President Obama recently said that by the end of next year the war in Afghanistan “will come to a responsible end.”
A responsible approach must recognize the dynamics on the ground. Violence and predation in the country are deeply rooted. Even in the winter fighting “lull,” there are an average of 50 insurgent attacks a day across the country.
What is urgently required is a realistic assessment by the United States and its allies about the challenges ahead, a more political approach, and a commitment to remain engaged in Afghanistan well beyond 2014.
This will not be easy. Disillusionment about Afghanistan in Washington and other capitals is growing. The vast military and civilian enterprise — the United States alone has spent $83 billion in assistance since 2001 — has been shaped more by Western security imperatives than by an understanding of the country’s complex social fabric, political economy, or, for that matter, its peoples’ priorities.
The impact of civilian aid has been mixed. Significant progress has been made in areas such as infrastructure, girls’ education and health, but funds have also contributed to cronyism, corruption and insecurity.
Accelerated drawdown of international forces is ratcheting up anxiety both inside the country and in the region. Meanwhile, the Taliban remain strong; warlords are reported to be rearming; and many Afghans that can are leaving or getting their money out. More than 32,000 Afghans made asylum applications in 2012 — more than any other nationality worldwide.
Relapse into civil war would be disastrous — for the long suffering population and for the wider region.
The early 1990s provides a terrible precedent. Once the Russians withdrew their backing for Najibullah in 1992, his regime collapsed and the country descended into violent upheaval, causing thousands of deaths and disappearances.
A responsible international approach now is the best defense against a repeat of history. What is required above all is a multilayered political strategy that reduces uncertainty and fosters stability.
Only Afghans can reconcile their differences. But the international community can play a critical role in creating the conditions in which this can happen. It should be rooted in ground realities and Afghan interests. It must ensure that international policies do not unwittingly intensify local or national power struggles or undermine stability.
Insecurity and uncertainty are pervasive, rooted in lawlessness, abuse of power, and lack of economic opportunities for men and women. This is compounded by doubts among Afghans about the depth and durability of the West’s commitment to Afghanistan.
The international approach must seek to reinforce security in its broader sense, over the long term. A U.S.-Afghanistan security agreement would send an important signal to Afghans and to regional players that this time — unlike the 1990s — the West will not turn its back on Afghanistan. Aid must be used shrewdly to create jobs, especially for young people, and promote sustainable livelihoods. It must strengthen, not undercut, accountability in the government and its police and security forces.
A reduction in civilian aid is inevitable, and there is a strong case that more can be done with less. But large scale, uncoordinated cuts would be damaging, and reinforce unpredictability.
A stable political transition requires presidential elections in 2014 that are seen by Afghans as legitimate. Electoral complications abound: The lessons from the flawed 2009 elections must be taken on board, including by the international community.
Ultimately, there is a need for a more inclusive, functional and responsive political system that empowers citizens and entrenches checks and balances at the national level.
Above all, political transition requires a more systematic and broad-based reconciliation process. Efforts remain fragile and inchoate. But Pakistan says it will support the process, the United States has backed the establishment of a Taliban office in Doha, and the Taliban say they are open to dialogue.
It is no mystery what needs to happen next: structured talks about core issues between all the parties to the conflict. Given the mistrust between the parties and complexity of the issues, it will require mediation. And the process must be as wide as it is deep: In due course that dialogue must be expanded to include all Afghanistan’s social and political groups, as well as its neighbors.
The United States and its allies can use their influence to help chart a way ahead and correct the corrosive sense of uncertainty. Drawdown must not mean write-off. There are no shortages of potential pitfalls, but progress is possible. It will require political acuity, honesty about the challenges ahead, and a shared determination to address them.
Michael Keating is a senior consulting fellow at Chatham House, and former U.N. deputy special representative for Afghanistan (2011-12). Matt Waldman is a fellow at Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.