The Pernicious Effects of Uncertainty in Afghanistan

Karzai discusses plans for NATO transition at NMAA graduation

While upcoming elections and sustained Taliban attacks are keeping many Afghans on edge, the greatest long-term threat to Afghanistan right now is the slow, insidious rot of uncertainty that is permeating nearly every facet of Afghan society. This situation is adversely affecting the efforts of the international community that has invested and sacrificed so much to bring stability to the country. And while President Hamid Karzai stands as the greatest impediment to providing some relief, there is more that the Obama administration could do to curtail ambiguity.

After a 2013 that saw much hand-wringing over setting the conditions for Afghanistan’s future, we have thus far muddled through this year, the last for NATO combat operations, without a clear picture of what post-2014 Afghanistan will look like. The main culprit has been the continued lack of a signed Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA), depriving Afghan society of a crucial confidence-building mechanism that is having detrimental effects. A recent report by the United States Institute of Peace notes, among other things, that the Afghan economy is seeing heightened short-termism and hedging behavior while major decisions are being put on hold. It also found that the street price of weapons has risen significantly, and the return of long-term Afghan refugees in Pakistan has slowed. In recent weeks, both the Afghanistan Banks Association and the Chamber of Commerce and Industry has warned that the government’s failure to sign the BSA has sparked increased capital flight from Afghanistan. The deeper we get into 2014 without an agreement, the greater the risk that this crippling doubt about the future will metastasize more significantly into the governing and security structures, which could cause irreversible damage to Afghanistan’s still-developing and fragile institutions.

Recently, there has been much speculation as to the reasoning for Karzai’s persistent intransigence despite near universal support for the BSA among his fellow countrymen. Regardless of the hypothesis one adopts, all signs point to Karzai acting solely in his own interest, not Afghanistan’s. Ironically, the deleterious effects of the uncertainty he is fostering are not completely lost on Karzai. In a recent interview, he stated that, as “an Afghan citizen, I would accept to live in poverty rather than living in uncertainty,” in the course of a somewhat rambling and imprecise explanation of the necessity for the BSA with the United States to guarantee a safe, certain future for the Afghan people. He then went on to declare that “the driving factor behind or the desire for the BSA is to bring clarity to the conflict.” Here the Obama administration has an opportunity to address this seemingly insurmountable issue in a way that would be mutually beneficial to both countries.

Karzai’s uncooperative and at times truculent behavior over the past few months has been a source of great frustration for not only the White House but increasingly for civilian and military officials operating on the ground in Afghanistan. Aside from the BSA issue, Karzai’s authorization of the release of 65 suspected Taliban fighters from Parwan prison over staunch U.S. objections has pushed the relationship to a breaking point. Due in no small part to this deterioration, in January, Congress slashed the development budget for Afghanistan by half, reduced U.S. security aid by 60 percent, and even added a clause preventing any funds “for the direct personal benefit of the President of Afghanistan.” When President Obama signed the bill without a word of protest, the shot across Karzai’s bow was unmistakable.

This dissatisfaction may also be affecting the deliberation over the post-2014 U.S. footprint in Afghanistan. The figures reportedly span from 3,000 to 10,000 personnel, and there is some evidence that the final decision is being delayed to pressure Karzai to sign the BSA. As Obama conveyed to Karzai during a February 24 phone call, “The longer we go without a BSA the more likely it will be that any post-2014 U.S. mission will be smaller in scale and ambition.” An ambiguous “sliding scale of effort” approach to this matter is unlikely to persuade Karzai to sign, however, and it greatly risks punishing Afghanistan rather than Karzai.

Delays in signing the BSA need not prevent the Obama administration from articulating its longer-term plans for Afghanistan. Back in January, International Security Assistance Force commander General Joseph Dunford recommended that a U.S. contingent of 10,000 troops remain beyond 2014. This is viewed as the minimum required to train, advise, and assist Afghan security forces while maintaining the ability to conduct counterterrorism operations with Afghan partner units, and it is the troop level supported by the senior leadership at the Pentagon, State Department, and CIA. There are reportedly voices in the White House that are reluctant to make such a commitment, though they appear to be isolated. According to one unnamed U.S. official, “The only people interested in the low numbers are in the White House.” Perhaps a quick back-of-the-envelope assessment will provide some clarity.

