The operational U.S. goals in Afghanistan should be twofold.In the short term, our objective should be an Afghanistan increasingly capable of handling its security challenges and governance duties with only modest foreign help. In the longer term, the goal should be a peaceful, more prosperous, and better governed country that contributes to regional security. To accomplish these objectives, the United States and other key foreign actors such as NATO allies, India, and China, as well as the EU and UN, should seek the following:
- to help sustain and strengthen the Afghan state,
- to prevent the establishment of any large-scale safe havens for al Qaeda, ISIS, and other transnational extremist groups on Afghan soil,
- to collaborate with Afghanistan against other regional extremist threats,
- to maintain, in cooperation with Afghan partners, the forces and facilities essential to confront these threats,
- to gradually contain and weaken the Taliban and other violent armed actors who continue to refuse to negotiate a peaceful and just settlement,
- to seek to change the strategic calculus of the Taliban about their prospects for defeating the Afghan government, and
- to change the behavior of regional players, particularly Pakistan, to support Afghan stability. This could involve sharpening the incentives, both positive and negative, posed to Islamabad by Washington and other outside actors.
Accomplishing these objectives will require a steadfast commitment from the United States and its partners, an equal commitment from Afghanistan, coordinated international efforts that integrate diplomatic, development, economic, and military instruments, and engagement with Afghanistan’s neighbors as well.
In other words, we should prepare and posture ourselves for what could be a generation-long struggle against extremism, with Afghanistan a key part of that struggle. However daunting and open-ended such a mission may sound, we have scaled back the level of American and other foreign commitment to the country and region to a level that is sustainable (even if we might consider modestly greater allocations of resources and modestly more expansive policies for employing those resources for a time, as discussed below).
The Mixed Picture in Afghanistan Today:
A new U.S. president might reasonably ask if all of these big words and ambitious aims are realistic for what some consider a losing effort in Afghanistan. Indeed, were certain dynamics to deteriorate further in Afghanistan, particularly in terms of the country’s politics and the performance of its leadership, at some point the United States might have to reconsider its commitment. As we noted above, that commitment should not be seen as unconditional. American interests in Afghanistan are very important, but they may not be existential for the United States. Washington needs to remind Afghan interlocutors of this important distinction, even as it conveys that its strong preference is to continue to build an enduring partnership in pursuit of common strategic interests.
The overall situation in Afghanistan today is indeed fraught, and far short of the aspirations many of us harbored at an earlier time. We are aware that it could deteriorate at any moment, with the fall of a major city to the Taliban, the assassination of a key leader, or some other dramatic event—or the constant, insidious erosion of government control in certain parts of the country. Yet there is also much upon which to attempt to build:
- The security situation in Afghanistan is deeply worrisome, especially in certain sectors of the country. Yet it is not catastrophic.Though the Taliban has taken control of some districts and is threatening some important roads, and though it has realized gains in Helmand Province to the south as well as the Baghlan/Kunduz axis to the north, the Taliban controls no urban population centers or provincial capitals as of this writing in September, 2016.
- The UN estimates that war is causing about 10,000 civilian casualties a year at present, of which perhaps 3,000 are deaths—higher than at any time records have been kept this century. Statistically, however, that is still a lower death rate from violence than countries that have come to be seen as success stories, like Colombia. Cities still bustle; the majority of markets, schools and health care clinics are still open; the population is not cowering in fear in most of the country; and citizens still enjoy unprecedented access to cellphones, TV and other media. Blast barriers and devastated neighborhoods of the type seen throughout many war zones in the Middle East today do not dominate the Afghan urban landscape—even if there is regrettably some chance that they will be needed in places if the late-summer wave of violence in Kabul and elsewhere continues or intensifies.
- Afghan security forces were unable to prevent Kunduz from temporarily falling to the enemy in the fall of 2015. But then they retook it, with limited though important American help, within a couple of weeks. They stopped the December, 2015 Taliban attack on the Kandahar airfield, though 35 civilians still lost their lives. They also repulsed coordinated Taliban probes against a number of other regional centers in the immediate aftermath of the Kunduz debacle. Earlier in 2015, moreover, the Afghan army planned and conducted three major operations essentially on its own, two of them involving multiple corps (each corps is about 25,000 strong, and each has specific geographic responsibilities). The Afghan Army seems particularly improved in the east, with strong commanders in the 201st and 203rd corps (two of Afghanistan’s six main army corps). The Taliban do remain resilient. They have gained some net holdings since NATO’s force levels declined by 90 percent starting in 2011, and since its formal role in the war effort ended in late 2014. But Taliban gains, while certainly worrisome and growing in provinces such as Helmand, Paktia, Khost, Baghlan and Kunduz, have been limited, as measured by affected population.
- There is still nepotism, ethnic factionalization, and corruption in the military and police. But President Ashraf Ghani, working with Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah, has retired more than 70 ineffective senior military officers since coming to office in 2014. While Afghan forces still spend too much time at checkpoints, rather than on offensive operations, they are improving in the latter category. They are also showing great bravery (suffering more than 5,000 fatalities a year in recent times). Afghans clearly are fighting—and dying—for their country. That said, we acknowledge being concerned about the slow pace of reform in some sectors of the Afghan security forces, and the retention of some undeserving leaders in key positions of authority. Indeed, the rate of reform, and of replacing mediocre but politically connected commanders, may have slowed in 2016. Two or even three or four effective army corps commanders, out of six, is not an adequate number.
- The coalition government of national unity of Ghani and Abdullah, inaugurated in September of 2014 after a major election controversy, then consumed half a year in quarrels over formation of a cabinet and other such disputes. After a relatively quiet interlude, the relationship of these two leaders and their respective followers deteriorated further in the summer of 2016. We are collectively very concerned about this dynamic—yet it is important to bear in mind that however heated at times, the push and pull remains essentially political, rather than violent.
- While preparations for overdue parliamentary elections are significantly behind schedule, Afghanistan’s overall track record on holding national votes has had some relative successes. Today, the parliamentary elections are delayed partly because many Afghans wish to see electoral reforms prior to such a vote, and the reforms have proven difficult to achieve. The United States and other foreign actors need to strike a balance between pushing for these reforms and elections, while staying flexible on modalities and on timing.
- Afghanistan remains a corrupt, patronage-based society. Still, there has been progress. Beyond some of the improved appointments in the military and cabinet, Ghani and Abdullah have tightened oversight in the awarding of government contracts. Macroeconomic management, tax collection, and the budgeting process have made notable gains. However, there is no question that corruption and patronage have slowed down the pace of development and growth in an economy already hammered by the great reduction of international spending, as U.S. and allied troops withdrew most of their forces over the last half decade. Afghanistan’s economy grew at only about 1.5% a year from 2013 through 2015 following an average rate of about 11 percent a year from 2007 through 2012. That economic downturn helps explain, in part, the high rate of emigration from Afghanistan in recent times, fostering a brain drain that must be halted.
- The Afghan people are worried. Yet they have not abandoned a vision of an economically developing, peaceful, and just Afghanistan. In a 2015 Asia Foundation survey, they expressed more concern about the country’s future than at any other time in the last decade, with only 37 percent voicing optimism (down starkly from 54 percent in 2014, when elections and the presidential transition process were taking place). However, a substantial majority—75 percent, essentially unchanged from the recent past—expressed contentment and happiness with their lives despite it all. That is partly a reflection of some of the positive attributes that many of us have come to appreciate about Afghans. It also may reflect their view that, as bad as things are, the nation is not on the verge of collapse. And while two-thirds say the security situation is not good, more than two-thirds express confidence in their nation’s army and police.