any Americans think that President Barack Obama’s decision to withdraw most if not all U.S. combat forces from Afghanistan by the end of this year will end the U.S. role in that country’s travails. To the extent they think about Afghanistan at all, most Americans seem to assume that when the last combat soldier has departed from what has been the longest war in American history, the United States (and its International Security Assistance Force [ISAF] allies) can close the book on Afghanistan with a mixed record of accomplishment. Indeed, if we listen to U.S. military commanders in country, we hear a generally upbeat assessment of the capabilities of the Afghan military and police to manage after we have left—as if that is the key, or even the only, factor impinging on the Afghan future. The more attentive public knows that Hamid Karzai is nearing the end of his legal tenure as national leader; most assume that the exit of this irascible personality is probably to the good, as well.
But is any of this true? Regrettably, no. Over the past dozen years, ISAF has created a virtual state within a state that will shrink dramatically once combat forces depart. This will leave a much weakened, highly militarized and deeply corrupt narco-state that could descend into outright civil war and, possibly, partition. The central question is not whether the Western-trained, supplied and financed Afghan security forces will be able to contain the Taliban insurgency, as is commonly thought. Even if they can, the more critical question is whether the state itself will hold together once Western life support is removed.
Viewing the Afghan situation from a fragile state lens instead of through counterinsurgency and counterterrorism perspectives allows us to better understand the local impact of ISAF’s intervention and what its removal means for the future. There is a real prospect that the Afghan state, such as it is, will suffer terminal meltdown, with the insurgency spiraling upward, political fragmentation increasing and the state unraveling further. We can remove our soldiers far more easily than we can remove our interests, so it matters that we have not achieved our basic strategic objective of preventing the country from again becoming a safe haven for hostile forces. Viewed from this perspective, the Afghan “surge” failed, less for strictly military reasons than for broader ones.1 So try as it might, the U.S. government will find it hard to ignore Afghanistan even after military withdrawal. Despite the unpopularity of the war among the American public and a concomitant wish to simply not be reminded of the place anymore, more unpleasant headlines may be in the offing.2
Breaking Up Is Hard To Do
he challenges of removing ourselves from the Afghan war have already begun with the huge logistical task of military withdrawal. The Economist described this as the “greatest feat of military transport in modern times. . . . [The Americans] are packing up their colossus, checking they have all the bits and bobs, and shipping it home.”3 Moreover, unlike Iraq, where the fighting had temporarily subsided at the time of America’s exit, Afghanistan is undergoing the extraction of forces against the backdrop of active fighting; ISAF troops are vulnerable to enemy fire as they pull out. Taliban attacks have become more brazen and frequent. In the first quarter of 2013, insurgents launched 2,331 attacks compared to 1,581 during the same period in the previous year, an increase of 47 percent, according to the independent Afghanistan NGO Safety Office. As the UN reported, during the first six months of 2013, civilian casualties were up 23 percent compared to the same period in 2012. Of the 1,319 deaths, 74 percent were attributed to anti-government forces. The fighting is likely to intensify as Western troops go home, peace feelers continue, and political jockeying intensifies in the run-up to the Afghanistan election due in April.
The greatest challenge will be coping with significantly diminished Western support across the board. The United States has focused almost exclusively on the security dimension of this transition, but Afghanistan’s long-term stability will depend far more on the quality of its governance than the size of its military. Various Afghan and U.S. officials have warned that the “weakness and corruption of the central Afghan government is the biggest security threat to the country’s future.”4
The benchmarks of government dysfunction in Afghanistan today are typical of those of weak states around the world: rigged elections, mishandling of public funds, lack of basic public services, entrenched ethnic and tribal rivalries, unmet needs of the country’s bulging youth population, impunity for officials, threatened erosion of women’s rights and systematic corruption going right up to the top. If history is any guide, Afghanistan will follow the path of many fragile states that have experienced years of violent conflict. To survive politically, leaders tend to invest disproportionate resources in military solutions and shirk genuine reforms. They often blame internal problems on foreign elements or the political opposition, while ignoring legitimate local grievances and denying their own dysfunctionality. Examples range widely, from Syria to Pakistan to Congo, and from Nigeria to Egypt to the Palestinian Authority.
