How to prepare Afghanistan for U.S. withdrawal

As the United States begins a security transition in Afghanistan, it has focused the vast majority of its strategy, efforts and resources on building Afghan security forces and weakening insurgents through military pressure. Yet the broader Afghan state is in crisis. Afghans we met with during a recent trip to Kabul warned that their country’s fragile democratic institutions were crumbling. If the current political trajectory continues, Afghan security forces may have no state left to defend.

A range of Afghans — government officials, opposition figures and members of civil society — argued that the United States must perform a tricky balancing act to strengthen the state. We should heal our rift with Afghan President Hamid Karzai but without providing unconditional financial and political support, which weakens Afghan state institutions and contributes to a culture of impunity. Relying exclusively on Karzai or pushing to marginalize him would be calamitous for Afghanistan’s stability.

Navigating this minefield demands deft diplomacy — one that uses transparency, conditions and incentives to help Afghanistan create a political system that is lasting, includes the current opposition and leaves the door open for a settlement with elements of the Taliban. Key shifts in U.S. policy are required.

First, it requires the United States to be crystal clear about its objectives in Afghanistan, supported by a political track that is synchronized with the military strategy between now and 2014 — and beyond. Conspiracy theories abound even at the most senior levels of the Afghan government that the United States wants to use Afghanistan indefinitely as a base to project power in Asia and the Middle East as part of a new “Great Game.” Many Afghans view our stated counterterrorism objectives as secondary to this larger interest. This perception is partially due to Afghanistan’s fertile ground for conspiracy theories; it is also a result of mixed messages emanating from U.S. policymakers, particularly in Congress but also in the Obama administration.

The new team, led by Ambassador Ryan Crocker and Gen. John Allen, must reduce the misperceptions and create a civil-military road map that better integrates our political, economy and military strategies. This plan needs to work backward from 2014, when a transition occurs under the Afghan constitution from Karzai to an elected successor, as well as from allied forces to the Afghan government.

Second, despite its public aversion to nation-building, the U.S. government must support Afghanistan’s institutions and democratic forces, including the media, parliament, Supreme Court, Independent Election Commission and even the political opposition. Although these bodies remain weak, they channel more Afghan voices into the political system, creating increased accountability. Karzai has said that he will step down in 2014, and the United States must work with him and Afghanistan’s parliament to reform the electoral system to enable political party formation and to support the emergence of Afghan leaders who can assume national leadership positions after him.

Third, the United States must more effectively use its leverage to encourage political and economic reforms. The strategic partnership agreement under negotiation offers an opportunity to clarify U.S. and Afghan objectives and to provide minimum conditions for ongoing U.S. support. The United States should establish within that agreement specific reforms required by the Afghans in return for continued assistance to the Afghan government and its National Security Forces.

Fourth, the United States needs to commit to facilitating an Afghan political settlement. The ambivalence in the U.S. approach on this issue is creating confusion in the region and within the Afghan leadership and is increasing tensions between the Afghan and U.S. governments. The United States should support the appointment of an international mediator, accept an office in a third country for discussions to take place with Taliban insurgents, and calibrate its military approach to support an eventual settlement. It must push for an open and transparent process, which includes the domestic opposition and civil society, so that their fears are addressed. And the one view that seems to unite the entire Afghan political spectrum is that the United States needs a comprehensive regional diplomatic strategy that stops Pakistan from playing a spoiler role.

President Obama took the right step in announcing the start of the transition in Afghanistan. After nearly 10 years, our troops need to begin coming home, and Afghan security forces need to take the lead. But as this security transition occurs we need to accelerate our efforts to help Afghanistan strengthen its political institutions, power-sharing arrangements and economic foundations to make sure the country will be able stand on its own.

John Podesta, president of the Center for American Progress; Brian Katulis and Caroline Wadhams, senior fellows in the center’s national security program.

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