Anthony H. Cordesman
The Biden transition team faces far more urgent issues in Afghanistan than much of the current reporting on cuts in US forces indicate. So far, the US is reporting numbers that do not seem to come close to reflecting the true scale of US cuts or the impact of planned cuts on Afghan forces – much less any linkage between such cuts and a successful peace progress.
Sharply Understating the Scale of Afghan Dependence on the US: Most recent reporting on the US military effort in Afghanistan has focused on the statements made by President Trump – that major cuts were coming in troop levels – and by his new Acting Secretary of Defense Christopher Miller that,
“By January 15, 2021, our forces, their size in Afghanistan, will be 2,500 troops. Our force size in Iraq will also be 2,500 by that same date…This decision by the president is based on continuous engagement with this national security cabinet over the past several months, including ongoing discussions with me and my colleagues across the United States government… I have also spoken with our military commanders, and we all will execute this repositioning in a way that protects our fighting men and women, our partners in the intelligence community and diplomatic corps, and our superb allies that are critical to rebuilding Afghan and Iraqi security capabilities and civil society for lasting peace in troubled lands”
Miller also stated in a memo released to all employees in the Department of Defense on November 20, that, “… This is the critical phase in which we transition our efforts from a leadership to supporting role. We are not a people of perpetual war – it is the antithesis of everything for which we stand and for which our ancestors fought. All wars must end…We met the challenge; we gave it our all. Now, it’s time to come home.”
This statement from the Acting Secretary of Defense was followed by a statement from a Senior Defense official, who stated that, “The dynamics of the mission have not changed…The solution in Afghanistan is to broker a power-sharing or some form of agreement whereby the two, the Taliban and the Afghan people, can live side by side in peace. One is not going to militarily defeat the other, nor are we going to engage in a decade-long war to that end, which we will not meet. So we feel this is the best decision to drive towards the peace agreement that we’ve been working on.”
“Fake News” About Personnel Levels?
The basic problem with such statements is that they are tied to other statements, which comment on the current US troop levels in Afghanistan that indicate they only total 4,500 personnel. These numbers sharply minimize the real level of Afghan dependence on the US, and they seem to have no links to the real level of US and other outside forces in Afghanistan or their mission capabilities.
Troop figures like 4,500 and 2,500 – at best – only deal with one aspect of US force strength, which is the number of uniformed military personnel that are not involved in classified or special operations and are assigned on a permanent change of station basis. This is a small fraction of the total outside supported personnel effort that is dependent on US willingness to stay in Afghanistan.
Moreover, such numbers say nothing about what the total US and outside forces soon to be cut are now doing; nothing about the overall level of cuts that will be involved; and nothing about the cuts in key elements like the Security Assistance Force Brigades (SFABs), the cuts in bases and other facilities, and the cuts in airpower – both in Afghanistan and key outside bases like Al Udeid, Qatar.
The US has steadily cut back its reporting on real force levels and on the true scale of US and other outside forces now deployed in other countries that support the war in Afghanistan – a number of personnel that does not seem to be added to any of the estimates of total personnel actually involved in the war. The Department of Defense seems to have virtually ceased to publicly report even the totals actually in Afghanistan and Iraq.
It also does not report on the nature and function of such personnel. For example, most official reporting no longer reports on the commitment of special purpose forces like the Security Force Assistance Brigades (SFABs) and the elite elements of US forces supporting the few truly effective Afghan land units.
The Department also has stopped reporting on other key aspects of the war, such as the number of districts that are under the Afghan government’s control, that are under the Taliban’s control, or that experience fighting from both sides for control. The State Department and USAID have long since ceased to report on how many and which specific districts have effective governance by the Afghan central government – although only half now seem to even have a prosecutor. The US stopped reporting on air strikes in support of Afghan forces by May 2020, and it never fully reported on the use of “drones” for IS&R and airstrike purposes.