That Afghanistan is trending in the same direction is no surprise. But what most people do not realize is that, in this case, the West, led by the United States, contributed significantly, if unintentionally, to this outcome. We not only invaded the country; we took it over lock, stock and barrel, and did not adequately prepare it for our inevitable departure. For the most part, the state edifice we built is largely divorced from the ownership or aspirations of Afghan citizens, despite efforts to add a patina of legitimacy by convening local consultative assemblies and integrating elders into provincial councils. Afghanistan is even less well equipped to deal with diminished foreign support than was Iraq, which experienced a similar foreign military takeover and abrupt departure. Yet despite having vastly more material and human resources with which to manage the transition, Iraq regressed into sectarian political violence just two years after American troops left. Can we expect Afghanistan to fare any better?
We shouldn’t. The ISAF presence in Afghanistan established the conditions, provided the resources, influenced the decisions and shaped the expectations that exacerbated the worst tendencies of domestic political opportunists. Counterterrorism and counterinsurgency were ISAF’s top priorities. There was some belated “state-building” in the creation of new or expanded institutions and notable societal breakthroughs, including some that had not existed before, such as modern banking and girls’ education. But by not paying sufficient attention to the governance side of the picture, U.S. policy also created a bloated military, an overinflated economy and a venal leadership structure that is grossly overcentralized relative to the country’s historical experience, political composition and administrative capacity. To be sure, we endorsed democratization and tried to promote the rule of law, ensure credible elections and link the government in Kabul to the rural heartland. However, the resources devoted to these goals were misconceived, mismanaged and largely unmonitored. The Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) concluded that phantom projects, improperly awarded contracts, incomplete construction and a general lack of transparency resulted in billions of wasted funds. The cumulative effect was to further weaken an already weak state.
ow did this happen? Although there are many facets to this story, three key factors stand out. First, we delivered far too much aid, too fast. The country could not absorb it.
Figures differ depending upon the source, but most estimates calculate that, thus far, the war has cost the United States at least $500 billion over the past ten years (some say as much as $1 trillion), with spending close to $100 billion in 2013 alone. On the development side, we launched large-scale infrastructure and training programs, most of which were farmed out to foreign contractors or local subcontractors without proper monitoring. Some programs had a positive impact and may endure, such as the construction of roads and irrigation, but the lack of oversight in regulating staggering amounts of quickly dispensed money resulted in a large proportion of the work being commissioned through incompetent or unscrupulous contractors. Reliance on foreign companies economically marginalized Afghans, who were not in charge and often not even consulted. And Afghan subcontractors—or sub-sub-contractors—were often venal themselves or closely connected to corrupt powerbrokers and warlords. Some simply left the work undone and walked off with the money. Others were not paid for the work they actually did. The result was the loss of public confidence in the U.S.-led coalition and the Afghan government, financial and technical dependence on outsiders, and a strengthening of the Taliban’s narrative that the West is a profligate occupying power controlling an Islamic country.
One prominent example of misguided development was the much vaunted system of Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs), a multinational stabilization initiative that targeted rural areas at the provincial and district levels. The idea was to reach out to underserved areas, link the central government to rural zones, bring development to the poorest populations and thus win hearts and minds. Beginning in 2002, 26 PRTs eventually arose, 12 of which were led by the United States, specifically by the Department of Defense, which paid for nearly all the costs. Other ISAF members agreed to run their own PRTs, employing their particular objectives, methods and approaches. There was neither an overall plan for development nor an agreement on how or when internationals would hand over their efforts to Afghans. As one assessment put it,
[I]n the headlong rush to achieve [their] goals, the 12 teams also saddled Afghanistan’s impoverished provinces with infrastructure that wasn’t completed, can’t be sustained or didn’t mesh with local needs. The PRTs . . . suffered from the same poor planning and inadequate oversight that characterized the broader reconstruction effort.5
Provincial ministries turned to foreign militaries, not the central government, for project funds in their areas, and some money ended up going to local warlords. There was also confusion in the NGO community and among donors concerning what the PRTs were supposed to do. For example, some of the countries running the PRTs built schools and clinics without determining whether the government of Afghanistan could or would equip them with qualified teachers, books, doctors and medical supplies. A 2011 report by the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations reported “limited” evidence that U.S. aid had bought stability and warned that “the unintended consequences of pumping large amounts of money into a war zone cannot be underestimated.”6 PRTs located in areas with serious security threats were said to have had the most difficulty in concluding projects, especially infrastructure projects, but it is hard to be sure. Few officials kept good records. Unfinished schools, clinics or roads stand as monuments to poor judgments about economic development, including political manipulations intended to win the loyalty of warlords or ethnic groups.
