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Setting the Terms for a Long-Term U.S.-Afghanistan Partnership

Mutual Commitments to Political Reforms Key to Resolving Conflict

SOURCE: AP/Charles Dharapak

President Barack Obama and Afghan President Hamid Karzai shake hands after making statements before signing a strategic partnership agreement at the presidential palace in Kabul, Afghanistan.

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President Barack Obama addressed the nation from Bagram Airbase in Afghanistan last night, outlining his vision for U.S. involvement in Afghanistan over the next two years and beyond, following the signature of a strategic partnership agreement with his counterpart, President Hamid Karzai. This agreement outlines a long-term partnership between the United States and Afghanistan beyond 2014.

Given the anxieties in Afghanistan, the region, and here at home, the strategic partnership agreement is an important step in providing greater clarity over the nature of the U.S.-Afghan relationship beyond 2014 and outlining the long-term intentions of both the Obama and Karzai administrations.

The bilateral agreement forges a long-term U.S. commitment to continue funding the Afghan National Security Forces and Afghanistan’s social and economic development, and to providing support to Afghanistan’s economic foundation and governing institutions. These commitments will occur while the United States transitions its military forces out of Afghanistan and removes itself as the central actor in the political, security and economic dynamics in Afghanistan.

In return, the Afghan government agrees to provide U.S. forces “access to and use of Afghan facilities” for counterterrorism operations against Al Qaeda and its terrorist affiliates, a top U.S. national security priority. And the Afghan government makes a series of commitments to improve governance “by increasing the responsiveness, and transparency of Afghan executive, legislative, and judicial institutions so that they better meet the civil and economic needs of the Afghan people.”

The commitments made within this strategic partnership agreement about these institutional reforms are vitally important to the future of Afghanistan. The Obama administration deserves credit for emphasizing essential political reforms that the Afghan government should undertake. But we must be realistic here, too. At this point these reforms are largely symbolic gestures. The real work remains to be done to hammer out the actual financial commitments made to Afghanistan, the number of foreign troops that will remain, and the minimal or baseline conditions required for the flow of this assistance and security support.

Most of this work will occur in negotiations at the NATO conference in Chicago later this month as well as at the Afghan donor’s conference in Tokyo in July. In addition, debate over these funding levels will arise in the upcoming appropriations debates in the U.S. Congress. The United States and other international donors, as the principle supporters of the Afghan state, are the most powerful constituency capable of holding the Afghan government accountable for its behavior. And they must establish clearer expectations, conditions with teeth, and incentives for positive steps by the Afghan government.

This would be a dramatic shift from U.S. and Afghan behavior in the past, which has been characterized by Afghan commitments to undertake political reforms, little follow-through by Afghan leaders, and continued U.S. assistance. In short—a relationship with lots of promises and no accountability.

The Karzai government must undertake these reforms for its own long-term survival. It needs to create a more acceptable political consensus than the status quo by beginning to tackle pervasive government corruption, the lack of accountability for the executive branch, and the narrow clique at its center.

What’s more, if there is any hope of a successful political settlement process—both with armed and unarmed factions within the Afghan society—then reform of this system is most likely necessary to enable more institutional options for power-sharing. Peace talks in which the Afghan government is unwilling to make any concessions to its rivals are no more likely to succeed than ones in which the Taliban deny the legitimacy of Afghan political and civil society groups both inside and out of government.

U.S. and international support has helped offset the weaknesses of the Afghan state, with the unfortunate effect of reducing the incentive for its leaders to take responsibility for difficult processes of political reform and negotiations with rivals. This assistance will decrease with the transition of U.S. and NATO forces out of the country—and more rapidly if the Afghan government fails to act.

The United States has an interest in reducing its involvement in Afghanistan and supporting regional stability through a sovereign and stable Afghan state, but its commitments must be reciprocated by commitments honored by the Afghan government, too. The strategic partnership agreement rightly outlined some of what these conditions should look like. Now the U.S. policymakers, with their NATO partners, must follow through.

Caroline Wadhams is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and Colin Cookman is a Policy Analyst with the National Security team at the Center.

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