Small Wars Journal

Post-ISAF Afghanistan: The Need for a “15:20 Program”

Sun, 01/08/2012 - 6:25pm

Post-ISAF Afghanistan:  The Need for a “15:20 Program”

As the withdrawal of US and allied forces continues, the post-2014 allied manning and assistance levels in Afghanistan have yet to be defined.  The absence of a plan, inadequate media coverage, and our upcoming presidential election have created ambiguity, confusion, and drift, harming the war effort and giving comfort to our adversaries.   The United States and the leadership of the NATO alliance need to define the future of their commitment to Afghanistan and discuss future burden sharing.      

The Afghanistan story is fading.   According to the Pew Research Center, Afghanistan accounted for only 2 percent of the news stories in 2011, down from 4 percent in 2010.  Executives blamed tight budgets, concern over reporter safety, and perceived indifference on the part of the public for this situation.  With the public focused on the economy and the upcoming elections, potential presidential candidates also find little advantage in talking about the war.   There seems to be an agreement among both parties:  the less said about the war in Afghanistan, the better.  The leadership of the Department of Defense has been busy with the huge issue of the new Strategic Guidance, which has 3 lines dedicated to our overarching goal in Afghanistan, but no mention of futures. 

US allies have also said little.  They too have significant economic problems, not to mention populations less keen to fight in Afghanistan than the United States has been.   Alliance contributions to the war effort --- 29 percent of the troops --- have been significant, overall, but many allied leaders have hesitated to volunteer a post-2014 commitment, despite bold talk at the Lisbon summit.   Some leaders clearly intend to opt for free-riding, letting other members of the alliance bear the burden.

This ambiguity over future commitments gives incentives to the Taliban --- battered during the surge --- to continue the fight, hoping that the United States and its allies will fade quickly after 2014.  The ambiguity and drift have also given Pakistan another reason to doubt our long-term commitment, hold back support for reconciliation, and continue its support for the insurgents.

In two years, the ISAF-centered expeditionary force will be gone, and the Afghans will be in control of security across their Texas-sized country.  The Afghan national security forces --- soon to be 350,000 strong --- have grown in quantity and quality, but they will still need logistical support and financial aid, as well as advice on operations, training, and force management.  The Afghan government is worried about abandonment and is eager for our help.  We should not give it altruistically, but rather because it is in our interest to do so.

Allied assistance will allow the United States to avoid the catastrophe that followed the end of the Soviet-Afghan war, when we turned our back on the Afghans and allowed the fighting there to be controlled by warlords supported by various regional powers, most notably, Pakistan.  The “victors” in the civil war were Pakistan and its local client, the Taliban, which later ran one of the most repressive and least effective governments in the history of mankind.  By the dawn of the new century, the Taliban were close and symbiotic allies of Al Qaeda.  To this day, the Taliban has never disavowed Al Qaeda.  The devastating 9/11 attacks, a decade of war, and the expenditure of more than a trillion dollars were the US “reward” for failing to remain engaged in Afghanistan in the 1990s.  We quit the “great game” in the seventh inning.

Blowing the endgame in Afghanistan could be as bad after 2014 as it was in the 1990s.  A civil war in Afghanistan or a Taliban victory there would court disaster, both in Afghanistan and Pakistan.  In 1996, the Taliban victory was followed by the slaughter of thousands, especially the Hazaras, a Shia minority group.  In a Taliban victory in the coming decades, the score-settling alone would produce tens of thousands of dead Afghans.   The routine abuse of women and the mismanagement of the economy would begin all over again.  A Taliban victory could create a civil war along ethnic lines. 

Ambassador Ron Neumann wrote in his book, The Other War, that if we fail in Afghanistan, it will again become a terrorist base for those who have attacked the West, and it also “will become the strategic rear and base for extremism in Pakistan,” a nuclear power with a powerful Army and a population approaching 200 million people.  “This will allow and facilitate support for extremist movements across the huge swath of energy-rich Central Asia, as was the case in the 1990s.”  In short, US vital interests in Afghanistan did not disappear with the death of bin Laden, and they will continue after the ISAF expeditionary force has gone home. 

