A Better Afghan Strategy: Lose the Timeline

March 26, 2015

The first official visit to Washington of Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and CEO Abdullah Abdullah comes at an opportune time for both countries. The significant drawdown of Western forces at the end of 2014 combined with recent events in Iraq, Syria, and Ukraine have pushed Afghanistan down the foreign policy priority list of the United States and its allies at a time of great transition. This visit will allow Ghani and Abdullah the occasion to put a new face on the bilateral relationship and signal clearly to Americans that the tumultuous days of the Karzai regime are over. For the United States it provides a valuable opportunity to reassess the nature of its commitment to supporting Afghanistan at the outset of the latest and perhaps most crucial phase of the conflict. The Obama administration would be wise to use this occasion not to simply reaffirm its current guidance regarding U.S. involvement in Afghanistan but to make a bold statement that it is committed to the longer-term, continued development of a key ally.

From Ghani and Abdullah’s perspective, they have to remind Americans (senior administration officials, Congress, the media, and the citizenry in general) that Afghanistan’s long-term stability and prosperity is a mutual interest, and more importantly, convince the majority that they are dependable stewards of both the relationship and the assistance that it may bring. It has been nearly six months since Ghani was inaugurated and the national unity government was established. Thus far, the biggest political setback is that the Cabinet remains only partially filled. The competing camps of Ghani and Abdullah took more than three months to compile an agreed upon list of nominees only to be stymied by a newly assertive Parliament that has intervened in blocking a number of these. In some cases this was justifiable, such as when one candidate turned up on an Interpol wanted list for tax evasion in Estonia. In a number of other cases, however, a nominee was rejected simply for carrying dual citizenship, a stipulation that Afghan law allows Parliament to waive. Yet through all of this Ghani and Abdullah have maintained stability at the top of what was from the start an awkward arrangement. Change was always going to be slow and incremental and to date, they have earned at the very least the benefit of the doubt when it comes to their reliability and dedication to the bilateral relationship.

For the United States, it has been nearly a year since President Obama announced his guidance for the American military involvement in Resolute Support Mission (RSM), the post-2014, NATO-led successor to the International Security Assistance Force: a complete transition away from combat in favor of a train, advise, and assist mission that would comprise 9,800 troops for 2015, half of that number by the end of the year, and a near complete withdrawal before 2017. Much has happened since this announcement, perhaps most forebodingly the near collapse of the Iraqi army in the face of a motivated yet outnumbered Islamic State. This served as a cautionary tale for what a hasty U.S. disengagement from Afghanistan could bring. Last November, President Obama slightly expanded the rules of engagement U.S. forces would operate under during RSM. This permits troops to take action against insurgent elements posing a threat to American, allied, or Afghan forces. Ultimately this was more of a formal recognition of what would have played out on the ground out of necessity than a noteworthy course change. In a joint press conference with Ghani on Tuesday, Obama announced a pause in the withdrawal plan that will not see the current 9,800 troops remain in the country through the end of 2015. Once again, while this is certainly the correct decision it comes off as just another barely consequential tweak to a strategy in need of an overhaul.

The White House should instead use the Ghani-Abdullah visit and the exposure it has brought to be bold and announce its intention to scrap the current guidance based on a timeline that has been overcome by events in favor of a strategy based on conditionality. The current course of making periodic piecemeal changes punctuated by periods of uncertainty is the source of much justifiable doubt on the part of America’s Afghan and international partners. This would send a strong message to both would-be allies and adversaries that America is dedicated to Afghanistan’s stability and cannot simply be “waited out” until the end of 2016.

It would also be an opportune time for the Obama administration to clearly articulate to the American people that the current environment in Afghanistan is no longer dominated by the divisiveness of the counterinsurgency versus counter-terrorism debates and the volatility of dealing with the mercurial Karzai. Unfortunately, Afghanistan became a second tier issue well before the recent end of combat operations. Case in point: President Obama’s remarks last May announcing his post-2014 guidance was his first speech dedicated to Afghanistan in over two years. Despite abutting what was a long conflict, RSM is unique to anything the United States has undertaken in the post-9/11 era, and it should be explained as such. With fewer than 10,000 troops currently in country, the United States is in a position to have a profound impact on the stability of a key ally at a fraction of the cost incurred in previous years and without exposing its personnel to the dangers of combat. Particularly given the alternatives, this is a worthy commitment.

