Forging an Enduring Partnership with Afghanistan

Advice to the next U.S. president. 

Since the attacks of September 11, the United States has engaged in and with Afghanistan in pursuit of common strategic interests. Our cooperation with the Afghan government and Afghan people remains a key front in a generational conflict against violent extremists across the greater Middle East.  Although the extensive turmoil there leads some to believe that the United States is incapable of playing a constructive role in stabilizing and transforming the region’s politics and security situation, we cannot escape this conflict. To succeed, we need, above all, allies in the region with whom we can partner militarily and politically. Our strategies and policies going forward should include ensuring the success of this American-Afghan partnership.

The Obama years have encompassed an intense, challenging period in Afghanistan policy. The U.S. role in the war in that country, dating back to 2001, has cost more than 2,300 American lives and $800 billion in American resources, most over the last eight years. We mourn the dead and wounded and grieve for their families, and profoundly cherish their service to the nation. The mission has demanded enormous military, diplomatic and economic attention and investment.  The numerous complexities were made more challenging by difficult relations with former Afghan leader President Hamid Karzai during his latter years in office, from an unsettled Afghan political environment more generally, from the legacy of disintegration of an Afghan state that had historically never been strong, and from the dual role of Pakistan—part friend, part strategic challenge in the conflict.    

President Obama has attempted to use the prospect of possible American/NATO withdrawal from the country to induce Afghan reforms and an Afghan sense of self-reliance. But ultimately, while progress has been achieved, he concluded that he cannot end the U.S. role in Afghanistan and that he would have to hand off an ongoing mission to his successor. Fortunately, that U.S. role today is much more modest than before—less than 10 percent of earlier American troop levels, less than 20 percent of earlier financial costs, and less than 5 percent of earlier U.S. casualty rates, as of this writing late in the early fall of 2016.

The next American president will have an opportunity to settle Afghan policy onto a more durable, more effective, and less demanding course. In our view, the watchword for this new approach should be one of an enduring partnership, based on mutual commitment. We should plan for a long-term American—and coalition—role in the country that avoids the recent pattern of nearly annual reassessments of whether the United States should stay, militarily and as a major donor.  We should also avoid publicly-announced withdrawal timelines. Instead, we should take a quieter and more patient approach, consistent with the commitments the international community made at Bonn in 2011 to help make the entire 2015-2024 period the “decade of transformation” in Afghanistan.  The U.S.-Afghan partnership should be recognized as generational in duration, given the nature of the threat and the likely longevity of its future manifestations. Less attention should be placed on troop numbers, and troop caps, as the barometer of whether an exit strategy is being successfully implemented. Rather, the emphasis should be on securing Afghanistan as a crucial pillar of America’s global anti-terror campaign and as a needed contributor to stability in the region.

The U.S. and broader international commitment should not, however, be unconditional.  Indeed, the notion of conditional engagement was agreed between donors and the Afghan government in the Tokyo Mutual Accountability Framework of 2012 and remains valid today. If the enormous investment that the world has made in Afghanistan since 2001 is to be worthy of continuation, Afghans must do their part to improve governance and economic well-being, and thereby build public support for the government. The very enormity of that U.S. investment to date, and the value of Afghanistan in the broader struggle against jihadi extremism, argue strongly for trying to sustain—and build on—the progress we have collectively achieved so far. And while there is no easy answer about how to improve U.S. relations with Pakistan, we expect that clear articulation of an enduring American commitment to Afghanistan and the region can only help in gradually reducing the distrust and rivalry that often predominate in the relationships in Central and South Asia today.

American Interests in Afghanistan:

A new U.S. president could reasonably question the importance of Afghanistan to American security. Past expenditures sacrifices do not automatically mean that the country is strategically vital to American interests today. Indeed, the first President Bush concluded back in 1989 that Afghanistan was not worth continued U.S. investment. After covert programs in the 1980s to aid the Afghan mujahedeen, conducted with the cooperation of Pakistan and several other countries, achieved their goal of defeating invading Soviet forces, the United States effectively withdrew from the region.