Our interests dictate the need for a secure, independent, decent Afghanistan, an ally in the war on terrorism and a force for good in its troubled region.  Moreover, there is never a good time for a great power to lose a war.  In order to reap the fruits of progress, the United States and its allies must develop a plan to provide targeted economic and security assistance to Afghanistan after 2014.  Our government must begin an active dialog with the Congress, all of our allies, and the American people about helping the Afghan government to stand firmly on its feet against its well-supported opponent. 

Before Nato’s May 2012 summit in Chicago, the Administration should develop a draft plan, and share that draft with key leaders in Congress and US allies. Allies who can’t for one reason or another participate on the ground should be asked to contribute to a security fund to assist the more able allied nations in helping the Afghans.

Here is a concept plan, a mark on the wall, which could be used to begin discussions.  Assuming that reconciliation and peace is at least 5 years off (2017), the “15:20 Program,” calls for an allied commitment of 20 billion dollars per year, and more importantly, the stationing of 15,000 allied military personnel on the ground for military assistance, air and logistical support, and counterterrorist activities.  As the Afghan government strengthens and peace spreads, or as Afghan revenues grow, manpower and funding can be reduced.

Financially, this initial 20 billion dollar allied commitment will include 6 billion to support the ANSF, and 4 billion dollars for economic assistance to the government and people of Afghanistan, much of which for accountability can be routed through international trust funds and mechanisms that put money under the control of local community jirgas.   The remaining half of the funds will go for equipment and the support of allied men and women in uniform. 

The 15,000 personnel would include 6,000 unit and training advisors; and 4,000 headquarters, intelligence, and logistics personnel.  The remaining 5,000 would be split among an international helicopter support unit, a Ranger-like quick reaction force to protect allied personnel and embassies, counterterrorist forces, and a robust air support element.  Economies can be made by consolidating all US-NATO-ISAF headquarters into one entity, merging NATO support elements, continuing to provide part of the air support from carriers, maximizing the use of UAVs, and working hard to obtain the maximum amount of international support.   Logistically, the much-reduced flow of men and materiel into Afghanistan could avoid Pakistani bottlenecks and pilferage, and go solely along the northern distribution network through Central Asia.

Fiscal hawks will say that this is too large a financial stake in a country like Afghanistan.  Fifteen thousand troops and twenty billion dollars, however, represent only 11 percent of the strength of the current expeditionary force, and less than a sixth of the current US outlays.  Other critics will say that the “15:20 Program” is too much for a country with such a weak government and a small GDP.  This is an inappropriate metric.  The long-term importance of a country can’t be judged by its in-conflict level of development or its lack of wealth. 

In 1952, the Republic of Korea was as poor, as corrupt, and as looked down upon as Afghanistan is today.  Our investment in security and stability there stopped communist aggression and allowed for the development over decades of one of the world’s greatest democracies and vibrant economies.  Afghanistan may never become another South Korea, but, with a trillion dollars’ worth of strategic minerals and better security, it can clearly become much more than it is today. 

The United States failed to finish the job in Afghanistan in 1990 and tragedy ensued.  We must not make that mistake again.   A plan along the lines of the 15:20 Program can help us exploit hard-fought progress, contribute to the defeat of international terrorism, and foster peace and security in Southwest Asia.  We need to complete our strategic partnership agreement with Afghanistan and begin now to line up support for the post-2014 assistance effort in Afghanistan.

Joseph J. Collins teaches at the National War College.  A retired Army Colonel, he served from 2001 to 2004 as Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Stability Operations.  He is the author of Understanding War in Afghanistan, published in 2011 by the National Defense University Press.  This essay represents his personal thoughts and does not purport to represent US government, Dept. of Defense, or National Defense University policy or assessments.

About the Author(s)

Joseph J. Collins, a retired Army Colonel, served DoD in and out of uniform for four decades.  His decade plus in the Pentagon was capped off by service as Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Stability Operations, 2001-04. He taught for 25 years at West Point and the National War College, and for more than two decades in Georgetown University’s Security Studies Program. He is an author in and co-editor (with Richard Hooker) of Lessons Encountered: Learning from the Long War, NDU Press, 2015. Collins is a life member of the Council on Foreign Relations and holds a doctorate in Political Science from Columbia University.