On balance, a UNDP official opined, the PRTs were “actually detrimental to subnational governance because they were run by foreigners with little local input.”7 The UN refused to assume responsibility for them, arguing that they should be turned over to the Afghan government, but Kabul and the provincial authorities lacked the capability and resources to run them on their own. President Karzai did not even want them; he believed that they were parallel governing structures that threatened his central authority. Finally, in 2012, the United States agreed that the PRTs should be shut down.
Because so much money was poured into Afghanistan, it now faces a fiscal cliff, with aid comprising 95 percent of its GDP, according to the World Bank. Independent, legal sources of income are minimal, and Afghanistan has limited opportunities to relieve its dependence on external funds anytime soon. It exports a variety of fruit, rugs and gemstones, but they generate modest revenue compared to the chief export: opium. Afghanistan has the dubious distinction of being the world’s largest supplier of heroin, producing 75 percent of the global illicit supply in 2012, exported primarily to Russia, Iran and Europe. Opium poppy cultivation increased significantly that year in an “alarming” trend, according to the UN. Poppy production benefits both the Taliban, which taxes the crop in areas it controls, and corrupt government officials who often collaborate with the powerful illicit networks that run the trade. Eradication efforts supported by Karzai have alienated farmers and taken their toll on enforcers. In 2012, 102 police officers, soldiers and civilians died from attacks by farmers and another 127 were injured, not including deaths from fighting traffickers. In this highly mountainous country, only 13 percent of the total land area is arable, and the opium poppy is far more lucrative than most other crops, providing fast profits in contrast to the long growing season of fruit trees. In a good year, a farmer can make $10,000 on a hectare (2.5 acres) of raw opium, compared to just $120 for wheat. Sadly, Afghanistan is also becoming a user nation; more than a million people out of a population of about 30 million have become addicts.
Afghanistan is not entirely without economic assets. To the contrary, a 2010 U.S. Geological Survey identified vast mineral and oil reserves worth an estimated $1 trillion. The Afghan government thinks it could be as high as $3 trillion and is trying to sell exploration rights to international mining companies. A $3 billion agreement was concluded in 2008 with a Chinese consortium for a copper deposit, and other companies are negotiating over rights to exploit iron ore, gold, lithium, rare earth metals and oil concessions. The government says the mining sector could generate over $1 billion in annual revenue, create 150,000 jobs and contribute $5 billion to the economy by 2016.
However, several factors are holding up private investment. These include security threats, corruption, lack of critical infrastructure, village relocations, cultural ruins and artifacts on mining sites, and the failure to pass a mining law that guarantees companies the right to develop deposits that they explore. Western mining firms have shown little interest thus far, many citing fears of shakedowns. One of the mining ministers is rumored to have accepted a $30 million bribe for the Chinese project; President Karzai’s family is said to be making lucrative side contracts; one warlord’s supporters have been accused of demanding kickbacks. There are also concerns about criminal syndicates exploiting mining in gemstones, marble, chromite and other resources that are out of the state’s control. And questions have been raised about Afghanistan’s ability to avoid the “resource curse” (usually associated with oil), given its history of predatory elites, lack of financial transparency and political instability.
At a 2012 Tokyo conference, donors promised to supply $16 billion over four years after ISAF withdraws, and at a separate meeting in Chicago another $4 billion was promised for security needs. But these amounts, even if they are delivered, are a drop in the bucket compared to aid flows, military investments and construction contracts that have poured money into the country over the past dozen years. Moreover, international pledges are conditional on internal reforms, such as credible elections, reduced corruption, protection of human rights and legal guarantees of women’s rights. And even if reforms were forthcoming, there is no certainty that lawmakers in war-fatigued donor countries will honor their pledges once the troops come home. The record of pledging conferences is very discouraging on that front.
