The focus now should be on the implementation of the new U.S. strategy for Afghanistan and the region. Commentators debate the pros and cons of the approach, but it is now U.S. policy. It requires careful coordination and integration of the tools of American power—military, diplomatic, economic and development—to move toward its objective: a negotiated Afghan political settlement. The policy’s specifics must now be defined and executed.
The rationale for continued U.S. engagement—to prevent Afghanistan from again becoming a base for terrorist attacks as it was in 2001—carries much weight given the threats from radical and terrorist groups emanating from Afghanistan, Pakistan and across the region. “Right now (the Taliban) calculates that it can win,” argues a senior U.S. official, and if the United States were to leave precipitously the outcome would be “a state of chaos.” Yet, the tools and actions needed go far beyond “kinetic” actions.
The U.S. approach needs to address: 1) the situation in Afghanistan itself (political, economic, development and military); 2) the role of Pakistan as an enabler of the Taliban and other violent groups and as a possible facilitator of peace; 3) the regional context: other neighbors and key players who can help or hinder a peace process and the India-Pakistan rivalry, which adds a nuclear dimension; 4) the important role of U.S. allies and partners in Afghanistan and in forging a path to peace; and, 5) the objective of achieving a negotiated political settlement which incorporates the Taliban.
American officials stress that the United States is not going to set “artificial” deadlines but will focus on achieving desired conditions on the ground. They also highlight that this strategy integrates Afghanistan into an overarching policy for the region. This will include intense engagement with Pakistan so that it takes decisive action against terrorist groups and helps get the Taliban to the negotiating table. The regional approach will also involve efforts reduce Pakistan-India tensions, including trying to lessen nuclear dangers from that rivalry. This is no easy task set.
Much attention is given to the U.S. troop presence and their security roles, but to succeed this approach needs strong and effective diplomacy, artfully employed. The U.S. policy process certainly needs to get right the specifics about the active U.S. military support for Afghanistan’s security forces in the field, how to improve U.S. training (and equipment provided) for government security forces, and what nonmilitary aid produces good results. But, if U.S. diplomacy inside Afghanistan, with Pakistan, and with other key international players is not effectively and creatively executed, the U.S. strategy will not create a situation in which the Taliban concludes that it will gain more from a peace settlement than continuing to fight.
Having argued for such a comprehensive approach , I know implementation will require exceptionally close U.S.G. coordination. An end game will not come rapidly, even under the best scenarios. Changing the situation sufficiently so that the Taliban are ready to engage seriously in finding a peaceful political solution will persistence, patience and artful use of U.S. tools across multiple lines of action . Effective ways to assess progress and adjust will be essential.
Administration officials say they will work inside Afghanistan with the government of President Ashraf Ghani to build the capacity and performance of security forces, to improve governance and to encourage better economic performance. They correctly point out that whatever his shortcomings, Ghani has long been committed to reform and fighting corruption. Afghanistan and the United States have forged a new “Compact” whereby President Ghani , Afghan CEO Abdullah Abdullah and other ministers will meet regularly with the U.S. Ambassador, the U.S. military commander and top aides to review and assess progress in four areas: security, governance, economic development and the peace process. They have identified benchmarks emanating from earlier bilateral agreements and commitments made to donors and partners during major gatherings of NATO and development partners in 2016.
Reflecting the political stalemate that has blocked and slowed Afghan government progress, U.S. officials say the Afghan government must demonstrate that it is a willing and stable partner that will pursue inclusive government, effective efforts against corruption and credible elections. This is line of work is key in setting the scene for long-term success, a senior U.S. official argues: it is not an end in itself and not nation-building. At the same time, Afghans tell me that while welcoming the recommitment in President Trump’s speech, many worry that the U.S. may focus too much on military assistance, and not on continuing to improve the daily lot of citizens and, thus, Afghan government’s legitimacy.
Ghani has demonstrated commitment to fighting corruption in the military and bureaucracy and improving government performance, but implementation of reforms will likely continue to be a slog. Donors complain that key Afghan ministries that are supposed to be leading reform are still performing below expectations, e.g., in low budget execution. Afghan politics have become more critical of Ghani, making it more challenging to forge agreement on holding parliamentary elections or on political reforms being sought by some Afghan political forces. Ghani and Abdullah will face pressures to cut political deals at the expense of reform. The U.S. Ambassador will need to lead creative, effective diplomacy to work through these kinds of issues. He and other U.S. officials must work closely with international partners and Afghan figures outside the government to facilitate progress. They will also need to be rigorous in measuring progress and ensuring corrective actions as needed.