Questioning Transition in Afghanistan

Congressional Leaders Must Push the Administration to Fill the Gap Between 2011 and 2014

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry’s proposal to take a closer look at U.S. policies in Afghanistan offers a much-needed opportunity to reassess our efforts to develop a sustainable peace settlement, says Colin Cookman.

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.
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.

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry (D-MA) voiced his concern in a Boston Globe interview published this weekend that current U.S. policy in Afghanistan not be allowed to “continue[…] simply because it is there and in place.” Sen. Kerry also announced his intention to hold hearings reviewing Afghanistan strategy this spring. His proposal of greater congressional scrutiny offers a much-needed opportunity to more robustly examine assumptions underpinning America’s current policies in Afghanistan and the region, and their effectiveness at addressing our medium- and long-term strategic concerns.

These questions went largely unchallenged in the White House’s own review released last December and they need a more thorough public debate. Strategic drift and crisis management have characterized much of the Afghanistan war’s nine years to date. Breaking this pattern requires tackling the difficult questions of how to conduct a durable transition and establish a sustainable peace in Afghanistan now, rather than expecting a dramatic turn of fate three years into the future and leaving current policy trajectories unchanged.

The November 2010 Lisbon conference has committed the United States, its NATO partners, and the Afghan government to a process of transition that is to begin this year and culminate in 2014 with the formal transfer of lead security responsibility to Kabul. These deadlines have brought a new focus and sense of urgency to the international community’s mission in Afghanistan. But thus far the matter has been discussed primarily in terms of Afghan security force target numbers, with little regard to the sustainability of the Afghan state itself. Questions of what will fill that three-year “transition” gap and what follows afterward remain largely unanswered.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai laid out his own vision of “transition” in a speech to the Munich Security Conference forum this weekend. He repeated his previous calls for a reduction in “parallel structures” in the security and development sectors, and sought greater Afghan government control over the large amounts of foreign assistance spending being funneled into the country.

President Karzai’s concerns are not wholly without merit. From the beginning of the U.S.-led intervention in Afghanistan the international donor community chose to channel the vast majority of its aid to Afghanistan through international nongovernmental organizations, private security and development contractors, and regional power-brokers. The problem with this approach is that it contributes to an “internal brain drain” of Afghan talent away from the government and into the international community sector. And it weakens the government’s ability to consolidate its authority over the country by offering rivals at the local level alternative sources of international patronage (primarily in the form of armed protection rackets).

President Karzai’s preferred solution is a long-term strategic partnership agreement between the Afghan government and the international community. In this arrangement Kabul would gain greater control over how funds are distributed and guarantees of continued support for the Afghan national security forces. This represents a one-way commitment, however.

The current Afghan constitutional set-up lacks effective internal checks and balances and concentrates authority heavily in the executive branch, enabling official corruption and abuse, fueling the armed insurgency, and leaving the international community the only constituency theoretically capable of enforcing conditions against government mismanagement and excess. The United States and its international partners have been unable or unwilling to play this oversight role to date despite the Afghan government’s heavy dependence on international largesse.

Transition requires more serious consideration of just what sort of government structure we aim to leave behind. A blank check to Kabul is no more likely to bring about positive results in the medium- to long-term than the hopes that a new generation of local warlords can protect our interests where previous ones failed.

Ultimately, the number of Taliban fighters we kill or Afghan police we train will not affect these fundamental strategic realities. And the focus on these measures of success obscures the more critical issues being deferred under the current strategy. Planning for 2014 before that transition is upon us will mean thinking harder about how to realign our engagement in Afghanistan. A sustainable peace requires a more inclusive political settlement than the structure we currently back in Kabul, and an enduring transition requires a more serious assessment of how our policies shape the conflict there and contribute to an Afghan state that can survive the withdrawal of large-scale international assistance.

Congressional leaders have a responsibility to the American public and the Afghan people to bring new scrutiny to our Afghan strategy if the transition is to develop into something more meaningful than an ever-shifting date continuously put off into the future.

Colin Cookman is a Research Assistant for National Security at American Progress.

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Colin Cookman

Policy Analyst