Afghanistan has severely challenged every U.S. administration since the fall of 2001. The Trump administration is debating intensely what strategy, if any, might lead to more success than its predecessors achieved and turn around the “stalemate” on the ground in Afghanistan.
The media focus is largely on the troop numbers, tactics and costs being proposed to put the Taliban and its extremist bedfellows on the defensive and the positions of various U.S. policy makers including the president . A strategy for success, however, is much more complicated than just the issues surrounding security, vital as they are. There are at least seven pillars needed for a comprehensive strategy in Afghanistan: 1) military and security tactics and capacity-building; 2) Afghanistan’s domestic politics; 3) governance and economic performance; 4) Pakistan’s role; 5) options for a non-military solution; 6) international support; and 7) an effective U.S. policy and budgetary process. To only focus on the military pillar is a formula for misunderstanding. Neglecting any of the pillars can lead the enterprise to fail.
Supporters of a continued U.S. role in Afghanistan argue that it is in the national interest to prevent Afghanistan from again becoming a base for terrorists. They argue that success is possible with a sustained, vigorous, multi-year effort without deadlines to bolster Afghan government capacity and to generate sufficient pressures on the Taliban and others to open paths to a non-military solution. This approach, they argue, will prevent terrorists from being able to operate internationally from Afghanistan.
As the U.S. policy debate unfolds, it is important to understand that a pathway to success demands a multifaceted and integrated strategy which addresses security issues well, while deploying effective diplomacy and non-military assistance.
Providing Military Support and Building Afghan Capacity
The Taliban gained ground militarily over the last two years. The fighting revealed serious shortcomings in the Afghan military, security and intelligence forces. Nevertheless, many Afghan troops and commanders fought with success and suffered very heavy casualties resisting the Taliban. The Afghan military clearly needed more support from U.S. airpower, intelligence, and Special Forces to counter the Taliban attacks and with that, they have held territory recently. They will need that support and advice for some time to come. In the interim, there is a clear need to clean out poorly performing and corrupt senior officers (in the army, the Interior Ministry and the intelligence service), to add an effective U.S. advisory presence closer to the front lines , and to undertake a serious revamp of training and capacity building programs, including addressing the airpower needs of the Afghan forces. The cleaning out of the Afghan military leadership has already begun with the support of Afghan president Ghani , but it will take time and persistence, as will a revitalized capacity building effort once properly resourced. This cluster of issues was at the core of the U.S. military’s request for more troops earlier this year, and is central to the debate in the Trump administration, which reportedly has included consideration of using private military contractors .
Assuring Afghan Domestic Political Support
Alongside the vital decisions on security issues, however, are the essential tasks of maintaining an effective partnership with Kabul and other key Afghan actors, including helping to keep the dynamics of Afghan domestic politics supportive of U.S. objectives. The U.S. leadership team in country, the ambassador, U.S. Forces Commander and their deputies, need to sustain and strengthen partnerships to achieve better government performance and to encourage political processes which are perceived as an effective and legitimate alternative to the Taliban. This is tough work. The current government of President Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah spent much of its first two years in office divided over needed appointments and reforms. U.S. officials and international allies worked hard to help find ways forward and break logjams. The government’s performance has improved over the past year, with more reforms in budget execution and in anti-corruption efforts evident, but much more is needed . In recent months, serious factional splits and more sharp criticisms of President Ghani have emerged, undermining the government’s authority. The major set of “diplomatic” tasks for the United States includes providing support and encouragement: 1) for continued reforms and better service delivery by the government; 2) for Afghans reaching agreements for holding 2018 parliamentary elections; and 3) for helping find ways that the inevitable political divisions as parliamentary and then presidential elections approach not seriously undermine the war effort or the popular perception of the government’s legitimacy. Additional political reforms might be needed along the way. Working this set of issues will be no easy task, but is crucial.
Supporting Governance Reforms and Economic Growth
While not nation building, the United States and other donors must continue to work hard with Afghan officials to improve governance performance and to support a return to economic growth . This work ranges from tax collection to building roads and schools, and from delivery of health and other services to encouraging private sector job creation. To maintain and increase the support of the population, the government must be seen as helping to provide both security and other services. For the foreseeable future, U.S. and others’ assistance is essential to keep the government functioning (by filling a sizable budget gap), as well as to sustain improved service delivery and performance. Fighting corruption in the governmental, security and judicial systems is essential. This is work is needed to get better results for the assistance money being spent, but equally important, polls and studies consistently remind us how important it is for building popular legitimacy for the government in the struggle with the Taliban. The focus on better government and less corruption will require skilled, firm diplomacy to overcome resistance by those benefiting from corruption, as well as better results-driven, technical assistance and aid programs. Key will be the political will of those in power. President Ghani seems to be making progress, including with an Anti-Corruption Justice Center, but this needs to be a sustained effort, actively supported and monitored by international donors and U.S. officials.