With a commitment of roughly 10,000 troops, the United States can maintain a footprint at key regional bases throughout much of the country from which these troops can provide the Afghans needed mentorship and support at the ministerial and corps levels while continuing to pressure Taliban and other insurgent leaders through ongoing counterterrorism operations. Moreover, all accounts suggest that in such a scenario key NATO allies will collectively commit upwards of 5,000 additional troops, primarily to maintain a presence in the north and west of the country. Finally, State and the CIA will benefit by keeping personnel in the field where they can oversee local governance, development, and intelligence efforts. In short, while NATO forces would be substantially cut from current levels, important relations with senior Afghan leaders would be sustained and the coalition would maintain situational awareness throughout the country and, by extension, the region.

A reduction to 3,000 troops would greatly alter the post-2014 enterprise. In such a scenario, all U.S. officials would be confined to Kabul and/or Bagram Airfield, which is roughly 40 miles to the north. Situational awareness of events in Afghanistan would diminish significantly and NATO allies would, in all likelihood, depart entirely. The ostensible focus of the mission would turn almost exclusively to conducting counterterrorism operations. There are gaps to even this aspect of the plan that its reported proponents have yet to explain. Without U.S. intelligence personnel in the field to interact with sources and corroborate evidence, the ability to accurately target key insurgent leaders will be reduced, perhaps drastically. Relying on Afghan partners for greater cooperation would also be risky given that they’re liable to feel jilted by the abrupt cessation of mentorship and support. In the end, this “have your cake and eat it too” option for the United States is not just farfetched: It’s strategically untenable.

There are, of course, a couple of “in-between” options reportedly being considered, but these too have holes and are overly reliant on achieving a best-case scenario for success. It is in the interest of the United States to look beyond Karzai and reaffirm to the rest of the Afghan populace that it is unequivocally dedicated to the country’s long-term stability and prosperity. The United States should provide Karzai, his successor and the Afghan people with a definitive picture of what Afghanistan will be missing should the BSA not be signed, not a menu of potential troop-level options and vague promises of funding. The White House should provide a stark choice that removes ambiguous dates with undefined consequences:

1.     The BSA is signed: The United States is willing to dedicate the 10,000 troops its leadership on the ground has requested and will continue to provide the funding necessary to sustain the Afghan security forces and see through its development obligations.

2.     The BSA is not signed: All U.S. troops will redeploy by the end of the year and while international aid will not dry up completely, it will certainly diminish and be unpredictable.

Moreover, this stance should be clearly articulated by President Obama in a speech dedicated to the future of Afghanistan. It has been nearly two years since the last such address and the American people, international community, and most importantly, Afghan public would benefit greatly from a reaffirmation of the shared interests we all have in Afghanistan and the region. It would also deprive the Taliban and all other groups wishing to foment instability of a key piece of propaganda as we enter such a crucial phase of the transition.

Removing any and all doubt as to the U.S. commitment to Afghanistan will place as much pressure as possible on Karzai to act. And, even if this fails to motivate him, it may help buoy confidence among the Afghan population and potential international donors and investors until Karzai is replaced later this year. Given that all the presidential candidates have voiced support for the BSA, it is a safe bet that the deal will be signed eventually. While the United States cannot alleviate all the uncertainty currently plaguing Afghanistan, it is in a position to reduce it considerably. Continued delays and rumored debates serve only to foment instability and work counter to its considerable regional interests.


Jason H. Campbell (@JasonHCampbell) is an associate policy analyst at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation, where he focuses on issues of international security, counterinsurgency, intelligence, and measuring progress in post-conflict reconstruction.Most recently, he co-authored an assessment of U.S. involvement in “small-footprint” partnerships to support counterinsurgency efforts since the end of the Cold War.


Photo credit: NATO Training Mission-Afghanistan