The UNDP has warned that a precipitous drop in foreign assistance after 2014 could result in a collapse of critical capabilities nationwide, including in major ministries. It could also trigger unrest from massive layoffs in a country with an already high estimated unemployment rate of 35 percent. The country’s huge youth cohort is coming of age; 65 percent of the population is under the age of 24. While some people have pointed to the younger generation as a demographic dividend, potentially providing new leadership and economic stimulus in the years ahead, they are not yet politically organized and they could be a ticking time bomb if they cannot find jobs.
he second major factor that has promoted the development of a state within a state has been the unitary political system adopted in Afghanistan. Strong presidential powers were vested in a single office, the presidency, largely irrespective of traditional norms of local governance based on ethnic affiliations, tribal identities, regional groupings and family ties. At the 2002 Bonn Conference, where the foundations of the modern Afghan state were hammered out following the overthrow of the Taliban, the United States reinforced the view that Afghanistan should adopt a highly centralized constitution. It vests financial control, administrative appointments and military power in the hands of the President in a system that favors Pashtuns, the largest of 14 ethnic groups in the country, representing an estimated 40–60 percent of the population. The Pashtuns do not constitute a unified political bloc, however. The Taliban is an overwhelmingly Pashtun phenomenon, but large segments of the Pashtun population are both anti-insurgent and anti-Karzai. The Tajik-dominated opposition—which also includes Hazaras, Uzbeks and other non-Pashtun groups—tends to support the Northern Alliance, which, as is logical for a coalition of demographic minorities, has favored a parliamentary system in which the Prime Minister is selected by an elected Parliament and the President has limited powers.
The constitution makes the President Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces and authorizes him to appoint all “high-ranking officials”, a clause Karzai interprets to include cabinet ministers, members of the supreme court, judges, provincial governors, district governors, local police chiefs and members of independent commissions. The constitution does not preclude activity by civil society activists, opposition members of Parliament, the Northern Alliance and other alternative voices. Free speech has also emerged though an explosion of media and communications, with extensive cell phone and internet use, as well as a free press. However, the presidency remains politically dominant; its patronage powers and control of state resources are immense. “The state that was constructed in 2002 wasn’t in accord with realities on the ground”, said Karl Eikenberry, a former Ambassador and military commander in Afghanistan.8
Centralization of presidential powers has not led to political unity. Instead, Karzai has had to navigate between two opposing forces: an array of local power brokers who bristle at his centralized powers, and international donors who urge him to take strong stands against those strongmen. Small wonder that Karzai acts in contradictory ways, vacillating between threatening to join the Taliban when he is angry at the West while seeking its support when frustrated by political opponents and insurgents.
he third and perhaps most damaging factor that fostered a state within a state was the role the United States played in enabling, and at times participating in, systemic corruption. By failing to insist on international standards of accountability in managing public finances while throwing a huge amount of money at a country that could not manage it, we set the stage for venality and fraud. About half of all U.S. aid to Afghanistan was provided off-budget, ostensibly to bypass bureaucracy and to allow President Karzai to buy off his opponents. In addition to official development assistance, the CIA has made covert cash payments to Karzai and selected politicians. Publicly exposed in May 2013, these payments badly damaged the fraying political legitimacy of the government. By financing a presidential slush fund, the CIA provided vivid illustrations of foreign influence that the Taliban could exploit for propaganda purposes, and it mocked the U.S. effort to create a credible and honest Afghan government that could attract people away from the insurgents. Karzai compounded the damage when he confirmed the corruption, boasting that he had received “petty cash” from the CIA and had been assured that such payments would continue so that he could continue to pay off his supporters.
The corrosive impact of corruption on political legitimacy is further illustrated by the scandal over Kabul Bank, the largest private bank in the country. Founded in 2004, it was supposed to be a hallmark of modern institutional banking in a society where savings and checking accounts had never existed. It was the main financial institution associated with the building of the new state in which trust in the management of public finance was vested. Operating under the supervision of the Central Bank of Afghanistan, Kabul Bank was used by the Pentagon to pay the salaries of the Afghan army and security forces, attracting private depositors. However, just two years after its founding, the top men running the bank—Sher Khan Farnood, the chairman, and his bodyguard, Khalilullah Ferozi, who was appointed the bank’s chief executive—began to make unsecured loans to themselves and a small number of other powerful figures, using different sets of books, forged documents, fictitious companies and rubber stamps for fake entities. They created a giant Ponzi scheme that also involved President Karzai’s brother, Mahmoud Karzai, and the Governor of the Central Bank, Abdul Qadir Fitrat, the person who was supposed to regulate Kabul Bank. After the scandal erupted in 2010, an investigative team found that $861 million, or 92 percent of the loan portfolio (equal to 5 percent of the country’s annual economic output at the time), had been diverted to a small clique of well-connected people who used it to finance luxurious lifestyles, property purchases in Dubai and high-end shopping sprees. Kabul Bank came to be seen as the unofficial arm of the Karzai government, which allegedly used it to bribe parliamentarians and to secure votes. As one commentator observed, “Kabul Bank and Karzai’s 2009 reelection became nearly interchangeable.”9
The judicial response confirmed elite privilege and further eroded the legitimacy of Afghanistan’s state institutions. Twenty-one people were convicted in the Kabul Bank scandal, but only mild penalties were meted out to the main offenders, Farnood and Ferozi, who were convicted of lesser charges and sentenced to five years in prison. The court threw out embezzlement, forgery and money laundering, thus averting activation of legal efforts to reclaim the millions the convicted men stole. Karzai’s brother was not charged at all.
