The State of the Union offers President Obama an important opportunity to assess the past year’s strategy in Afghanistan and to offer a clear roadmap for his agenda in Afghanistan and the region to a broader American audience. In its December strategic review, the administration committed itself to a “political resolution” of the conflict and pledged to intensify “regional diplomacy to enable a political process,” including Afghan-led reconciliation. President Obama should provide greater detail on these components of U.S. strategy.
Discontent over the course of America’s war in Afghanistan is rising, and the public has good reason for concern. We are running in place in Afghanistan, despite continued claims of progress, most recently highlighted in the administration’s December policy review. The underlying dynamics feeding the insurgency remain intact: The Afghan government continues to suffer from a lack of public legitimacy and capacity and is disconnected from communities throughout the country; the safehaven in Pakistan enables the insurgency to retreat, recruit, train, and fundraise; and the insurgency thus far remains resilient as it wages a violent intimidation campaign against those associated with the Karzai government and foreign forces, capitalizes on public discontent in Pashtun areas in the south and east, and expands its reach into previously secure areas in the north.
In fact, we have frozen an unsustainable political dynamic in place in Afghanistan, whose continued survival depends on our massive assistance and military intervention. A state that can survive our withdrawal in Afghanistan requires a political system that offers the diverse factions in Afghanistan’s society—including those backing the current government, those taking part in armed insurgency, and those sitting on the fence—an opportunity to participate in the country’s future and live in peace. Such a system is not currently in evidence. Unless the United States refocuses its efforts on addressing this issue, a responsible transition that does not spark an expanded round of conflict will remain perpetually on the horizon.
The United States, NATO-ISAF, and the Afghan government have publicly agreed to begin drawing down international forces in Afghanistan in 2011 in preparation for a full hand-over to the Afghan government by 2014, but no detailed roadmap for this process exists. Its absence risks indefinitely delaying transfer and continuing stalemate for the United States and NATO-ISAF.
President Karzai has sought a strategic partnership with the United States in which we offer a long-term security and financial commitment to Afghanistan. The United States has an interest in making such a pledge, but this commitment cannot be one-sided, in which the United States receives nothing in return for its commitment. The international community’s record of holding the Afghan government responsible for its past commitments to political reform is not good, and Afghan sovereignty means we cannot unilaterally demand changes and expect them to be carried out. But the absence of internal checks and balances and its dependence on outside donors means that international donors are one of the few actors potentially capable of holding the Afghan executive branch accountable for its actions.
The Obama administration must articulate a clear set of expectations as part of its discussions with the Karzai government and with its international partners. They must address the goal of increasing internal checks and balances—both between the executive and other centers of power, and between Kabul and the provinces—and broadening the governing coalition within a national government framework still led by the president of Afghanistan. Failure to make progress on these commitments should have consequences both in terms of the amount of financial assistance we provide to Afghanistan and the pace of international troop withdrawal.
In tandem with broader government reforms, the United States should support a consultation process to address grievances and increase contacts between the Karzai government, civil society representatives, and both armed and unarmed political opponents. This must happen regardless of whether discussions lead to any form of power-sharing agreement with Taliban leaders. American diplomats also have a responsibility as the most powerful armed party to the conflict to engage in discussions with Taliban leadership, and they should publicly affirm and support inclusive talks.
The United States and NATO have no choice but to accelerate their withdrawal before 2014 if the Afghan leadership obstructs efforts to tackle those issues central to creating peace. Fighting the insurgency on behalf of a government that is unwilling to reform or to expand the political tent will lead to elusive gains and unfulfilled sacrifices for our brave American and NATO men and women serving in Afghanistan and will not advance the security interests of the United States or of our allies.
Caroline Wadhams is the Director for South Asia Security Studies at American Progress.
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