Decision Time in Afghanistan

Obama Administration Needs to Put Details on Transition Plan

The administration needs to resolve the unanswered questions in its strategy, write Caroline Wadhams and Colin Cookman. The withdrawal of a significant troop presence from Afghanistan is only a first step.

U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, left, watches as Afghan President Hamid Karzai speaks at a news conference at the Presidential Palace in Kabul, Afghanistan, Saturday, June 4, 2011. (AP/Jason Reed)
U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, left, watches as Afghan President Hamid Karzai speaks at a news conference at the Presidential Palace in Kabul, Afghanistan, Saturday, June 4, 2011. (AP/Jason Reed)

As the White House decides this month how many U.S. troops to withdraw as part of its handover to Afghan leadership, policymakers must explore broader questions on U.S. strategy toward Afghanistan and Pakistan. The death of Osama bin Laden and the fact that he was found in Pakistan adds greater urgency to this debate, and Congress has shown a renewed interest in questioning the direction of the war and its costs through several recent budget measures and confirmation hearings.

We believe the United States, beginning this summer, must institute a significant drawdown in American troops this year of no fewer than 15,000 forces. This reduction would realign our investments in Afghanistan to better reflect the full range of American national security priorities. It would also signal to the Afghan leadership that they must prepare to take on greater responsibility for the security, political, and economic leadership of their country. This initial drawdown should be part of an overall approach that includes a medium-term plan to withdraw 60,000 troops over the next 18 months, leaving 40,000 remaining in the country by the end of 2012.

But while the troop numbers are an important component of our commitment to Afghanistan, a decision to keep or withdraw a particular amount of forces is not a substitute for a broader strategy.

U.S. officials report progress in military operations in southern Afghanistan. Many proponents of an extended military presence in Afghanistan argue these gains must be preserved through a continued large U.S. troop presence. But the sustainability of those gains over the medium to long term depends on the performance of and public support for the Afghan government.

On this front, the indicators are much worse given the Afghan government’s narrow political base and officials’ frequent abuse of their authorities. The Afghan government is highly centralized in the executive branch, and to date, it has been more effective at tapping U.S. and other international donors’ assistance than mobilizing the political and financial support of its own public.

Indeed, recent reports warn that Afghanistan faces “severe economic depression when foreign troops leave in 2014 unless the proper planning begins now” for more sustainable development programs and recommend scaling back any aid projects that the Afghan government itself cannot sustain.

As the administration discusses the transition of U.S. forces, it must also provide a clearer plan for how it intends to transition responsibility to the Afghan government. Currently, the period between 2011 and 2014 is a blank slate, and the terms of a U.S.-Afghan strategic partnership agreement that would shape our engagement beyond 2014 remain largely opaque. Failing to plan for this period could delay the handover to Afghan lead beyond 2014 and threaten the numerous investments the United States, the international community, and Afghan partners have made.

Recent legislation in the House came close to requiring the development of such a transition plan. A plan may yet resurface in the Senate. But whether it comes in the form of a full report to Congress or a more limited presidential speech, the Obama administration needs to make hard decisions and provide answers to the following policy questions for Afghanistan as its July 2011 policy review is conducted:

Defining U.S. objectives in Afghanistan

  • What are our goals? The president has consistently defined our mission in Afghanistan as centering on the disruption, dismantlement, and defeat of Al Qaeda. But testimony from intelligence officials indicates that Al Qaeda’s current presence in Afghanistan is minimal and has been for some time. Despite this testimony and the recent death of Osama bin Laden, the administration has still not made clear its interests and objectives for Afghanistan. Do we want or need a U.S. security presence on the ground to continue beyond 2014, and for which missions?
  • What will happen when we withdraw? What is the likelihood of civil war breaking out or the fragmentation and collapse of the Afghan government and security forces as we withdraw our troops? In what ways would instability in Afghanistan affect neighboring Pakistan’s own stability? What effect would this have on international terrorist organizations’ abilities to direct attacks against either the United States or its allies in the region or elsewhere?

Providing more detail on the political and military transition process

  • What’s our plan for handing over power? The process of transition in Iraq included political benchmarks as well as military ones. But the question of what will change on the ground when areas are handed over to Afghan lead is unclear. What plans are in place to transition the functions of Provincial Reconstruction Teams—parallel NATO-ISAF-managed organizations through which much of our assistance flows—to the Afghan government? If more of our aid is to be delivered through the Afghan government, what conditions and oversight measures should it be contingent upon to ensure it will not be wasted, given the difficulty of guaranteeing transparency and accountability within the Afghan political system?
  • What is the plan for the Afghan government to take financial responsibility for the Afghan national security forces? Congress recently approved $11 billion for training and sustaining these forces for this fiscal year. But the Pentagon’s most recent report does not discuss Afghan government contributions to its own security forces’ sustainability. What implications does that have for the size and cost of the forces we are building? How long, and at what level, do we expect to be funding these forces?

Determining our future relations with the Afghan government

  • What are the United States’ top priorities for a strategic partnership agreement with the Afghan government beyond 2014? What commitments will each side make to each other, and what provisions are included to ensure those commitments will be met? The United States has a real interest in cooperating with the Afghan government to reduce the destabilizing effects of the withdrawal of U.S. forces from the region over the coming three years. But it does not make sense to make open-ended commitments that continue underwriting the Afghan government at current levels indefinitely if there is not a political reform plan and economic growth strategy that enables Afghans to take greater responsibility for the country’s future.
  • What steps are we taking to broaden Afghan public support and ensure sustainability of the Afghan political system? President Hamid Karzai reaches the constitutional end of his term in 2014, and another presidential election is scheduled to occur. The prospect of him amending the constitution to extend his tenure in office would be deeply destabilizing, strengthening domestic opposition and further eroding support for his government. But the current political system actively discourages the formation of effective opposition parties or interest groups. What steps are U.S. agencies taking to ensure a peaceful transfer of power takes place (particularly given President Karzai’s manipulation of the 2009 presidential and 2010 parliamentary election results to marginalize opponents)? What levers of influence can the United States use to improve the checks and balances in the Afghan political system and support greater Afghan political participation and accountability for the government?

These questions don’t have easy answers, and they certainly can’t be answered with a single decision on troop deployment schedules. But without clarity on these critical aspects of the American transition plan in Afghanistan, U.S. implementing departments and agencies will continue to labor under a confusion of priorities, political actors in Afghanistan and the region will continue to hedge and seek to take advantage of this confusion to maximize their own short-term interests, and Congress and the American public will be unable to judge progress.

The administration must start making decisions now.

Caroline Wadhams is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress. Colin Cookman is a Research Associate with the National Security team at the Center.

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Caroline Wadhams

Senior Fellow

Colin Cookman

Policy Analyst