The scandal also shows how these three mistakes—too much aid money too fast, centralized powers and systemic corruption—joined together to benefit a small circle of leaders close to the President. But the Karzai clan seems to have suffered catastrophic wealth. Bitter infighting has erupted within the extended family over tens of millions of dollars in allegedly missing cash, and control of a housing development called Aynomeena, located outside Kandahar, Karzai’s hometown and the cradle of the Taliban insurgency. Aynomeena is a testament to the country’s graft. A gated community of 3,000 residents, it boasts tree-lined boulevards and Roman fountains that contrast sharply with the mud hovels and narrow alleyways where the Taliban dwells among the population of nearly one million.
While the Karzai family’s conduct is as telegenic as it is reprehensible, at stake in Afghanistan is less the survival of a dynasty than the survival of the state itself. The U.S. General Accounting Office estimates that the country will need outside financial support until at least 2025. The United States supplies 62 percent of the total aid to the country, making it the biggest single recipient of U.S. foreign assistance. But how long will that last? And who and what is at risk when it is significantly diminished?
Afghans who have stuck out their necks to build the country and defend it against both Islamist fanaticism and venal government are most in danger. Insurgents have been assassinating reform-minded leaders, anti-corruption crusaders and high-performing police, the very people who are fighting for self-sufficiency and accountability. Extremists have also recently singled out the Afghan Local Police (ALP), a relatively new grassroots security contingent organized by U.S. Special Forces that recruits people at the village level to defend their own communities. The U.S. military regards them as effective fighters because they can readily recognize strangers in their areas and are highly motivated to defend their homes and families.
Karzai and others, however, allege that many units in the ALP have become vigilantes or organized militias, beyond the control of the government or even of their own villages. International human rights organizations have accused some of them of committing abuses, and their loyalties have become suspect. For example, in July 2013, the Taliban captured a 14-man Afghan Local Police force in a village in southern Afghanistan with the help of two infiltrators from their own ranks. Villagers applauded the escapade, in which the Taliban came to resemble a Robin Hood troop. Apparently, ALP members had been beating and stealing from the very people they were paid to protect.
Many of Afghanistan’s social gains are reversible as well. Literacy has reportedly soared from 12 percent to 28 percent since the invasion. The U.S. Agency for International Development boasts of building 530 health facilities, including six hospitals in 13 provinces, serving approximately 11 million by 2011. But SIGAR expressed doubts that existing services in health and education can be provided at the same level after 2014. Independent experts have questioned whether claims of improvements in health and education are even credible. A Harvard demographer, Kenneth Hill, notes that “conditions for data collection are desperately difficult” and that “knocking on someone’s door and asking them details about their children and their household is not something most people would want to do” in a tribal society where social trust is very deep within families but very narrow across them. He suspects that the raw data is inaccurate.10 SIGAR has questioned government data, too. For example, while official statistics assert that life expectancy increased from 44 years to 60 years, the World Bank cites 48 years. The U.S. military claims that 194,000 Afghan forces have received literacy training, but SIGAR found little evidence of improved literacy rates overall or of increased battlefield effectiveness.
One of the greatest improvements applauded around the world has been the opening of schools and the attendance of girls. This is a signal social achievement in Afghanistan over the past decade, but it, too, is at risk. Insurgents have attacked or bombed hundreds of schools. Beyond the threat from Islamists, the quality of education is poor. Teachers are often not paid, and outdated schoolbooks are resourced from Pakistan, Iran or India. Many schools lack electricity, running water, qualified teachers and textbooks. Women’s rights in general remain precariously unprotected. Conservative religious politicians blocked legislation in Parliament in May 2013 that would have strengthened women’s freedoms on the grounds that it would violate Islamic principles and encourage disobedience. Even university students and some female parliamentarians opposed the new law for fear of provoking a backlash. The next government could reverse what there is of women’s rights with a stroke of the pen.
