Forging an Enduring Partnership with Afghanistan

Advice to the next U.S. president. 

This serious situation calls for a fundamental review of available options by the next U.S. administration. Without advocating these as a group, we would suggest serious consideration of some or all of the below (though some of us are more wary of the last two options):

- The United States could take further steps to pressure Taliban sanctuaries within Pakistan (with or without the support of Islamabad). The May, 2016 killing of Mullah Mansour, the head of the Afghan Taliban, while he was traveling through southwestern Pakistan indicates the kind of direct action against the Taliban and Haqqani Network that could make an important difference.

- The Obama administration and Congress have already reduced Coalition Support Funds to Pakistan in recent years, and curtailed the use of Foreign Military Financing as well. But even today’s reduced amounts of U.S. assistance could be cut further. If Pakistan’s role in Afghanistan does not improve, in fact, the U.S. Congress will likely see to that, whatever the next American president may wish.

- Targeted economic sanctions could be selectively applied against certain specific organizations and individuals; Washington could encourage other countries to consider similar steps.

- Pakistan could even be designated as a state sponsor of terrorism, a finding that would not only be embarrassing to the country but also harmful to its economic prospects, given the likely influence on potential investors.   

In more positive terms, Washington might also sketch out a vision of an improved relationship with Pakistan if Islamabad would show more forthright and consistent support for the goals of NATO in Afghanistan. This outcome would be highly desirable for broader American interests, given Pakistan’s central role in the stability of the entire region—and its ability to upend that stability.  Washington should underscore that it could only be realized after Pakistan had verifiably acted to end its policies of sanctuary and support for the insurgents.


The situation in Afghanistan today is difficult. But it may not be measurably worse than one might have projected back in 2012 or 2013, when the Taliban resistance had already proven itself resilient in the wake of a NATO troop surge, and when elections loomed in Afghanistan as President Karzai’s second term in office neared its end. Compared with that benchmark, and in light of the fact that NATO withdrew 125,000 of the world’s best soldiers over the last five years and then circumscribed the role of U.S./NATO airpower, some deterioration was to be expected.  The situation also remains considerably improved, in terms of the economy and human rights and human welfare, from what it was before—not only in the 1980s and 1990s but even in the early years after the overthrow of the Taliban.  Since then, life expectancy has increased at least 10 years, child mortality has been cut at least in half, several million more children including millions of girls are in school, GDP per capita has more than doubled, a ring road has been completed (even if security conditions along it are not consistently as good as they should be), and many millions of Afghans have unprecedented access to cellphones, internet and media. And, the United States has a coalition of international partners willing to stay the course with us.

While dangers are always present, new possibilities lie ahead. Determined collaboration between the White House and Congress as well as Afghan leaders can break the cycle of yearly approaches to the brink of the policymaking cliff. That can in turn help create a longer time horizon for security, political, and economic reforms that will surely take an additional decade or more even to reach a modest degree of success. In light of the continued extremist threat in Central and South Asia, and thus the importance of Afghanistan to western security, this is a burden that we can afford to bear—and one to which we should mutually commit in partnership with the Afghan people and government.

Ambassadors to Afghanistan

Ryan Crocker

James Cunningham

Robert Finn

Zalmay Khalilzad

Ronald Neumann

Military Commanders in Afghanistan

John Allen

David Barno

John Campbell

Stanley McChrystal

David Petraeus

Special Representatives for Afghanistan/Pakistan

James Dobbins

Marc Grossman

Afghanistan Scholars

Vanda Felbab-Brown, The Brookings Institution

Seth Jones, RAND Corporation

Clare Lockhart, Institute for State Effectiveness

Michael O’Hanlon, The Brookings Institution

Bruce Riedel, The Brookings Institution

David Sedney, Center for Strategic and International Studies

Earl Anthony (Tony) Wayne, Center for Strategic and International Studies