Much has gone right in Afghanistan. It’s more secure, stable, and even optimistic. But there's one final tweak needed before America says goodbye.
So now the United States approaches the endgame — long predicted — in Afghanistan.
While it is tempting at times to simply walk away, doing so serves no geopolitically sensible purpose, and indeed may be snatching certain defeat from the jaws of a very possible success.
All is not lost: The United States still has a better-than-even chance of a successful outcome in Afghanistan. That is to say, Washington should execute its strategy and move forward — not take counsel of its fears and frustrations to abruptly depart.
The security situation and the upcoming elections have been a focus of the attendant political process. Both are, of course, important. But the real key to whether the United States succeeds will be the health of the Afghan economy and its long-term prospects. To be effective, Washington should emphasize developing growth and stability through private-public partnerships.
But what does success look like, exactly? Recognizable security throughout most of the populated areas of the country, with a low-grade insurgency rumbling around parts of the south and east; a roughly credible democratic political process, albeit with some corruption and malfeasance; a functioning economy with the possibility of improvement based on minerals; improved medical and educational benefits; and enhanced rights for women and children throughout most of the urban areas. Not perfect, but vastly better than a 14th-century existence under the Taliban.
Why are the odds better than even? Despite all the challenges, much has gone right in Afghanistan — in terms of security, politics, economics, and culture.
In the security sector, more than 50 nations have contributed troops over the past decade, and a principal focus has been the build-up of 350,000 Afghan police and security, which have the approval of more than 70 percent of the population according to recent surveys. Today, the Afghan National Security Forces are fully responsible for ensuring security throughout the nation’s 34 provinces, conducting patrols along the borders, and flying their own aircraft. They are holding territories that the Taliban deeply desire to occupy, including the spiritual heartland of the Taliban movement in the south and the rugged mountainous east. Despite a certain amount of Sturm und Drang, the Baseline Security Agreement (BSA) will almost certainly be signed in the next few months (by Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s successor), and somewhere between 10,000 and 15,000 troops from the NATO-led coalition will likely remain to train, mentor, and monitor the Afghan forces. In all, it is a sustainable and positive outcome, assuming that the 50 or so contributing nations continue the some $4 billion in annual funding — a bargain compared to keeping 150,000 allied troops there, which cost upward of $100 billion a year.
Politically, Afghanistan seems on track for a reasonably successful election in April. There is a vibrant campaign in progress: Many views and ethnicities are on offer among the candidates, security planning is moving apace, and Karzai seems content to hand power peacefully to an elected successor. While there will be both security and corruption challenges to overcome, at this stage most observers feel that Afghanistan will have the first handover between elected leaders in its history this spring.
In terms of culture, there is enormous progress since the Taliban days — 9 million children are in school (4 million of them girls); life expectancy is climbing rapidly; medical care is available to five times more people; 17 million cell phones; improved rights for women; and the sense of optimism among the population is higher in Afghanistan than in many Western countries (over the past few years, a stunning 57 percent of Afghans say their country is "headed in the right direction.")
But what about the economy?
While growth has been fairly high over the past decade, averaging over 8 percent annually and over 12 percent in 2012, it is largely dependent on outside economic aid. The narcotic sector is a big part of the overall economy (Afghanistan is the world’s largest producer of poppy, opium, and heroin). Worst of all, it is the NATO-led coalition war machine that consumes huge amounts of good and services. As the NATO forces redeploy to their home nations, falling 90 percent from the peak in terms of boots on the ground, the economy will be hit with a body blow.
The good news is that longer-term prospects offer some hope, especially in extractive industries. The Ministry of Mines and Petroleum continues to work toward arrangements to reap the benefits of as much as $3 trillion worth of valuable minerals — iron, copper, nickel, cobalt, rare earths, and lithium among them. Oil and gas show promise. Entrepreneurship is strong and growing, and the geographic location of Afghanistan along the Silk Road makes it a prospect as an inter-modal transport and shipping hub. Agribusiness is expanding, as is the export of cashmere, carpets, and jewelry.
The key for the international community in the economic sphere is to work with the Afghans to formulate a "bridge strategy" to get the economy from its dependence on outside assistance and military activity to a more legitimate and sustainable underpinning. The keys to such an approach are:
1. Draft an agreed-upon plan between the Afghan government and the international community — the equivalent of the BSA in the economic sphere. This cannot be done on the military side, but should instead be led by the United Nations Assistance Mission to Afghanistan and its special representative, Ambassador Jan Kubis.
2. Write a strategy to strengthen indigenous industries (agriculture, mining, hydrocarbons, construction) led by the development community, i.e. U.S. Agency for International Development and their counterparts.
3. Harness the power of private-public partnerships, using models like the U.S. Task Force for Business and Stability Operations, an innovative group resourced by the U.S. Department of Defense but driven by its connections to private sector actors. Bringing private sector analysts to Afghanistan and showing them the potential for growth (and profitability, of course), will create business opportunities.
4. Identify sources of investment in the Afghan diaspora and from capital flows willing to take a higher level of risk with the potential for higher return (venture capital, rich sovereign wealth funds, hydrocarbon and mining companies).
5. Energize a strategic communications plan to let people know of both the risk and the opportunity in Afghanistan. Like other parts of the world that emerged from turmoil (Colombia, the Balkans, to name a few), there are opportunities for those willing to accept the risk. More than 70 percent of Afghans feel their economic circumstances have improved over the past decade: Build on that narrative.
None of this will be easy, of course. The security, political, and cultural gains remain at risk. But the chances of bringing home a limited but sustainable level of stability to Afghanistan ultimately rest on how the economy unfolds — and that will take international, interagency, and private-public collaboration, as well as strategic communications writ large, to succeed.