Of all the national institutions, the Afghan National Army (ANA) has the greatest chance of sustainability, having received the lion’s share of foreign aid, approximately five times the amount allocated for development. Indeed, the ANA is at the heart of the U.S./ISAF state-within-a-state structure. However, the approximately 350,000-man security force only assumed formal operational security control on June 18, 2013. It will face a severe loss if Western aid is cut off, or if a “zero option” is adopted for the number of U.S. forces that will remain in country after this year. Nonetheless, Afghan security forces are preventing the Taliban from presenting a direct threat to the state, concluded a NATO spokesman in response to concerns expressed over intensified Taliban attacks. The Taliban, he said, may launch spectacular attacks, but they “simply do not have the manpower, capability or coherence in command and control to be considered a strategic threat.”11
But NATO commanders, while expressing confidence in the ANA publicly, are keenly aware that the Afghan army lacks critical capabilities, not only in air power, but in medical evacuation, intelligence and logistics. There is also considerable concern over the growing incidence of “insider attacks” and a high annual desertion rate that, according to U.S. commanders, is a staggering 30 percent.12 General Joseph F. Dunford, Jr., the commander of American and allied forces in Afghanistan, predicted this past July that “Afghan forces, at the end of 2014, won’t be completely independent. Our presence post-2014 is necessary for the gains we have made to date to be sustainable.”13
Afghan State Fragility and U.S. National Security
ne of the most candid descriptions of how the United States operated in Afghanistan is that of Rajiv Chandrasekaran, author of Little America: The War Within the War for Afghanistan. In a June 2012 interview, he said:
When it comes to reconstruction dollars, instead of focusing on sustainable projects that the Afghans could one day take ownership of, we essentially carpet-bombed the country with money. . . . In some places, that equated to more than the annual per capita income. And so it distorted the local economy. It built dependency, and it created sort of the development version of a sugar high. We pumped them up with lots of goodies, only to then see it crash later as budgets would inevitably have to be cut.14
Other assessments have likewise highlighted Afghanistan’s fragility. The 2013 annual Failed States Index produced by the Fund for Peace ranked Afghanistan as the seventh most at-risk state in the world. Its total scores since 2010 have been even worse than those of Iraq, Mali or Libya. Afghanistan’s score for delegitimization of the state, a key indicator, mirrors the trends for the total, showing how political weakness at the center affects other factors. Afghanistan also was ranked 174th of 176 countries in Transparency International’s 2012 Corruption Perception Index and 175th of 187 in the UNDP’s 2013 Human Development Report.
We should not kid ourselves about what this means. We shouldn’t entirely dismiss the possibility that Afghanistan will be more stable and democratic sometime in the future, but this would take many years to achieve, if it gets there at all. In truth, we are leaving behind an institutionally weak, socially fragmented, highly militarized, hollowed-out state that will be vulnerable to extremist ideologies, internal dissention, lingering insurgency and external manipulation. Afghanistan could again become a haven for jihadis, as local warlords and neighboring countries compete to fill the power vacuum left in the wake of Western withdrawal.
Nor will we be leaving behind a country that is likely to be a durable ally of the West any more than Maliki’s Iraq has been. To the contrary, alliance fluidity and suspicion of outside powers have intensified during ISAF’s presence in Afghanistan. This is true even of Kabul’s feelings toward the United States, as illustrated when Karzai suspended talks over a Binational Security Agreement (BSA) with the United States after Washington explored the possibility of a political settlement with the Taliban. The kerfuffle has passed, not least because the Taliban proved less than serious about a negotiated arrangement, but the distrust between Kabul and Washington runs deep and will not soon dissipate.
Karzai is mindful of the 1990s, when the United States effectively outsourced its policy on Afghanistan to Pakistan preceding the Taliban takeover. He has said he now needs assurances that the United States will not abandon the country again. Specifically, among other demands, he has asked President Obama to announce the number of troops that the United States will commit to Afghanistan after withdrawal of combat forces, to include in the BSA a firm provision that the United States will militarily protect Afghanistan from Pakistan, and to affirm that Afghanistan will have the lead role in peace negotiations with the Taliban, if they resume. Karzai argues that negotiations could bring together the Taliban and his political opponents, leaving him out in the cold. His erratic behavior is driven by such insecurities. He knows how much Afghanistan needs the United States, but he also feels that the United States needs Afghanistan. American officials say he is misguided: Washington could walk away, just as it did in Iraq when Baghdad refused to grant immunity to U.S. soldiers.