There are no official data on the size and impact of cuts in key defense facilities and in the sizing and support capabilities of major US bases. It is clear from press reporting, however, that the details of what equipment would be left for Afghan forces were still being assessed in November 2020, as well as the details of what bases would be closed. An article in the Washington Post noted that, Of the more than 10 bases closed to date, the shuttering of five was required by the US-Taliban deal during the first 135 days after the signing. During that time, the United States also withdrew thousands of troops, bringing force levels down from roughly 12,000 in February to 8,600 by July…Those initial bases included Tarin Kowt in Uruzgan province, Bost in Helmand, Gamberi in Laghman and Lightning in Paktia. Others closed this year include Jones in Kunduz, DeAlencar in Nangahar, Shaheen in Balkh, Bishop in Kabul, Maymana in Faryab and Qalat in Zabul.
It is unclear how many bases remain open in Afghanistan, in part because the total number of military sites has not been made public. Even the bases that were once the largest in the country, like Kandahar Air Field and Jalalabad Air Base, now only house a handful of US troops, according to Afghan officials… The only US troops left in Nangahar, a province that has been a focus of US counterterrorism operations in Afghanistan, occupy a small corner of Jalalabad airport, according to an Afghan defense official stationed there. The official said he still speaks to US advisers on a daily basis, but that his counterparts are now at Bagram air base more than 100 miles away and they communicate via WhatsApp or FaceTime.
At a minimum, this means a serious drop in both the capability and the US awareness of what is happening in the field, ability to protect civilian aid workers and State Department employees, and a loss of critical human relationships between US and Afghan forces. It makes any ability to react to the failure of the peace process far more difficult, and it makes any official reassurances about the ability to react to violations of any actual peace by using airpower or returning troops even more dubious.
There also are no data at all on the cuts in US and allied civilian aid and diplomatic personnel or in civilian aid workers that are not part of the government’s staff. USAID and the State Department have virtually stopped reporting on the details of US civil programs – although the Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction (SIGAR) does provide such data. The United Nations Assistance Missions in Afghanistan (UNAMA) never seems to have attempted to report on the size and effectiveness of the overall international aid effort, and UN reporting on the size of total aid personnel as well as on the areas where aid efforts could safely be conducted has not been reported for years.
The Real Personnel Levels: Sometimes, however, the real numbers for total Department of Defense do leak through. A recent such estimate is laid out in detail in Figure One and shows the actual as well as the planned level of outside US and allied troops along with US contractors for 2019-2020.
These numbers are buried at the end of a report to Congress in Operation Freedom’s Sentinel by the Lead Inspector General (LIG) of the Department of Defense that was released in early October 2020. Rather than showing the “4,500” active US troops for the third quarter of 2020, they show 8,600. This a cut from 13,000 from the previous quarter and from a high of 14,000 in 2019. It does not take a degree in mathematics to realize that 8,600 is nearly twice 4,500 (191%) and 3.4 times 2,500.
At the same time, the LIG report also shows that the US had some 25,640 contractors in the third quarter of 2020 (9,766 US; 10,163 other nationality; and 5,711 Afghan) and some 550 US Department of Defense civilians. Many of these contractors – if not most – perform roles that would have been performed by uniformed personnel in previous wars. They also raise the total of American citizens directly supporting Afghan forces from 8,600 to 18,926 and the total number of US supported troops and contractor for all countries to 34,800. This was 7.7 times the 4,500 troop-level figure reported as the current level in November 2020. The then planned total numbers of Americans were estimated to drop in the Fourth Quarter of 2020, but only to 17,056. The new total includes Afghan and other non-US contractors, which dropped to 31,762 – 12.7 times the current projected total for January 1, 2021.
The same Lead Inspector General report, from which these numbers are taken, also warned that limited cuts in bases and contractors have already had an impact on Afghan force readiness and maintenance – cuts described in far more detail in the Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction (SIGAR) reporting for the same period.
In addition to the military presence, at the end of the quarter, there were approximately 600 DoD civilian employees and 22,562 contractors supporting the OFS mission in Afghanistan, 12 percent fewer than the previous quarter. Of the contractors, 7,856 are US citizens, 9,639 are other-country nationals, and 5,067 are Afghan nationals.
The DoD reported that as coalition bases close, facility support contractors are being demobilized. In addition, as contracted support requirements decrease, the DoD is de-scoping contract requirements. However, military forces continue to rely on contracted support for functions such as base life support and equipment maintenance.
These numbers also only cover US supported personnel. They ignore the fact that well over 60% of Afghan military spending comes in the form of aid as well as the role played by the 7,937 NATO partners – a figure very close to the 8,600 active US military personnel. It is striking that no estimate of allied forces is provided for the final quarter of 2020.
The Other Key Aspects of US Force Cuts: These are the personnel levels the Biden team must examine in deciding what level of future force cuts to make, and whether to stay in Afghanistan.
One key issue is the lack of progress towards defining a peace as well as what security arrangements and forces would be needed to secure one.
Another concern is the ambiguous nature of whether the US will offer any security guarantees.
A third concern is that most of the Afghan government’s current military and civil budget is funded through outside aid, and no one has indicated what Afghan government budget would follow a peace, who would control it, what the US would have to pay to make a peace work, and who else would continue to donate.
More tangibly, the US is downsizing its basing facilities in Afghanistan without reporting on current and planned further cuts, on the current deployments of train and assist forces like the SFABs or other units, on deploying any such support after May 2021, or on how the US could redeploy forces if a peace fails. The Acting Secretary of Defense’s announcements on troop cuts seem to totally ignore every aspect of the ability to actually agree upon and execute a meaningful peace.
And finally, the reporting by the LIG and by the SIGAR both warn that the Afghan ability to survive without US support of key Afghan land units and major US IS&R efforts is dubious at best – warnings that disagree with the reassurances from top US defense officials and commanders and that also seem at least partially validated by the fact that the US still has to carry out major air strikes to halt Taliban action even during the peace process.
This level of dependence on US airpower is shown all too clearly in Figure Two – which cannot be updated because the US has stopped reporting such data, and which never reflected the massive use of UAVs/drones in the IS&R missions. At the same time, it is critical to note that these changes in US military support of the Afghan forces and government have made massive reductions in the cost of war in terms of the lives of US personnel.
As part one of Figure Three shows, these changes led to massive reductions in the number of US troops in Afghanistan long before the current peace agreements, and they have also led to equally lower totals in the number of US military and defense personnel shown in Figure One. As part two of Figure Three shows, this has helped to reduce US casualties to far lower levels.
Determining the Real Cost of Both War and Peace: Deciding how the US role in the war should end, however, requires an honest assessment of the options for staying and their cost. Once again, there are no credible data on the total cost of the war. The unclassified reporting on such costs keeps changing the methodology without fully explaining its reasoning or tying it to any specific aspect of functional capability.
Figure Four, for example, provides an estimate from the Department of Defense’s Cost of War report. This report is typical of US official reporting on the history of the cost of the war. It has not been broadly circulated, has only been issued erratically, and contains estimates for the Afghan war which include major unrelated baseline spending in the total spending for Afghanistan. It is, however, the most detailed estimate available to date – although most of this detail consists of some largely dysfunctional summary totals, and the bulk of the report consists of page after page of unexplained line item budget data that even a forensic accountant could not translate into useful estimates.
Such estimates of the total cost of the war help to drive a key aspect of “long war” fatigue: the high cumulative cost of the Afghan and Iraq-Syria conflicts. The problem is that these past totals were driven by US attempts to win such wars with US land forces and by restructuring the politics, governance, and economics of Afghanistan and Iraq to produce a near instant conversion to US values.
They do not reflect the massive decline in more recent costs, and no unclassified estimate so far has provided any data that are either accurate or useful in estimating the costs of different options for staying in Afghanistan, for phasing all forces out, or for maintaining some kind of guaranteed return capability if a peace fails.
