethnic Tajiks worried about Ashraf Ghani, an ethnic Pashtun, winning the presidential election nearly launched a coup attempt in July.

     The U.S. financially strong-armed the Tajiks to forgo a coup in favor of a power-sharing deal. The recount of the 8.1 million votes cast in the presidential runoff is a bargaining chip for likely loser Abdullah Abdullah to get a better deal but could take a year or more. Obstructionist behavior will likely plague the planned national unity government, if it is ever formed.

Dangerous lack of confidence

The chaos in Kabul makes Afghan democracy look inept, unstable and divided. Meanwhile, the Taliban and other militants are increasingly well-organized and well-equipped and are making military gains in strategic provinces abutting the capital.

     The Taliban use the presence of foreign troops as the chief justification for war. Because of the deteriorating security situation, the Red Cross, World Bank and other organizations have relocated personnel to nearby countries. Donor fatigue is hitting the budgets of Afghan governmental and nongovernmental organizations. This deflates the economy and contributes to a dangerous lack of public confidence in the government. The Afghan currency, the afghani, has fallen 24% against the U.S. dollar since its high in 2011.

     Once Afghan public support for the government loses critical mass, Kabul could fall within weeks. Insurgents such as the Taliban, the Haqqani network and even international terrorists like al-Qaida will flood the country and use it as a safe haven for terrorism.

     Some lawmakers and military leaders, such as the outgoing commander of the International Security Assistance Force, U.S. Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford, are not enthused about Obama's withdrawal plans. They argue for an ambiguous departure date, a robust military presence until 2018 to train and support Afghan troops with intelligence, planning, logistics and air operations, and for special operations forces to continue the counterterrorism mission.

     Ghani and Abdullah, as well as neighbors Pakistan, Uzbekistan, India and possibly even China, would prefer a stronger coalition presence in Afghanistan.

     However, when the surge failed to eradicate Afghan insurgents, the U.S. needed to stop throwing good money after bad. Obama wisely warned his Afghan friends to prepare for withdrawal and to take their own security preparations seriously. There was hope for a miracle -- that the announcement would spur Afghanistan into the preparation necessary to win their own battles.

     But Afghan soldiers, paid $400 per month, illiterate and infamous for marijuana abuse, continue to lose ground to the Taliban.

Decisive moment

Coalition forces have been building and training the Afghan army for 12 years and Afghan special forces for eight years. Four more years will likely make little difference. There is no evidence that the capabilities of the Afghan army are improving against the Taliban. Rather, the opposite is evident. Unless Afghanistan is left to sink or swim, it may never have the guts to abandon the crutch of international military support. If it sinks, we could not have saved the country in the long run anyway.

     Coalition special operations units are very effective in capturing and killing Taliban troops. But shortly after Taliban members are captured and handed over to Afghan forces, they are released; if killed, the Taliban easily replaces them with new recruits. Many Pashtun Afghans on either side of the Pakistan-Afghanistan border want a gun, motorcycle, prestige, the financial benefits of holding territory, and the chance to be on the winning side against the "foreign invader." There are plenty of recruits available to insurgents and plenty of weapons flowing from Pakistan. Afghan officials believe Taliban logistics and planning is supported by Pakistan's intelligence services.

     If the Taliban win, terrorists may use Afghanistan to launch attacks against coalition allies. But they can do this already from safe havens in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Pakistan, Somalia and elsewhere unknown. Denial of space to terrorists in Afghanistan is not worth the cost given that such denial is ineffective and plenty of other safe havens exist.

     Rather than continue to pour over $100 billion per year into propping up the Afghan government, we could use a fraction of that to gather intelligence that distinguishes Afghan insurgents from international terrorists who threaten coalition allies and to capture or kill the international terrorists we find. Garden-variety Taliban are not worth the squeeze.

Perverse incentive

As to the countries and Afghan political parties that want coalition forces to stay in Afghanistan, their preference is rooted in the accompanying free security, international aid and foreign investment.

     Abdullah's party is filled with Tajik officials who run key ministries, including foreign affairs, interior and defense. These officials directly benefit from international money flowing through Afghanistan, and they will lose their jobs and likely their lives if the Taliban take Kabul. They profit from contracts and massive subsidies -- approximately 70-95% of the government budget -- paid by coalition governments and international aid organizations. Ghani and his friends will get the same benefits should they accede to power.

     Pakistan has a perverse incentive. It gets about $2 billion per year from the U.S. in military aid, in part for cooperation related to the war in Afghanistan. If Afghan insurgents were defeated, Pakistan might not get this money. This explains why some elements of the Pakistan government support insurgents in Afghanistan with weapons and logistics: By keeping the war going, insurgents keep U.S. military aid coursing through the Pakistani economy. The same perverse incentive applies to the Afghan economy. War is good for business.

     China, India, Russia and Uzbekistan all have domestic Muslim militant groups connected to Afghanistan. They get free security benefits to the extent that coalition forces stabilize Afghanistan. Russia and China, being strategic adversaries of the U.S. in Eastern Europe and the China seas, respectively, also benefit from an increase in relative power when the U.S. and its allies waste resources in South Asia and the Middle East.

     While not yet time to admit defeat, it is time to let history take its course in Afghanistan.

     Either the new Afghan government will rally its forces and withstand the Taliban without the support of the international community, or the insurgents will win. The international community cannot keep throwing blood and money at Afghanistan, hoping it will help. There are more important battles to fight. If, after 12 years, the Afghan government is too corrupt to stand on its own two feet, good riddance.

Anders Corr is the founder of risk consultancy Corr Analytics and editor of the Journal of Political Risk. He led the U.S. Army Social Science Research and Analysis group in Afghanistan between 2011 and 2013.  

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