That may be true, but Karzai has a point. He knows his country is fragile, not one that is “becoming a modern state”, as David Ignatius put it.15 Ignatius’s rosy perspective is vastly overstated, but it is consistent with what most U.S. policymakers are saying today. However, in reality, they are over-interpreting evidence of progress that is ephemeral at best, and grossly misleading at worst. Nor is it sufficient to take a “best of all possible worlds” view, maintaining that we can end up with “something that could still resemble victory”, as the self-exculpatory authors of a May 2013 report held.16 Such an argument may provide political cover for exiting an unpopular war, and in some cases it reflects the natural and sometimes functional bias of those tasked with making a policy work. But it cannot disguise the fact that we have not accomplished key national security goals in Afghanistan or in its wider neighborhood. We have not neutralized the spread of religious extremism and jihadi thinking in the region. We have not successfully confronted our allies on their role in supporting that extremism—Saudi Arabia by supporting jihadi schools and Pakistan by giving sanctuary to the Taliban. We have not developed a plan to prevent Pakistan’s nuclear weapons from slipping into the hands of terrorists if Afghanistan’s instability spills further into Pakistan. We have not diminished the threat of open conflict between nuclear-armed India and Pakistan. And we have certainly not limited Iran’s regional influence. If Afghanistan drifts once again into the hands of extremists, or if it descends into various shades of chaos, as have Syria, Egypt and Libya, then U.S. policy will be tested in South Asia as never before.
.S. withdrawal is creating an inflection point in Afghanistan in which the outcome is far from certain. In our own self-interest—and because we bear a heavy moral responsibility for leaving Afghanistan in such a weak condition—we need to pursue a wider strategy of sustainable security to avoid the prospect of a rapid meltdown. There must be more than a mere “decent interval”, to invoke Frank Snepp’s Vietnam War-era phrase, to save our own reputational skin. The United States can still help Afghanistan, even after the last American soldier departs, if it adopts a wider perspective to guide a smarter, albeit more modest, strategy for a soft landing.
First, we must step back and take a strategic view, seeing the challenges ahead through the lens of state fragility rather than counterinsurgency or counterterrorism. Terrorism and insurgency are symptoms of state fragility, not the reverse. We have been focusing on short-term, shortsighted metrics: determining the number of troops to leave behind, concluding a BSA that will govern the role of U.S. forces after 2014, and holding the April 2014 election. We should also be developing our goals for Afghanistan five or ten years from now.
The time frame makes a big difference. Everyone agrees that security will be a vital measure of the country’s future, but if that is really the case, we should work to fill some of the critical gaps that still exist: improving army medical evacuation capabilities, which could lower the rate of troop desertion, and helping to plan disarmament, demobilization and reintegration to reduce the clout of private militias. The BSA should cover more than guidelines governing U.S. military training and counterterrorism forces. It should outline the terms for broader U.S. support to include measures that promote good governance and curtail corruption. The April election is critical to the transition, but we should ensure that we are helping to establish the constitutional and electoral foundations for all future balloting, not just the next one.
Second, development objectives should be aimed not only at economic growth and the generation of state revenue but at good governance and reduced inequality. We should be preparing Afghanistan to become not just a bulwark against jihadism, but a sovereign entity with an inclusive, representative and effective government serving its people. That is, after all, the best defense against extremism. This means we need to promote rigorous implementation of tough anti-corruption laws that limit the self-aggrandizement of predatory elites. It also means stressing civilian control over the military to avoid the drift toward a strongman state, or one that the military will dominate in the future to protect its own interests.
Third, we need to promote a broad-based negotiated solution, not just a peace deal with the Taliban. There are many players in the complex Afghan body politic, such as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, the Haqqani network and the Northern Alliance, among others. They need to be assured of a place at the negotiating table if there is to be a lasting political settlement that prevents radical forces from going underground or regenerating insurgencies. Negotiations should be coordinated with a “contact group” of regional powers as well, including Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Iran, India and China, which are destined to play a greater role in Afghanistan in the future.
