U.S. officials will soon announce long-term plans for an American security presence in Afghanistan after 2014—the date when the United States and the NATO International Security Assistance Force will have transferred full security responsibility to Afghan authorities—as well as the pace of troop withdrawals for the coming two years leading up to that new mission.
Although these military decisions often dominate headlines and congressional attention, the highest priority for U.S. policymakers and their partners leading up to 2014 and beyond should be supporting political processes that can lead to a resolution of the conflict in Afghanistan. These tasks will largely fall on Afghan and international diplomats, and not military personnel. The Obama administration should clearly articulate its expectations for Afghanistan’s political transition during Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s visit to Washington, D.C., this week.
As the United States reduces and realigns its military and financial investments, Afghan stability remains a U.S. interest. A breakdown of the Afghan state or an upsurge in violence could have terrible humanitarian consequences for Afghans, create greater pressure on Pakistan as violence and refugees cross Afghanistan’s borders, and expand ungoverned spaces for terrorist groups. But preventing this breakdown will come largely through political compromises among Afghan and regional players, not via military victories. After all of the blood and treasure that has been spent in our decade-long war, Americans should care about supporting a stable Afghanistan, and U.S. policymakers should develop a drawdown plan that seeks to prevent the collapse of the Afghan government.
Priorities for U.S. policymakers between now and 2014 and beyond include the pursuit of the following:
- Transparent, free, and fair presidential and provincial elections in Afghanistan in 2014
- A new political settlement that can better balance the competing interests of Afghanistan’s many factions—including the government of Afghanistan and leaders of major Afghan political factions, civil society, and women’s groups—together with insurgent representatives
- A regional agreement aligned with an Afghan political settlement that is a result of discussions with Afghanistan’s neighbors, including Pakistan
While none of these objectives will be easy to achieve, there are signals that the impending political and security transitions in 2014 and the risks of continued conflict thereafter are prompting some of Afghanistan’s political actors, in addition to Pakistani decision makers, to reconsider their current positions and seek compromise. These signs include:
- Dialogue and cooperation among former rivals in Afghanistan such as in the release of the Democracy Charter—a statement of principles by Afghan political leaders for the 2014 elections
- High-level meetings between Pakistan and Afghanistan and the release of Afghan Taliban prisoners by Pakistan
- Alleged discussions between representatives of the Taliban insurgency and the Afghan government
The Obama administration has recently pushed more forcefully to implement a political transition strategy, taking steps to support an election in which President Karzai transfers power to a democratically elected successor in 2014, as the Afghan Constitution requires; making numerous attempts to create a dialogue between the Afghan government and the insurgency; and facilitating discussions among regional and global players.
These efforts should be intensified. U.S. ambassadors for Afghanistan and Pakistan, the special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, and other senior diplomatic officials should be focused on pursuing these political objectives. At the same time, the U.S. and NATO security posture should be adapted to better reinforce this political strategy—through a steady drawdown beginning now, with a pause during the presidential and provincial elections, to a residual force of less than 10,000 U.S. and international troops by the end of 2014. The remaining international security presence should reorient itself for discrete counterterrorism efforts as needed and support to the Afghan National Security Forces for tasks such as logistics, intelligence, and training.
As the Obama administration outlined in its strategy for an “irreversible transition,” reducing the U.S. security presence in Afghanistan is the right course for Afghanistan, the region, and U.S. interests. The large foreign military presence currently in Afghanistan, including 66,000 U.S. troops and International Security Assistance Force troops, enables Afghan leaders and regional players to avoid making the essential concessions and reforms required to create a more sustainable political consensus and fuels corruption within the Afghan government and the larger society. Reducing the U.S. role in the conflict will force Afghans and regional players to step forward to assume greater responsibility.
As the Obama administration fills in the details of its transition strategy for the next two years and beyond, including determining the size of the U.S. force, it must balance these competing interests and structure its financial and security assistance in a way that meets U.S. strategic and diplomatic priorities for Afghanistan and the broader region. U.S. strategy should consider both the limitations of the Afghan National Security Forces and the political and security priorities, as outlined below.
Limitations of the Afghan National Security Forces
Force training and sustainability challenges
As part of the transition strategy, U.S. and NATO officials have created an Afghan security force of approximately 352,000 Afghans—including 187,000 Afghan National Army soldiers and 157,000 police officers—and transferred a significant amount of territory (where 75 percent of the Afghan population lives) to Afghan control, with two more tranches of provinces and districts to come. U.S. military leaders have praised the growth of the Afghan security force, declaring that it has become an “increasingly effective counterinsurgency force” comprising “all ethnicities and tribes.” Gen. Joseph Dunford, who will soon take over International Security Assistance Force command from Gen. John Allen, affirmed the U.S. commitment to the Afghan National Security Forces, stating that the latter will be able to meet the “security requirements in Afghanistan.”
