The Urgency of the Moment

Creating International Consensus on a Civilian Strategy in Afghanistan at the London Conference

Caroline Wadhams offers guidelines for creating international consensus on a civilian strategy in Afghanistan at the London conference.

Some elders of Helmand province of Afghanistan listen to speeches during a gathering titled: "Expectations of Helmand people from London Conference." (AP/Musadeq Sadeq)
Some elders of Helmand province of Afghanistan listen to speeches during a gathering titled: "Expectations of Helmand people from London Conference." (AP/Musadeq Sadeq)

More than 70 countries and international organizations will meet in London tomorrow to discuss the international community’s strategy in Afghanistan and to mobilize behind a set of priorities for the country. Participating countries will focus on three elements: security, economic development and governance, and regional cooperation. Within these broad themes, international leaders will discuss an Afghan-led plan for reintegrating Taliban insurgents into Afghan society, a timeline for transferring security to Afghans, and measures to reduce corruption within the Afghan government.

Military and civilian leaders in Afghanistan and around the world have argued that Afghanistan’s instability requires a political solution. A political strategy should indeed drive military action, but the reverse has been true in Afghanistan for many years. The international community’s diplomatic and political strategies remain murky for Afghanistan, and its civilian programs pale in comparison to its military might.

The Obama administration has not equilibrated the civilian and military components in Afghanistan, but it has begun advancing a stronger civilian agenda than existed under the Bush administration. Its recently released Afghanistan and Pakistan Regional Stabilization strategy offers an important blueprint and launching point for leaders at the London conference to consider. Yet Obama’s document lacks detail for crucial strategic pieces, including creating a regional strategy, improving governance that addresses warlords and weak leadership, and reintegrating insurgents.

Leaders at the London conference must fill in, or at least begin to amplify these elements, ensuring that the civilian approach is as at least as coordinated and comprehensive as the military one. They must create consensus on a number of central elements, including addressing Pakistan’s strategic calculations, improving governance and leadership in Afghanistan, and reintegrating and reconciling with insurgents, all while dealing with capacity and political constraints.

Addressing Pakistan’s strategic calculations

The United States has put enormous pressure on the Pakistani leadership to crack down on militant groups attacking into Afghanistan, but the Pakistani military has made it clear that they will not launch new attacks on militants that are not explicitly targeting the Pakistani state. In other words, they will not target Afghan insurgents attacking U.S., NATO, and Afghan troops, specifically the Haqqani Network in North Waziristan and the Afghan Taliban’s Quetta Shura in Balochistan. NATO-ISAF will not be able to defeat the insurgency if Afghan insurgents can continue to retreat to a safehaven in Pakistan, where they train, recruit, and fundraise. It will not matter how many watersheds are rehabilitated, or schools built in Afghanistan.

The Pakistani military has multiple reasons for delaying this military action. The Pakistani Taliban has unleashed brutal violence on the Pakistani state at unprecedented levels over the past year. The Pakistan Institute of Peace estimated that terrorist attacks killed 3,021 people in 2009, a 49 percent increase from the previous year; and total terrorist attacks increased by 45 percent with 87 suicide bombings. Expanding the war to target additional militant groups is a daunting prospect for Pakistani military and civilian leaders, who fear what these terrorist groups might unleash. The Pakistani military establishment furthermore continues to see the Afghan Taliban as a key strategic asset against an ascendant India in Afghanistan.

The Obama administration’s civilian strategy has called for more counterinsurgency support to the Pakistani military, more training of Pakistani Army and police, and more development assistance to the Pakistanis. National Security Advisor Jim Jones stated at a meeting at the Center for American Progress on January 25 that the administration would do everything it could to convince Pakistanis of the importance of battling insurgents.

Altering Pakistani calculations at this time will not be easy, and may not be achievable, but it must be a top priority at the London conference and beyond, and will only be possible with an international agreement.

Key players such as Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Iran, Russia, China, Saudi Arabia, the United States, and NATO countries must reach consensus on their future vision of Afghanistan. The United States has established a Contact Group of Special Representatives for Afghanistan and Pakistan and reinvigorated its bilateral relations with numerous countries, but the regional approach employed thus far has been insufficient. It does not focus on the ongoing tensions between India and Pakistan driving Pakistani action, and is far too bilateral between the U.S. and each country.

The international community must find ways to address Pakistan’s deep insecurities about India while not handing them total veto power over Afghanistan’s future. Possibilities include making Afghanistan a strictly neutral country in an international framework, establishing security guarantees to Pakistan, or even reconciling with certain leaders of the insurgency who the Pakistanis trust. This final option is not attractive, but the international community is already considering the possibility and must debate the risks involved.

Improving governance and leadership in Afghanistan

The Afghan government is weak, corrupt, and ineffective at providing the most basic services to the Afghan people. The recent presidential and provincial council elections threw this into stark relief, with evidence of more than 1 million ballots stolen. As Ambassador Eikenberry stated in a recently leaked cable, the Afghan President Hamid Karzai is not "an adequate strategic partner." The Taliban insurgency has stepped into this void and exploited Afghans’ disillusionment with the government, establishing shadow governors in 33 provinces, setting up mobile court systems, and recruiting fighters.