Finally, we would be wise to rethink our foreign policy toward fragile states as a whole. This may be the most important lesson of all from our experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan. Revolutionary changes are occurring throughout the world, from Mali to Burma to South Sudan to Syria, and they are all taking place in fragile states. The United States has focused on several related issues such as security sector reforms, counterinsurgency and preventing mass atrocities. Important as they are, these pathologies are collectively associated with the proliferation of fragile states that are confronting new waves of popular political activism in both violent and non-violent forms. Passionate protesters and militant radicals of varying political persuasions and social identities are driving events at a rapid pace in more places than ever before.
If we take this phenomenon seriously, we will invariably conclude that the issues that matter for the longer term are fourfold: demographic pressures, inequality, a fragmented security apparatus and the criminalization and de-legitimization of the state. As a bipartisan group of experts advised in a recent study, these “core four” issues could be the basis for a strategic approach to fragile states in coordination with U.S. allies and aid donors.17
A broader emphasis on good governance should guide a new policy for building state resilience. Rather than “move on” as our troops move out of these conflicts, the United States ought to “move up” toward a more sophisticated approach that strengthens the capacities of countries standing at the crossroads of conflict. This need not involve massive new economic resources, military intervention, overblown programs or bureaucratic chess games that reallocate authorities and pitch agencies against each other. But it will require us to significantly improve our non-military foreign policy toolbox. We can employ existing institutions and programs in doing so, but we will need to refine and expand how they operate. This does not suggest that the United States has a magic formula that can be applied to all internal conflicts or, indeed, that it should act alone. But a shift toward a more strategic security framework using a fragile state lens would represent a vast improvement from the over-militarized, short time frame, counterinsurgency/counterterror lens we use now. It would enable U.S. policy to have more flexibility, credibility and opportunity for sustainable outcomes.
The redirection of U.S. policy suggested here is not an act of charity. Our reluctance to get entangled in local conflicts abroad is certainly understandable, but if such conflicts are not to pose national security problems for us at home, we need to find effective ways to partner with international allies and local reformists within the at-risk countries to prevent, contain or manage them better. There are circumstances where military intervention may be necessary to bring some order to chaos, such as in Somalia, Mali, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Too often, however, sending in the cavalry has been a sign of antecedent strategic error. And we should have learned by now that sending in the cavalry without a follow-on strategy for building state resilience or a plan to exit in a responsible manner does not usually serve America’s long-term national security interests. It may bring short-term disaster, as well. Unfortunately, we may soon experience both in Afghanistan.
1See Frances Brown, “Bureaucracy Does Its Thing, Again”, The American Interest (November/December 2012).
2Public criticisms of the war have reached new highs, according to an ABC/Washington Post poll released in July 2013. Two-thirds of Americans say the war has not been worth fighting, and half agree that it failed to contribute to the country’s long-term security. See “Poll: Afghanistan War Fatigue Hits New Highs”, ABC News, July 26, 2013.
3“Withdrawing from Afghanistan: The big retrograde”, The Economist, April 27, 2013.
4AfPak Daily Brief, “Afghan Taliban willing to meet U.N. officials to discuss civilian casualties”, Foreign Policy, June 11, 2013.
5Shashank Bengali, “U.S. reconstruction effort in Afghan provinces is unfinished work”, Los Angeles Times, April 6, 2013.
6Quoted in Bengali, “U.S. reconstruction effort in Afghan provinces is unfinished work.”
7Ajay Chhibber, UN Assistant Secretary-General and UNDP Assistant Administrator, speaking at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, May 13, 2013.
8Eikenberry quoted in Joel Brinkley, “Money Pit: The Monstrous Failure of U.S. Aid to Afghanistan”, World Affairs Journal (January/February 2013).
9Quoted in Dexter Filkins, “The Afghan Bank Heist”, New Yorker, February 14, 2011.
10“Gains in Afghan Health: Too Good To Be True?”, NPR: All Things Considered, January 17, 2012.
11Quoted in Pamela Constable, “A Taliban Surge Ahead of Election, Pullout”, Washington Post, June 11, 2013.
12Richard H.P. Sia, “Afghans May Not Be Ready to Take Over Security”, Government Executive, May 3, 2013. A report by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (John F. Sopko) cited in this article casts serious doubt on the strength of the Afghan security forces. Another report put the desertion rate of soldiers and police each year at a quarter to a fifth of a security force numbering 352,000: Matthew Rosenberg, “Despite Gains, Leader of U.S. Forces in Afghanistan Says Troops Must Stay”, New York Times, July 29, 2013.
13Dunford quoted in Rosenberg, “Despite Gains.”
14Chandrasekaran, PBS Newshour, June 26, 2012.