Behind the numbers and upbeat assessments, however, a more worrying picture emerges about the capacity of the Afghan forces and the state it is supposed to defend. While the Afghan military has certainly made considerable progress toward becoming a professional fighting force in recent years, many both inside and outside of the Obama administration have conceded that it will be difficult for Afghan forces to operate independently and efficiently after NATO troops withdraw from Afghanistan due to significant weaknesses, including shortfalls in Afghan leadership and gaps in logistics, intelligence, and air support capabilities.
In order to reach the target of 352,000 soldiers and police, the U.S. military has shortened training time periods and lowered the standards for vetting recruits. The Afghan forces have also struggled to meet and maintain their targets because of high attrition rates, as many Afghan troops defect from the force each month.
The Pentagon has acknowledged that the focus on developing combat capabilities has left the Afghan National Army without combat enablers and logistics support for the foreseeable future, and has conceded that the Afghan army is unlikely to have self-sufficient logistical capabilities until late 2014. The Pentagon’s most recent assessment reported in December 2012 that only 1 of 23 Afghan National Army brigades was rated “independent with advisers,” while only 20 out of 146 kandaks (similar to U.S. battalions) were rated at this level. Furthermore, the recent spree of insider attacks—at least 61 coalition troops were killed in the 45 insider attacks in 2012—has raised the risks associated with strengthening the Afghan National Security Forces, contributing to delays in training and complicating efforts at collaboration between NATO and the Afghan security forces.
More broadly, the Afghan government is incapable of funding the security forces at their current size and will be unable to do so even when the force shrinks after 2015 to 228,500 troops, as the International Security Assistance Force envisaged in the Chicago Summit declaration in May 2012. While the current level of 352,000 troops costs approximately $6 billion, the International Security Assistance Force estimates it will require approximately $4.1 billion once it reaches its final size of 228,500 troops.
The Afghan government has committed to paying $500 million per year to fund the Afghan National Security Forces while the international community has agreed to provide the remainder of the $4.1 billion per year, with approximately $2.3 billion coming from the United States and around $1.4 billion from allies. As a result, the Afghan government will have to rely on foreign donors such as the United States, Europe, and others for the majority of security funding for the foreseeable future—a risky prospect given global financial woes and disillusionment with the Afghan conflict by populations in the United States, Europe, and elsewhere. Right-sizing the Afghan National Security Forces to a level where they can be maintained by the Afghan government will prove a significant challenge for Afghan leaders and their American partners. Working toward a political settlement to the conflict that precludes the need for such heavy investment in the security services is ultimately a far more sustainable strategy.
Divisions within Afghan security forces
If the political center does not hold in Afghanistan as U.S. and NATO troops draw down, a fragmented Afghan security force could in fact contribute to greater violence due to different factional leaders utilizing elements of the security forces to advance their own interests.
The founding leaders of the Afghan National Security Forces were drawn disproportionately from the Northern Alliance—the Tajik-dominated faction that fought against the Taliban before the U.S. invasion in 2001—and many of the force’s top commanders are still drawn from this group. Although the International Security Assistance Force has made progress in diversifying Afghan security forces, struggles remain in recruiting Pashtuns from southern Afghanistan. And the army itself appears to be more cohesive than the Afghan National Police and other local security forces that have been established by the United States and the International Security Assistance Force.
The irregular Afghan Local Police initiative, sponsored by the United States, for example, is believed to have been frequently co-opted by local commanders; many Afghans fear local police units because of their propensity for extortion, and their presence has sometimes triggered the growth of rival militias. There are also concerns that individuals in the Afghan Local Police program may instead re-establish themselves as militias for hire if they are disarmed or ignored by the Afghan government after 2014.
In response to concerns about the fragmentation of the Afghan security forces, some former commanders, including Atta Mohammad Noor, the governor of Balkh province, have allegedly established private militias. Water and Power Minister Ismail Khan’s recent call to rearm the Herat mujahidin to fight against the Taliban is indicative of concerns shared by many prominent Afghans that the Afghan National Security Forces will fracture after U.S. withdrawal and Afghanistan will revert to civil war.
Synchronizing military strategy with intensified diplomatic effort
The limitations of the Afghan National Security Forces highlight the importance of bolstering U.S. and international diplomatic efforts to achieve a political settlement before the end of 2014. It should not imply a continued U.S. force presence at current levels. Due to the diminishing returns of a large standing U.S. military presence in Afghanistan and larger U.S. strategic priorities, our drawdown should continue at a steady pace, with sizable reductions in both 2013 and 2014. Less than 10,000 U.S. and NATO-ISAF troops should remain after 2014.
As the drawdown continues, the international force remaining in Afghanistan should be configured to target terrorist groups threatening the United States and its allies and to provide continued support and training to the Afghan forces. The Afghan National Security Forces will continue to need enabling capabilities by the United States and NATO, including logistical and intelligence support, particularly during the presidential and provincial elections in 2014—a decisive time in determining Afghanistan’s future leadership. The Afghan forces may also need support in pursuing and enforcing a political settlement. The Afghan National Security Forces may need to pursue irreconcilable elements of the insurgency, for example, if a political agreement among Afghan factions and insurgents is reached and then to ensure that parties to the agreement meet their obligations.
