A group of experts and former U.S officials this week published an article mapping the way for the next U.S president to forge regarding an enduring partnership with Afghanistan.
Written by 19 experts, including five former ambassadors to Afghanistan – Zalmay Khalilzad among them – these experts said it was key for the U.S that its strategies and policies going forward “should include ensuring the success of this American-Afghan partnership.”
Published in The National Interest, the article stated that the U.S’s cooperation with the Afghan government and Afghan people remains a key front in a generational conflict against violent extremists across the greater Middle East.
They said in the article however that the next American president will have an opportunity to settle Afghan policy onto a more durable, more effective, and less demanding course.
“In our view, the watchword for this new approach should be one of an enduring partnership, based on mutual commitment. We should plan for a long-term American—and coalition—role in the country that avoids the recent pattern of nearly annual reassessments of whether the United States should stay, militarily and as a major donor.
“We should also avoid publicly-announced withdrawal timelines. Instead, we should take a quieter and more patient approach, consistent with the commitments the international community made at Bonn in 2011 to help make the entire 2015-2024 period the “decade of transformation” in Afghanistan.
“Less attention should be placed on troop numbers, and troop caps, as the barometer of whether an exit strategy is being successfully implemented. Rather, the emphasis should be on securing Afghanistan as a crucial pillar of America’s global anti-terror campaign and as a needed contributor to stability in the region,” read the article.
It went on to state that “if the enormous investment that the world has made in Afghanistan since 2001 is to be worthy of continuation, Afghans must do their part to improve governance and economic well-being, and thereby build public support for the government. The very enormity of that U.S. investment to date, and the value of Afghanistan in the broader struggle against jihadi extremism, argue strongly for trying to sustain—and build on—the progress we have collectively achieved so far.
“And while there is no easy answer about how to improve U.S. relations with Pakistan, we expect that clear articulation of an enduring American commitment to Afghanistan and the region can only help in gradually reducing the distrust and rivalry that often predominate in the relationships in Central and South Asia today.”
The experts stated that a new U.S. president could reasonably question the importance of Afghanistan to American security.
Past expenditures sacrifices do not automatically mean that the country is strategically vital to American interests today.
Indeed, the first President Bush concluded back in 1989 that Afghanistan was not worth continued U.S. investment. After covert programs in the 1980s to aid the Afghan mujahedeen, conducted with the cooperation of Pakistan and several other countries, achieved their goal of defeating invading Soviet forces, the United States effectively withdrew from the region.
“But ignoring Afghanistan proved unwise. Beyond the stain on America’s honor of deserting wartime allies who had done much through their own sacrifice to defeat Communism and help win the Cold War, the turmoil that ensued in Afghanistan after 1989 ultimately gave rise to the Taliban—and then to the sanctuary for al Qaeda that the Taliban provided Osama bin Laden.
“The 9/11 attacks were planned in that sanctuary, and the initial training of the attackers was conducted there. The U.S. disengagement also helped create cynicism among many Pakistani security officials about American motives and American dependability.
“Pakistan was left largely on its own to cope with the aftermath of the successful mujahedeen effort against Soviet forces, absorbing millions of refugees and other burdens. Also, our departure encouraged some Pakistani leaders to believe that we would ultimately give them a free hand in Afghanistan to pursue their own interests.
“The consequences have been enormous and enduring. Pakistanis have referenced this past American behavior to call into question U.S. commitment to the region going forward. They have often then used this concern, however unreasonably, to justify Pakistan’s own policies of tolerating and in some cases supporting Afghan Taliban and Haqqani Network safe havens on its territory. These safe havens have, perhaps more than any other factor, precluded successful conclusion of the counterinsurgency campaign within Afghanistan. Absent change in Pakistan’s behavior, they are likely to continue doing so.
“Even today, Afghanistan is central to what has been called the war on terror or war against Islamic extremism. It is clearly important in its own right. It also provides a location, and an ally, for watching and if necessary attacking extremists across the region.
“Afghan leaders who would take America’s commitment as a given under any and all circumstances should not do so. Afghanistan may not be vital to American security in the strictest sense of the word. But it is very important, as Americans collectively learned when we essentially ignored what happened there from 1989 through 2001.
On defining American objectives with regards to Afghanistan, these experts raised the question on how do they define their goals?
In answer to this they stated that the ideal endgame for the next U.S president would be a successful end to the conflict in Afghanistan along with Afghans securing and governing their country enough to ensure the country does not become another safe haven for the likes of al-Qaeda or other terrorist groups.
However, the article states that this goal might be “too ambitious for some time to come.”
“While we strongly support the objective of a peaceful Afghanistan, we recommend a realistic attitude toward negotiations with violent armed actors. A fair amount of the Afghan resistance has historically been made up of “accidental guerrillas” who fight more for reasons of tribe or local grievance than for ideology or national-level goals,” read the article.
But in order to move forward, the operational U.S goals in Afghanistan should be twofold, the article stated.
“In the short term, our objective should be an Afghanistan increasingly capable of handling its security challenges and governance duties with only modest foreign help.
“In the longer term, the goal should be a peaceful, more prosperous, and better governed country that contributes to regional security. To accomplish these objectives, the United States and other key foreign actors such as NATO allies, India, and China, as well as the EU and UN, should seek the following:
– to help sustain and strengthen the Afghan state,
– to prevent the establishment of any large-scale safe havens for al Qaeda, Daesh, and other transnational extremist groups on Afghan soil,
– to collaborate with Afghanistan against other regional extremist threats,
– to maintain, in cooperation with Afghan partners, the forces and facilities essential to confront these threats,
– to gradually contain and weaken the Taliban and other violent armed actors who continue to refuse to negotiate a peaceful and just settlement,
– to seek to change the strategic calculus of the Taliban about their prospects for defeating the Afghan government, and
– to change the behavior of regional players, particularly Pakistan, to support Afghan stability. This could involve sharpening the incentives, both positive and negative, posed to Islamabad by Washington and other outside actors.
“In other words, we should prepare and posture ourselves for what could be a generation-long struggle against extremism, with Afghanistan a key part of that struggle,” read the article.
Contributing writers were as follows:
Former ambassadors to Afghanistan
Former Military Commanders in Afghanistan
Special Representatives for Afghanistan/Pakistan
Vanda Felbab-Brown, The Brookings Institution
Seth Jones, RAND Corporation
Clare Lockhart, Institute for State Effectiveness
Michael O’Hanlon, The Brookings Institution
Bruce Riedel, The Brookings Institution
David Sedney, Center for Strategic and International Studies
Earl Anthony (Tony) Wayne, Center for Strategic and International Studies