Fri, 01/13/2012 - 2:02pm

In reply to by joseph collins

Colonel: I agree that the Taliban is dangerous, but we do not have the resources nor does the Afghan Government have the will to address their power base. I think we should take a realist view. Heck we know right now, we (US) are going to negotiate a way out with them. I think we should continue to put AQ on notice. If we find them in Afghanistan and they have a credible plan brewing then we attack them even if they are in Afghanistan or cross border in Pakistan. The Taliban is more about a ultra Pashtoonism than about planning cross continent attacks vs US or Europe.

ANA/ANP casualties. I regret that they have suffered more casualties than NATO but this is not due to their fighting will, but more due to their continued unprofessionalism, higher tolerance for incompetence and casualties and sadly due to the effectiveness of the TB and other anti-government forces. Bodies counts do not indicate will to press home defeat of TB. An indicator of will would be the presence of MoD senior leaders in the South and them demanding that ISAF leadership place move ANA to engage TB. What the Afghans do not have is a "Churchill", a strong wartime personality to rally around and say "we will fight the TB day and night, we will never surrender our cause ! They had such a figure in Masood, the "Lion of Panshir". (That is why all the taxi cab drivers display his picture.) Karzai is clearly posturing for a post 2014 world.

Finally, I agree that the ANA just has to be "good". But...It is within "Their" power to do so, not ours. Afghanistan doesn't need a large military with computers, warehouses and training doctrine. That is the "Porsche" we want to make for them that they can not afford, nor maintain unless we remain for decades. They need a reliable, simple, rugged "jeep" that they can afford and requires simple maintenance.

I have the utmost respect for those serving and trying to accomplish this mission, but it is going increasingly difficult for senior leaders to make the incredibly brave and honorable conclusion that the continued drain of blood and treasure may not be for the best of our nation. A longer term view may be that as Walter Conkite said in Feb 1968... "But it is increasingly clear to this reporter that the only rational way out then will be to negotiate, not as victors, but as an honorable people who lived up to their pledge to defend democracy, and did the best they could".

Ken White

Tue, 01/10/2012 - 11:22pm

In reply to by joseph collins

Excellent plan...<blockquote>"...we can, once again, walk away."</blockquote>Or we can stay, funnel more money in and as Centurion 34 noted above once more sound "<i>...the constant drum beat of "slow but steady progress".</i> Makes little strategic sense but it'll keep the budget up, I suppose...

joseph collins

Tue, 01/10/2012 - 7:44pm

In reply to by Centurion34

Centurion: we agree on one thing: when we were done with the Russians in Afghanistan, we walked away. We should not have left Pakistan in the driver's seat. They tried first with the more religiously conservative groups, and then with the Taliban to win. The victory of the Taliban riding on Pakistani-provided vehicles and using Pakistani weapons was a tragedy whose last act was 9/11. I don't understand why you see no danger in that. As for the Afghans not fighting, if that is true, how come they have taken more casualties than the USA every year since 2007. Afghanistan does not have to be great or even good. It just has to be better than the Taliban. It is within our power to make that happen ... or we can, once again, walk away.


Tue, 01/10/2012 - 2:05pm

I respect the author's opinions but respectfully disagree having spent some time at the strategic level in Afghanistan. 1) It is a mischaracterization that the US walked away from Afghanistan. We had little interest in the Afghans even from the 1950s. Our main goal was to hurt the Russians. We didn't care if we sided with radical Muslims as long as they killed Russians and caused an economic and military drain. Once achieved we moved on. 2) Unlike Korea, there has been little evidence the Afghan military has the moral will to press the fight. Karzai and MoD Wardak have no real desire to fight fellow Pashtoon Tribes in the South. We often give the excuse that Afghans are illiterate or poor or ill equipped. Libyans fought in tennis shoes and pick up trucks, so did the Northern Alliance. Afghans know how to fight. The TB and other militants are not that sophisticated in their equipment or methods. Local Afghan warlords have full knowledge of who is fighting and where the weapons are. 3) If our strategic goal is prevent a haven for future terrorist bases, we have a bigger problem in Pakistan. The TB is a local problem and has little interest in global reach attacks. If we find more AQ in Afghanistan then we should attack it without permission from Karzai. 4) NATO is tired of AF. It is a stark reality. They are fully comitted to Afghanization in 2014, no matter how bad the ANSF are. The mantra will be they are making progress. (See MACV 1972-3) It is hard to give a cynical vision, but too many Soldiers have never read the CIA/DIA AARs of the Soviets in Afghanistan who are much closer to US than we like to admit and to the story of Vietnam, where we knew for years the policy was not working, but gave the constant drum beat of "slow but steady progress".

Don Bacon

Mon, 01/09/2012 - 3:03pm

The administration, properly, doesn't really care about Afghanistan any longer.

Obama: "After a decade in which we fought two wars that cost us dearly, in blood and treasure, the United States is turning our attention to the vast potential of the Asia Pacific region."

Clinton: "The future of politics will be decided in Asia, not Afghanistan or Iraq, and the United States will be right at the center of the action."

joseph collins

Tue, 01/10/2012 - 8:22am

In reply to by davidbfpo

david, Presidents can't lose wars, esp those that are on a relatively good footing at present. I am worried that history will repeat itself, and you are not. I see AQ and other extremists, which includes part of the Taliban, as opportunistic. If we let them, they will come back, is my supposition. Will you bet on your hunch? Partners left standing ... my point exactly, but if you don't tell your partners what you need or think that they should do, chances are, they will do less. I am not wedded to 15:20 ... it is a mark on the wall. I want the Administration to grapple with the issue, come up with a safe plan, and sell it to the allies. Right now, I am winning because something trumps nothing in the world of plans. joe

Ken White

Mon, 01/09/2012 - 11:46am

In reply to by davidbfpo

Excellent post, David. While I'm inclined to not agree with the thought that walking away in 1990 was in fact a mistake, I accept that it is the common wisdom...

For the rest, I believe you're correct. I also question whether a future Afghanistan -- I say 'a' as I believe that it will differ from the current edition -- will become a 'terrorist base' and I also wouldn't worry too much if it did. There are other, far better ways to handle such problems aside from staying where one is not really wanted except for the money one spends.

As an aside and on that latterly mentioned spending basis, after two wartime and two peacetime tours in Korea, I disagree that:<blockquote>"Our investment in security and stability there stopped communist aggression and allowed for the development over decades of one of the world’s greatest democracies and vibrant economies."</blockquote>Our investment helped a bit but possibly also hindered the South to an extent; they essentially did it themselves and our contribution was minimal at best. A little over four years in a country does not me an expert make but it does give a sensing grounded in reality instead of good old American hubris and ego.


Mon, 01/09/2012 - 8:11am

Some very interesting assumptions here on an external role in Afghanistan, but first on reading this I thought what! I refer to these two sentences:

'The United States failed to finish the job in Afghanistan in 1990 and tragedy ensued. We must not make that mistake again'.

My understanding of the US role in Afghanistan following the Soviet invasion / intervention was it had one primary aim: hurt the Soviets so much they leave. Once that aim was achieved the USA walked away (even if Soviet aid kept their local 'friend' in power for a time). Yes it was a mistake to walk away completely in retrospect. Given the nature of Afghanistan that a tragedy followed was not surprising, a multi-factional civil war and then the appearance of a dubious, although popular saviour - the Taliban.

Back to the future now. What exactly is 'our strategic partnership agreement with Afghanistan'? Especially as several parties, including the USA are talking to the Taliban. My perception is that the USA wants to exit soon, that GIRoA would like the 90% budget support to continue please (with consequent corruption etc) and will itself attempt to have a détente with some of the Taliban.

GIRoA is not involved in a partnership, it is a dependent - a sometimes unruly one too.

The author assumes that US vital interests remain constant, citing Ambassador Ron Neumann, slimmed down: 'it will again become a terrorist base; the strategic rear and base for extremism in Pakistan, and facilitate support for extremist movements across Central Asia'.

In terms of a global strategic outlook for the USA Pakistan is far more important than Afghanistan and extremism in Pakistan for complex reasons needs no 'strategic rear and base'. Extremism is well embedded within the Pakistan state and society. If Pakistan, people and state want to combat extremism that is the strategic partnership the USA needs to think hard about.

I am not convinced that the future Afghanistan will become the 'terrorist base' of the past. For the USA even a 15:20 Program is too much.

Extremism has been a feature across Central Asia for a long time, previously it was nationalism with a measure of militant Islam, that was suppressed and out of sight in the Soviet era. If anything the current relationships the USA has with governments in the region increase the threat to the USA.

The USA needs to think, explain and plan to leave Afghanistan.

Incidentally I doubt if many partners and allies will remain standing with you after 2014.

joseph collins

Mon, 01/09/2012 - 8:10am

JasonT, thanks for the great comments. About Korea and Afghanistan: we can't judge the value of our efforts by the size and quality of a small state in conflict. Both Korea and Afghanistan were/are in a sorry state ... we can't say: they are poor and corrupt and therefore, not worth the effort.

Joseph - I like your proactive thinking. You are right that we know little of any plan post-2014. In that same time period another Afghanistan Presidential election will also have taken place, which adds a layer of political and tribal complexity.

The post 2014 plan should calculate the minimal amount of effort required to protect US & allies national security interests. It doesnt mean peace and it doesnt mean we need them to love us.

The plan must include the right balance of carrot and stick. So the post-2014 force posture and advisory team is there to help. But if any group such as AQ or a new organisation looks to be setting up shop with the aim of targeting US & allies national security interests then the consequences will be the unequivocal and irreversible use of force to destroy that organisation.

I dont agree with your comment that "The long-term importance of a country can’t be judged by its in-conflict level of development or its lack of wealth." Perhaps I have misunderstood what you have said but it is both a mix of internal instability and poor or virtually no economy that creates a breeding ground for AQ or a new entity to embedd itself grow.

Most of the terrorists who have carried out or attempted to carry out terrorism or who supported terrorism against the West over the last 10 - 20 years may not have come directly out of Afghanistan, but the internal chaos of that country created the terrorism infrastructure and lure of a radicalised / military group, that helped to further inflame easily impressionable young men. Like the "Bunch of Guys" from Canada, it inspired them and offered them an opportunity to train and subsequently return to their Westerm home to carry out attacks.

I think the US recognises that a nation's lack of wealth creates a perverse level of importance. Take South Sudan. During my short time there the US presence grew substantially. USAID funding increased and the INGO footprint is expanding. While Im sure there are genuine humanitarian reasons, there is no doubt that the US & its allies does not want the future of this new nation to be perverted by extremism that grows best in poverty.

joseph collins

Sun, 01/08/2012 - 8:15pm

Michael, yes, this is the Afghans war to win. Time for them to take the wheel and the lead.


Tue, 01/10/2012 - 11:50am

In reply to by joseph collins

If AQ is permitted to return to Af they will be a much smarter more determined foe than their predecessors. The somewhat abstract motivation of their forbears in attacking the 'Great Satan' will replaced by the returnee's personal blood vendettas and first-hand experiences at the hands of western troops.

The mistake of moving from high altitude bases which kept them safe from attack by heli-borne Soviet troops will not be repeated. Any suggestion that it would be possible to assault an enemy camp at 3500 metres above sea level from the Arabian Sea rather than Bagram is very much "You first!"

The increasing belligerence of Iran and the real possibility of a Iraq/Iran Shia alliance would suggest the much curtailed Whahabbi access to petro-dollars could be slackened considerably in the name of a Sunni Second Front on Iran's eastern border.

AQ have always played the long game. Many people believe they originated as an anti-Soviet force which morphed into an anti-western terrorist group. This is completely wrong. In the early 1980s they drew the attention of the CIA/DIA for the simple reason they refused to engage the Soviet forces in any meaningful way. They seemed determined to set up expensive compounds to fill with foreigners - much to the derision of the mujahedeen and the bafflement of everyone else.

We don't want to make that mistake again.


joseph collins

Sun, 01/08/2012 - 7:45pm

Michael, the threat is from Islamist extremists allied with AQ. Our goal is to keep A'stan from becoming again a safehaven for these people. The President at West Point set keeping the Taliban from taking over A'stan as one of our objectives there. Some people don't see the urgency in this. They see the Taliban as not a threat to the United States. They --- the leaders of the Pakistani and Afghan Taliban --- are in fact allied with AQ and over the years have become increasingly radicalized. Another problem in A'stan: transition. The 15:20 force will be necessary to transition to a point where the GIRoA is on a more solid footing.