Beyond 2014 a small reserve force of less than 10,000 U.S. and international military personnel may be necessary to protect international diplomatic staff, conduct isolated counterterrorism operations if necessary, and offer some continued training assistance and enabling capabilities to the Afghan National Security Forces. This reserve force should also be considered within the context of a negotiation process, as one way to bolster the Afghan government’s bargaining hand in discussions with insurgents. Ultimately, the reserve force could be removed entirely if a larger political agreement within Afghanistan and in the region can provide sufficient guarantees of Afghan stability and a protection of U.S. counterterrorism security interests. A limited, longer-term financial commitment to the Afghan government and security services—with conditions—beyond 2014 will also most likely be required.
But these military aspects—troop numbers, training of the Afghan forces, and financial support to the security services—won’t be enough to ensure Afghanistan’s security and stability over the long term. Leaving behind an unprepared and expensive force to battle an insurgency that NATO has struggled to contain is more likely to create instability than lasting security. Instead, our efforts must be synchronized with broader efforts at conflict resolution. In other words, the drivers of violence—mainly predatory and exclusive governance and regional malfeasance—must be reduced in order for the Afghan forces to be able to better secure the country. Reducing these drivers will require a new political consensus that has greater buy-in from key Afghan actors, Pakistan, and the broader region.
Advancing a political settlement
Achieving a broader political settlement will entail a number of key features:
- An electoral process, in which political parties and individual leaders and coalitions emerge and hammer out their platforms and alliances
- Afghan governmental reforms that reduce impunity, advance financial self-sufficiency, create independent electoral bodies, and broaden participation in order to enable a free and fair election to occur
- Negotiations at different levels—among Afghans, between the governments of Afghanistan and Pakistan, and among countries in the region and beyond—to reach a stronger, more inclusive political consensus
U.S. policymakers, especially Congress, have an imperative to support a political settlement within Afghanistan and the region, and the Obama administration’s efforts have begun in greater earnest over the past year, with increased focus on the upcoming presidential and provincial elections, more concrete incentives for Afghan governmental reforms, frequent outreach to insurgents, and robust efforts at regional dialogue.
Facilitating a settlement process is likely to prove a long and complex task, given the wide range of interests in Afghanistan and the potential for spoilers from within Afghanistan and the region who, feeling threatened by a new political arrangement, may stall or derail the process. The cost of escalated conflict in the event of state breakdown is likely to be significant for all parties, however, including the Taliban and neighboring Pakistan. This suggests an opportunity for some form of negotiated agreement that could draw away at least a portion of the insurgency from active conflict. U.S. officials have rightly undertaken quiet outreach to insurgent groups, together with a robust regional effort to create buy-in and financial support for Afghanistan’s government.
Moreover, under the leadership of Ambassador Marc Grossman, the recently departed special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, the United States has organized and supported a number of multilateral conferences and forums to line up assistance for Afghanistan, such as the Chicago NATO Summit in May 2012 and the Tokyo conference in July 2012. Ambassador Grossman also improved coordination around security and trade such through the Afghanistan-Pakistan-United States trilateral meetings. Other international players such as Turkey and the United Nations have also played a role in facilitating dialogue among Afghans and countries in the region.
Pakistan has recently displayed greater interest in talks, releasing a number of high-ranking Taliban officials to the Afghan government’s custody. Thus far, there has been little direct contact between the Afghan government and the Taliban, and certain confidence-building measures have fallen through, such as the proposed release of Taliban commanders from Guantanamo Bay in a prisoner-exchange agreement with the United States. But some recent accounts suggest shifting Taliban attitudes on the question of negotiations with the Afghan government, and Pakistani officials have sought to stress their support for an intra-Afghan dialogue.
The Obama administration has also pushed for governance reforms on the part of the Afghan government through mechanisms such as a mutual-accountability framework, agreed to at a donors’ conference in Tokyo earlier this summer. In this framework donors committed to providing $16 billion in civilian assistance through 2015 to Afghanistan and to improve aid effectiveness in return for the Afghan government meeting development and governance benchmarks. The administration has also begun supporting the planning for the Afghan presidential and provincial elections in 2014. Ultimately, broadening opportunities for input and participation through credible elections and government reform will be necessary to achieve a more stable balance of political power than offered by the current highly centralized government system.
Despite the understandable exhaustion with the Afghan conflict by the U.S. public and policymakers, work remains to be done. But this work falls largely in the diplomatic sphere, not in military operations. The military drawdown should remain on track as U.S. policy evolves from leading to supporting and from combat to diplomacy. President Karzai’s visit to Washington this week offers an opportunity for U.S. policymakers to discuss the political processes necessary for a successful transition to Afghan control, and to determine the best security and financial package to best support these processes.
Caroline Wadhams is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress. Thanks to former CAP intern Nate Barr for his excellent contributions to this article.