Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s visit to Washington this week offers Barack Obama’s administration an opportunity to address one of the weakest links in its Afghanistan strategy — the lack of a coherent plan for what the United States and its Afghan and international partners aim to leave behind in Afghanistan.
Nearly nine years into the war, we lack clear answers to two fundamental questions: How does this war end? What is the desired sustainable end state in Afghanistan?
Recent briefings, meetings, and congressional testimony with officials in the Obama administration and visiting Afghan officials have left me not much clearer about the answers to those two questions — and this week is an excellent opportunity for the Obama administration and visiting Afghan officials to answer these two questions.
During the past month, I asked Obama administration officials and Afghan government representatives direct questions such as the estimated cost to completion for Afghanistan, general estimates on how many Afghan government personnel will be needed to fill the various levels of Afghan institutions to make them viable, and how progress will be measured. Instead of clear answers, I usually heard general restatements of the basic principles of counterinsurgency (COIN) doctrine: that the United States is trying to build up Afghan governing institutions as part of an overall strategy centered on the notions of "clear, hold, and build" — clearing areas of insurgents, holding those areas, and building institutions. For the most part, few concrete details have been offered — like a religious creed, COIN mantras were repeated, but vague answers to the crucial implementation questions on institution-building remain the norm, which is a dangerous proposition.
After spending a historic amount of money in Afghanistan, the United States is still in search of a sustainable governance strategy that will leave behind something of consequence in Afghanistan. On the reconstruction front alone, the United States has appropriated more than $50 billion, and the Obama administration has requested an additional $20 billion. With these new requests, the United States will have spent in Afghanistan more than double what it spent in postwar Germany from 1946 to 1952 and more than four times what was spent in Japan (inflation adjusted), according to data compiled by the Congressional Research Service. Despite all this money, it seems that in many parts of Afghanistan, the United States is starting from scratch and the gap between what is said is being done on institution-building and what is actually being done is significant.
Case in point — take the infamous "government in a box" idea put forth by Gen. Stanley McChrystal in the recent operation in Marjah. McChrystal said that a central part of the operation was to bring in a local Afghan administration aimed at getting services working and delivering aid. But as many observers and journalists noted, when that government in a box was opened, there wasn’t much inside. In advance of Kandahar operations this spring, U.S. military officials have emphasized the centrality of promoting good governance. In putting so much emphasis on governance in their strategic communications, the United States risks remaking the same mistake it made in advance of last year’s flawed presidential election — overpromising on something that may be difficult to deliver. As I argued in this piece last year, the Obama administration made a mistake in saying in advance that the presidential election were the most important event of the year in Afghanistan and then issuing an early judgment on the election that was too rosy.
I highlight all of this as a strong supporter of the need to integrate diplomacy, development assistance, and good governance in places like Afghanistan. I’ve co-authored numerous reports and articles that helped form the basis of the "smart power" approach the Obama administration is trying to use in places like Afghanistan and Pakistan — reports like "Integrated Power" and my 2008 book with Nancy Soderberg, The Prosperity Agenda. The Obama administration is doing a much better job wrestling with these questions than George W. Bush’s administration, which neglected Afghanistan and Pakistan for years. What troubles me is the lack of clarity about the implementation plan for getting the job done in Afghanistan — if we don’t know precisely want we want to achieve, then we risk open-ended involvement.
What to do about this? First, we need an honest accounting of the capacity challenges among our Afghan partners. In recent congressional testimony, including last week’s Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on Marjah, administration officials have highlighted the lack of capacity among Afghan partners as a serious challenge. What the overall action plan for addressing these enormous capacity challenges is remains unclear. But getting specific answers to questions like how many Afghan civilian government positions need to be filled at the various levels of government and what does the overall potential pool of talent looks like would be a start.
Secondly, we need to have greater candor about just how constrained and limited U.S. civilian agencies are and more honesty on how long it might take them to deliver on institution-building in Afghanistan. Decades of underinvestment in the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development means that Obama administration officials are fighting an uphill battle to get the right talent in place to help implement the complicated task of Afghan institutional development.
Finally, the Obama administration should work with the Afghan government and its partners in the international community to present a more sustainable plan for Afghanistan in the long term. This year alone, the United States is planning to spend upwards of $100 billion in Afghanistan in operations, almost 10 times the amount of Afghanistan’s GDP of $12 billion. These figures do not include what other countries are spending. These large figures raise the question of sustainability and whether what the United States is building with its partners will be able to stand on its own. There isn’t enough discussion about how to transition to a self-sustaining funding model — one that looks at how key revenue-generating industries such as mining, agriculture, and telecommunications can help build the economy and develop a funding mechanism that can sustain the Afghan institutions the international community is working to build today.
These three issues — the capacity challenges of the United States’ Afghan partners, the institutional shortcomings in U.S. civilian agencies, and the long-term sustainability questions linked to Afghanistan — should be front and center this week. The Afghan government is planning a conference in Kabul in a few months to present specific plans for reconstruction in a follow-up to the January London conference — but this week’s meetings in Washington can help hone those plans.
The United States and Afghanistan have a long list of items to discuss in their meetings here in Washington, but shouldn’t forget to address the most fundamental question: How will this war end?
Brian Katulis is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress.