Saving Afghanistan: More Than Just Troops


President Obama recently revealed two changes to Afghanistan troop commitments. He also made another, vaguer commitment has received far less attention. But it is this commitment — to “continue to support President Ashraf Ghani and the national unity government as they pursue critical reforms” — that will determine whether the U.S. troop commitment to Afghanistan has any value.

Obama’s intention to slow the withdrawal of U.S. troops in 2016 and to preserve a force of 5,500 in the country thereafter comes with no change of mission for America’s military. Troops will continue to conduct two tasks: countering terrorist threats and advising Afghan security forces on development and operations. The truth, though, is that these two missions alone cannot save Afghanistan from an unfortunate future.

Terrorist threats in the region are growing: The Islamic State in Khorasan Province, the group’s affiliate in the region, is making strides in parts of eastern and southern Afghanistan. Last week, U.S. and Afghan forces conducted an intense operation to destroy two Islamic State training camps in the south. In addition, the Taliban takeover of Kunduz was a show of strength by that organization’s new leader, seemingly designed to demonstrate his ability to lead his forces to victory. The Taliban campaign in Kunduz is still not over, though Afghan forces have largely beaten back the opposition. Elsewhere in the country, government control is tenuous and, according to United Nations reports, the Taliban now holds greater sway than it has since 2001.

To a significant degree, insecurity in the provinces is exacerbated by confusion in the capital. Afghanistan’s government exists in a state of sustained constitutional crisis, due to the power-sharing agreement that followed its stalemated and contested election. Every decision the government makes provokes concerns that it will upset the delicate balance of forces at the nation’s center, resulting for example, in the failure to name a defense minister able to receive parliamentary confirmation. In a government already burdened with patronage and corruption, jockeying for power and attention in the government takes an inordinate amount of attention and distracts from the business of governing. As a result, the Afghan people often express frustration with the government’s inability to respond to popular needs.

With the central government in crisis, the influence of sub-national power brokers is on the rise. To some extent, this has been sanctioned by the government, as has the use of factional militias reconstituted largely along old ethnic and partisan lines. But these forces are extremely difficult for the government to control, and with scores to settle amongst themselves, the militias often complicate the security picture at the local level by switching sides or pursuing their own agendas. As the government struggles to exert its influence, these actors often fill the vacuum.

The U.S. troop presence cannot halt the devolution of authority in Afghanistan, should it continue on that path, but it can have a dampening effect on any consequent insecurity. There is no point to that effort, though, unless the other half of Obama’s promise — to support real reform of the Afghan government — also materializes. There are four areas where the U.S. government can provide key contributions to stabilize the Afghan central government and secure its writ in the country’s periphery.

First, the United States can support efforts to resolve questions related to the structure and future of the national unity government. The present arrangement is not provided for in the constitution. Responsibilities are informally allocated and the future of this arrangement is unclear. The process of changing the constitution to formalize the procedures of the unity government is challenging and contentious, but there must be some push for legitimization of these high-level relationships.

Next, the United States must work to accelerate the Afghan government’s timeline for reforming electoral processes. Parliamentary elections have been indefinitely delayed because of the poor performance of electoral institutions in the presidential elections. But while badly managed parliamentary elections would sap confidence in government, so too will continued failure to hold them at all. Without solid provincial representation at the national level, informal provincial leadership will be strengthened.

Third, the United States ought to work with Afghanistan to clarify the increasingly murky relationships between sub-national power players and the central government. As sub-national actors are gaining in influence, their tendency to look to the center for legitimacy and direction may be on the wane. Particularly because so many of these powerful actors and their armed affiliates have re-formed along old ethnic and partisan lines, there is strong potential for them to reactivate old rivalries with each other, complicating the security and governance picture. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to such an endeavor, but the United States can help the Afghans to extend and enforce conditions that could help keep these actors engaged with the central government.

Finally, the Afghan government has placed a high priority on peace negotiations with the Taliban and the United States should work to support this outcome while being wary of the risks associated with negotiating peace. Few insurgencies conclude with a grand bargain, and it is unlikely that the Taliban will conclude such an agreement while the international community retains forces in Afghanistan. In fact, the Taliban might prefer to make local bargains with increasingly powerful sub-national actors from whom they could be able to extract the kind of concessions about an Islamist legal code that the central government would be unlikely to allow. The United States can best contain the risks of negotiation in two ways. First, it should seek to foster conditions under which the central government can better influence who militias are fighting, in order to maintain maximum clarity between pro- and anti-government actors and reduce the possibility of sidebar alliances with the Taliban. Second, it should synchronize negotiations with military operations so as not to allow for splintering of the Taliban into factions, limiting the utility of an agreement, weakening the government, and prolonging conflict. If adequate pressure can be kept on Islamic State affiliates and other groups opposed to reconciliation, then they cannot use a Taliban peace to take on the mantle of conflict as their own.

President Obama’s decision to preserve troop strength in Afghanistan is a major step in the right direction for U.S. policy there. These forces maintain flexibility to respond to a range of scenarios, demonstrate confidence in the Afghan government, and stake a claim for American interests in the region. But the ultimate success of these endeavors rests upon Obama’s commitment to continue to encourage reforms in the Afghan government. Without smart policies to stabilize the center and maintain participation from the periphery, no amount of troops can be the solution.


Rebecca Zimmerman is an associate policy analyst at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation.