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Progress in the War in Afghanistan: Seven Centers of Gravity

With Secretary Gates and General Petraeus emphasizing economic and civic development as well as the use of effective force, Cordesman examined the difficulty of pursuing economic growth in midst of ongoing conflict.

Date & Time

Mar. 4, 2011
11:00am – 12:15pm

Progress in the War in Afghanistan: Seven Centers of Gravity

On Friday, March 4th the Wilson Center on the Hill hosted a discussion on the recent developments in the war in Afghanistan, the implementation of the Obama war strategy, and the important policy challenges leading up to the proposed 2014 NATO troop withdrawal. Robert Litwak, Vice President for Programs and Director of International Security Studies at the Woodrow Wilson Center moderated the presentation byAnthony Cordesman, the Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy at CSIS and a national security analyst for ABC News. Cordesman presented his recent report "Centers of Gravity in Afghanistan", focusing his remarks on the impact of the counterinsurgency effort and the prospects for Afghan security forces.

Underlying the more concrete objectives of victory and defeat, Cordesman sought to address a fundamental misunderstanding of progress in Afghanistan, bemoaning analysts that try to "find one equation" for a situation with "complex variables." Cordesman likened the situation in Afghanistan to Vietnam, where the United States fell short by treating "every year like it was the 1st." As in Vietnam, American forces in Afghanistan are "winning" many tactical victories but making little progress in the broader effort to support a stable, open democracy.

Cordesman pointed to a lack of funding as a primary reason NATO has yet to achieve its stated goals, including the transfer of security responsibility to local police and armed forces. Training programs have improved significantly and are supposed to be active in June, but delays in bringing in experienced trainers have allowed the Taliban to step into the resulting power vacuum. Serious funding for these programs didn't begin until FY 2007, and a substantial gap remains between promised and actual support.

Beyond the lag in funding, the lack of cooperation between the aid and military arms of the counterinsurgency effort means there has been no "integrated plan" to turn battlefield victories into overarching success. Cordesman noted that the "fundamentally dysfunctional" Afghan constitution makes disseminating money difficult, and cited reports from Oxfam and the World Bank that 40percent of the aid money entering Afghanistan does not reach Afghan people. Aid is an "integral part" of encouraging local institutions that work, and will become even more crucial as military presence wanes.

Cordesman warned that there is "no chance" of reaching lofty goals such as those laid out in the NATO Afghanistan Compact in 2006, and that success ought to be defined as leaving behind adequately trained Afghan security forces and civil society leaders. The unpredictable support of the Pakistani government against Al-Qaeda and the Taliban across the border also adds to the doubt over the length of NATO's stay; Cordesman referred to an acceptable level of governance and rule of law—"Afghan good enough"—where the United States will be able to comfortably withdraw combat troops. He expressed doubt about NATO's ability to get there by 2014.

Addressing questions from congressional staff about the funding for the final push in the war, Cordesman raised the concern that foreign contract funds have the potential to lead to corruption in a developing economy such as Afghanistan.

By: John Coit
David Klaus, Consulting Director, Wilson Center on the Hill


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