The United States and the international community bear some responsibility for this reality. They neglected the task of building Afghan institutions until recently. And the billions of dollars we have provided in development assistance has failed to bring about significant change; Afghans have rightly perceived this aid as a corrupting force in the Afghan political realm. Eighty percent of international funds have bypassed the central government of Afghanistan, thereby depriving it of legitimacy and preventing it from developing capacity.

Obama’s civilian strategy details many important ways to strengthen the Afghan government at all levels of government and reduce corruption. It calls for supporting several new anticorruption bodies and strengthening subnational governance. It also empowers the Afghan government through increasing direct development assistance to the Afghan government and decreasing U.S. reliance on international contractors.

Yet the Obama administration’s strategy does not address how the United States and the international community should contend with Afghanistan’s entrenched powerbrokers and warlords. The United States and NATO-ISAF have taken conflicting approaches—at times embracing them to meet counterterrorism objectives and at other times pushing them aside over human rights concerns and linkages to the opium drug trade. President Karzai has appointed these figures to governorships, advisory positions, and ministerial posts to co-opt their support. But keeping these figures in power in Afghanistan further delegitimizes the Afghan government and creates new recruits for the insurgency.

The international community should create a shared plan for improving governance, using Obama’s stabilization strategy as one important input. There is some cause for optimism in reports that international donors pushed back on an early proposal from the Karzai government for anticorruption measures that lacked real substance. The international community should present clear demands and support to tackle corruption at the systemic level, in addition to individual appointments. One request should clearly be electoral reform, including creating an Independent Election Commission that is independent in more than name. If Afghanistan’s leaders continue to believe that they are above the law and accountable to no one, the international community will have little success in creating a functioning government.

Reintegrating and reconciling with insurgents

Reintegration of Afghan insurgents has been a proposed element of U.S. strategy since the release of the Obama administration’s initial strategic review of U.S. policy in Afghanistan in March 2009. Afghan President Hamid Karzai and other international leaders have all expressed support for reintegration, arguing that the majority of Afghan insurgents are not ideologically driven, but rather join because of economic reasons or through coercion.

According to press reports, President Karzai will announce a reintegration plan for low-level Taliban insurgents and an outline for a reconciliation strategy with Taliban leaders at the London conference. The United Kingdom, Japan, and Germany have already agreed to contribute $500 million over five years to support a reintegration program. This will provide support for jobs, protection, and removal of their names from U.S. and NATO blacklists if these insurgents agree to leave the insurgency. Many in the alliance have also expressed openness recently to the prospects of reconciliation with more senior Taliban leaders.

The Obama administration’s reintegration plan in its civilian strategy offers little detail of how reintegration would occur, but outlines basic conditions for reintegration—those "who renounce Al Qaeda, cease violence, and agree to participate in the constitutional process." Reintegration is gaining traction among members of the international alliance, but it is based on the assumption that many Taliban can be bought off in an environment where the Taliban believes they are winning and that NATO-ISAF is looking for a way out. This belief may prove illusory. Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid has stated that, "We are ready to fight, and we have the strength to fight, and nobody from the Taliban side is ready to make any kind of deal…The world community and the international forces are trying to buy the Taliban, and that is why we are showing that we are not for sale."

The international community with Afghan leadership should demand a plan for reintegration that specifies conditions, protections for women, a process for outreach, and a detailed deradicalization program. London conferees must also explore the costs and conditions of reconciliation with key leaders, mindful of the tensions this poses for governance reform and long-term instability in Afghanistan. While political and military realities may require some form of reconciliation and reintegration plan, the international community in its haste to extricate itself from Afghanistan must not set itself up for another 30 years of war by empowering illegitimate, abusive leaders.

Dealing with capacity and political constraints

Any civilian strategy must recognize the realities of limited civilian capacity and political will in the international alliance. The United States, as the largest contributor to the mission both militarily and otherwise, will need to address its weakness on the civilian side and recognize the growing opposition to a continued presence in Afghanistan by the American public.

The Obama administration’s strategy is ambitious. But the civilian side of the U.S. equation—especially USAID—is weak, lacking the clout, resources, expertise, and implementing capacity necessary for effective development assistance and state building. The Obama administration has undertaken a "civilian uplift" in which 1,000 more civilians will be in Afghanistan shortly, yet our civilians, including our development experts, do not have a strong and equal voice to other actors within the bureaucracy. Our foreign aid system is broken with our assistance programs fragmented across roughly 25 government departments and agencies. The president may decide not to fundamentally reform this system, and even if he does, it will take time. Moreover, the public in the United States and around the world increasingly believes that the war in Afghanistan is no longer worth the human and financial costs. These two realities call into question whether the Obama administration’s civilian strategy can succeed on a scale necessary to achieve meaningful results.


International leaders at the London conference should begin tackling and reaching consensus on these key elements of a civilian strategy. Addressing Pakistan calculations, improving governance in Afghanistan, and reintegrating Afghanistan’s insurgents are not automatically mutually reinforcing, in many cases they may contradict and conflict. Leaders must recognize these tensions and decide on the appropriate path for at least the next 12 to 18 months.

There have been repeated warnings over the past several years that Afghanistan is on the brink of failure, and this may be the last chance to prevent Afghanistan from free fall. Let’s hope London’s conferees recognize the urgency of the moment.

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Caroline Wadhams

Senior Fellow