Despite certain claims and misperceptions, conditionality is not a unilateral, no-strings-attached arrangement. Afghan officials are keenly aware of the security and economic implications of the coalition drawdown and by and large recognize that persistent international support is going to require substantive progress in their governing effectiveness. Broadly put, however, as long as the United States continues to have a viable and willing partner, is not subjecting its personnel to undue risk or taking high casualty levels (thus far in 2015 there has been one coalition fatality, though the tragic killing of three American contractors in January demonstrated that Afghanistan remains a dangerous place), and is contributing positively to the continued development of the Afghan security forces, it makes no strategic sense to adhere to a time limit that was set to conform to America’s political calendar. There is also much to be said for maintaining a footprint in a region that remains very volatile and where the alternatives for U.S. access are minimal. Of course any of these criteria are subject to change, but for the time being the conditions are such that an enduring U.S. presence is mutually beneficial.

The primary argument cited by proponents of the “date on the calendar” approach is the need to provide an impetus to Afghanistan to take on more responsibility and understand that the United States will not always be there to provide direct support. This may have been a defensible outlook when there were tens of thousands of coalition troops leading the fight on a daily basis. Under current conditions, however, it rings hollow. Last fighting season, the Afghan security forces took on the overall lead for security operations and paid a heavy toll. With the next fighting season looming and coalition support dwindling to minimal in some areas and non-existent in others, no one on the ground has any question as to who will be bearing the brunt of insurgent attacks. Setting an arbitrary date to remove trainers and mentors will not enhance the Afghans’ sense of ownership, but rather likely stoke fears of abandonment and desperation.

Announcing a shift to conditionality in Afghanistan can also be accomplished without requiring President Obama to go out on a political limb. First, with the combat mission over, the United States for all intents and purposes is no longer at war in Afghanistan. Though the environment remains volatile, this is now clearly the Afghans’ fight with the United States playing a crucial yet decidedly supportive role. Second, with presidential elections slated for 2016, Obama’s successor is likely going to want the decision space to weigh in on what very well could be among the top foreign policy priorities. Pulling all troops out of Afghanistan will not have the desired positive effect on Obama’s legacy if it results in a situation akin to Iraq that someone else has to clean up. And finally, there is a good chance that other allies would be willing to join the United States in potentially extending its commitment beyond 2016. As I wrote on this site last fall, when the post-2014 phase was being planned, Germany expressed a willingness to maintain its train, advise, and assist mission in the north for up to four years. This could allow for an extension of the current regional footprint, which is key to maintaining valuable situational awareness and enhancing overall impact.

Over the past few months, there have been some notable positive developments in Afghanistan. Despite some setbacks, Ghani and Abdullah remain committed to reforming the government for the better. Due largely to Ghani’s efforts, Afghanistan’s bilateral relations with neighboring Pakistan are on the mend, and Islamabad appears more interested in playing a productive role in fostering peace talks with the Afghan Taliban than it has at any other time. And, a number of higher profile attacks notwithstanding, the insurgency has yet to prove that it can overwhelm Afghan security forces and hold contested territory. Yet Afghanistan remains frustratingly riddled with unknowns: the cohesiveness of a government meshed together by compromise, the outcome of the impending fighting season, and the prospects for an economy in dire need of investment, just to name a few. What is abundantly clear is that Afghanistan will require the persistent support of its international allies for the foreseeable future. It is in America’s strategic interest to once and for all do away with its arbitrary timeline in favor of a strategy that provides its Afghan partners with something to preserve and nurture, not something to dread losing.

 

Jason H. Campbell is an associate policy analyst at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation. Follow him on twitter: @JasonHCampbell.

 

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