This Friday, President Obama and Afghan President Hamid Karzai are set to meet at the White House to discuss the future of U.S.-Afghan relations. According to Press Secretary Jay Carney, the meeting will focus on the “vision of Afghanistan post-2014.”
While non-military U.S. engagement in Afghanistan will be important post 2014, the next two years are most critical if there is to be any meaningful transition in Afghanistan by then. President’s Obama and Karzai should discuss issues that must be addressed before a successful transition is ever possible—and even before they discuss U.S.-Afghan relations beyond 2014.
Too much of U.S. involvement in Afghanistan has centered on the military strategy, rather than a political or economic strategy, over the last twelve years. Many of the recommendations below are mere first steps in a very long process to undo some of the damage that a near purely military orientation has created. It is imperative to start immediately, as there is literally no time to lose. Congress will have a role in funding and authorizing many of the above mentioned efforts, but real leadership must come from the Obama administration. This New Year is a year of many new things—new Congress, Secretary of Defense, Secretary of State, CIA director and, potentially, new policies.
The administration must step up, starting with this meeting on Friday, in order to lay the groundwork for a better outcome in Afghanistan post-2014.
Here are five things that should be on the agenda:
True political transition is very difficult to imagine in Afghanistan after over four decades of conflict. In the near term, primary effort should be toward a free and fair presidential election, which is set to take place in the mid-2014. The U.S. and international partners should begin to fund election watch dog groups now so when 2014 comes, the infrastructure, relationships and trust exist for these groups to do the job of election monitoring. An election Afghans can believe in may do a lot to bring political stability to the country. This, of course, is only one of many steps in a viable political transition. Two other imperatives are fostering the growth and legitimacy of existing, inclusive civilian institutions and a strong civil society.
Civilian and Civil Society Dialogue
The importance of the nascent Afghan civil society and ordinary Afghan civilians in this political transition cannot be overstated. Afghan civil society groups should play a central role in creating the foundation for a viable, peaceful political transition. It will be crucial for the international community—including the U.S.—to work for Afghan civil society in order to empower these groups in the future.
In the last three years, the emphasis on fighting the Taliban has given this fringe, fundamental group more legitimacy than it could ever earn on its own. The best way to marginalize the Taliban isn’t to kill its commanders, but rather it is to empower ordinary Afghans—an idea whose time has come.
Shoring up human rights, health care and education gains
There have been undeniable setbacks to peace and stability in Afghanistan at various times over the last decade. There have also been real gains in other areas, such as medical care, for example. Even though many metrics could greatly improve, life expectancy is up, infant mortality is down and the availability of medical care is on the rise. More young girls are in school than were in 2001 and in 2010 a record number of women served in the Afghan parliament.
This is not to say that the conflict has improved the lives of Afghans—it has not. The U.S. war in Afghanistan has gravely harmed many civilians and communities. Smart development assistance and international development have, ever so slowly, helped improved some conditions despite the war. Could things be better? Absolutely. One way to ensure that is to ensure a long term international commitment—even if at greatly reduced levels—to humanitarian aid and development needs.
Genuine conflict resolution
Few places have been as racked by violence as Afghanistan has since the 1980’s. Foreign invasions, regional politics, local rivalries and scarce resources have all been drivers of conflict in Afghanistan over the decades. Ethnic and cultural differences have been exacerbated in recent years, pitting Afghanistan’s diverse ethnic groups against one another. These conditions cannot be easily reversed. Efforts toward genuine conflict resolution—a long term process—has been successfully tried in other post-conflict zones and perhaps some cases contain lessons for Afghanistan. A good place to start in Afghanistan is between the north (the Hazaras, Uzbeks, and Tajiks) and the south (predominantly Pashtun). A genuine effort at conflict resolution may help begin the healing and foster greater Afghan national unity.
The Afghan National Security Forces, Pakistan and the long term
Few U.S. policies have been more controversial than those related to the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) and Pakistan. The ANSF is fraught with corruption, desertion and ineffective Afghan Army brigades. Many credible experts believe it is impossible for the ANSF to stand alone by 2014. Yet this does not ease the burden of responsibility on the U.S., which will continue to be fund the ANSF for at least the next ten years—even if they’re not funded another dime during that time period. The Afghans Security Forces (army and police) currently hold about $20 billion in unobligated U.S. dollars. In short, the U.S. owns the problem.
The U.S. must strike a balance between training a legitimate police force for the purpose of maintaining law and order, but not building too large a force that Afghanistan becomes overly militarized or a regional military power—something that would undoubtedly invite more foreign interference than is already taking place.
Some Afghanistan-Pakistan experts say the only way to signal to proxies fighting in Afghanistan (primarily Pakistan) that the U.S. will not abandon Afghanistan is to keep troops there to train the ANSF for the foreseeable future. That is not the only path. Pakistan central interest is not Afghanistan, but rather Indian influence in Afghanistan— and weather those fears are legitimate or not is almost irrelevant.
It seems the best way to reduce Pakistan’s interference in Afghanistan, which is needed to open up avenues for a true peace process, is to start bi-lateral or multi-lateral talks with between Pakistan and India that get to the heart of each country’s grievances. The U.S. can help foster those talks, but must first cease some polices in Pakistan –such as drone attacks and assassinations in the FATA. This good faith measure may give the U.S. better credibility as a real partner, improve the U.S. image among Pakistanis and improve U.S.-Pakistan relations. Plus, it’s just the right thing to do.