In spite of the total and peak annual cost data shown in sources like Figure Four, a shift to reliance on Afghan forces, new tools like the SFABs to provide more effective train and assist capability, keeping elite US teams with the key Afghan Army and Police combat units, and effective air strike and IS&R forces has reduced the actual cost of war to levels that may be far more affordable than the $31 billion that Figure Four shows for FY2020.
This is clear from the very different estimate of the projected costs for the Afghan War in FY2021 issued by the Lead Inspector General (LIG) in October 2020, and that are summarized in Figure Five. This LIG estimate reflects a total FY2021 budget requirement for the Department of Defense and the military departments of only $13.8 billion for Operation Freedom Sentinel, and it states that this cost includes, “support for stability and counterterrorism activities in Africa and the Philippines, as well as detainee operations on US Naval Station Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.” As Figure Five shows, the core part of this request for the direct support of Afghan forces only totals $4.0 billion.
The total cost of the request for the Department of State and USAID for civil programs is only $1.4 billion. This would put the total estimated cost of appropriations for the Afghan War in FY2021 at under $15.2 billion
It should be stressed, however, that the proposed FY2021 appropriations do not cover the broader costs of the US aid needed to secure and sustain an actual peace or to provide the economic development – a support that Afghanistan will need – plus the outside aid needed to fund most of its national budget – real world peace costs that some World Bank estimates indicate could well be higher to the US than the present costs of war, particularly if other donors cut their funding.
The data in Figure Six highlight the long history of both the past US and Afghan central governments’ inability to effectively plan, manage, and execute effective aid efforts. Figure Six clearly shows the past cost of key aid programs and their almost incredible instability in their “boom and bust” character.
The Biden Administration must address the critical need to develop effective and stable US aid plans and tools to properly manage any effort to either stay in Afghanistan or to guarantee a peace. This is critical given the dependence that the Afghan central government now has on outside aid. The Lead Inspector General report on its FY2021 Joint Strategic Oversight Plan notes that.
Even before the COVID-19 pandemic spread to Afghanistan, the country struggled economically. The DoS and USAID have expressed concern that the Afghan government has limited opportunities to compensate for reductions in donor assistance.25 International grants finance 75 percent of public expenditures and nearly 90 percent of security expenditures in Afghanistan, according to the World Bank. Due to a lack of political will and willing partners within the Afghan government, USAID has refocused programming to support collaboration between private industries and the associated government ministries that have the greatest potential for economic growth.
The need to pay for both the transition to peace, and to pay for the cost of sustaining a peace if one is actually possible, is something that the US has never publicly addressed but is critical to any success.
Strategic Triage and the Challenge Posed by a Failed Afghan Central Government: The US government is also largely silent about the failure of the Afghan central government to govern effectively, to develop a credible level of unified leadership, and to deal with corruption. The exception is SIGAR, and its latest reports highlight the continued corruption and failures of Afghan civil and military programs, the effective collapse of most anti-corruption measures, and the lack of US ability to tie the flow of US aid to “conditionality” in the form of demanding that the Afghan government remove corrupt or incapable officials and that there is an effective and honest Afghan execution of many aid programs.
Whatever happens, the US must not stay in a divided Afghanistan, stay in spite of the warnings about just how dismal this government is – as reflected in the World Bank governance indicators shown in Figure Seven – and keep funding one of the least effective and most corrupt governments in the world without rigid control over the money and conditionality that stops funding the grossly corrupt and incompetent.
The United States cannot save a government or a political system from itself, and it has no moral or ethical responsibility to indefinitely support another nation’s status as a failed state. The US does, however, have a responsibility to be honest and transparent in dealing with the peace effort and the US withdrawal. Retreating behind a face of false data and rhetoric is morally and ethically dishonest.
Anthony H. Cordesman holds the Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. He has served as a consultant on Afghanistan to the United States Department of Defense and the United States Department of State.