The South Asia Channel

Prioritize in Afghanistan

By J Alexander Thier Mr. President, be practical, but do not abandon hope. Is the continuation, or even expansion, of the American engagement in Afghanistan worth the investment? I believe that answer is yes. The Afghan people, and those who have lived and worked among the Afghans, have not given up hope for a peaceful ...

By J Alexander Thier

Mr. President, be practical, but do not abandon hope.

Is the continuation, or even expansion, of the American engagement in Afghanistan worth the investment?

I believe that answer is yes. The Afghan people, and those who have lived and worked among the Afghans, have not given up hope for a peaceful Afghanistan. In every part of the country there are Afghans risking their lives to educate and vaccinate children, to monitor elections and investigate war crimes, to grow food for their communities. They are not helpless without us, but they rely on us for the promise of a better future – a promise we have made repeatedly over the last eight years.

I understand that remaining committed to the stabilization of Afghanistan is not easy. It will be costly, in lives and taxpayer dollars. It is a challenging mission, in every way. Yet the alternatives, when examined honestly, are unbearably bleak. It is hard for me to imagine watching the Taliban’s triumphant return to Kandahar, or Kabul – sending Afghanistan back to the dark days of forced illiteracy for girls and public stonings. Are we prepared to witness Afghanistan’s women parliamentarians fleeing the country and thousands of our colleagues going into exile or face the consequences of having collaborated with the Americans? Will we stand by and observe the abandonment of hope as the next phase of the civil war begins and all our effort is swept away? And if future terror attacks are traced back to the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, or Pakistan collapses or its nuclear materials are stolen, how will we respond if asked: did we do everything we could to prevent it?

The Afghan government has not fulfilled its promise. No government that is unable to provide security to its population, and which is seen as corrupt and unjust, will be legitimate in the eyes of the population. It is this illegitimacy that has driven Afghans away from the government, and emboldened the insurgency.

Thus, the focus of our efforts to stabilize Afghanistan should not be exclusively, or even primarily, military. Instead, the real key to success in Afghanistan will be to reinvigorate critical efforts to promote Afghan leadership and capacity at all levels of society while combating the culture of impunity that is undermining the entire effort.

To overcome these challenges, and our own limitations, in addition to improving security we must do three things with our Afghan partners to rebalance our efforts: 1) radically prioritize what we want to accomplish; 2) address the culture of impunity and improve governance; 3) decentralize our efforts to reach the Afghan people; and 4) improve international coordination and effectiveness.

Prioritize. For too long we have been doing many things poorly instead of a few things well. In this critical year, it is essential to simultaneously scale back our objectives and intensify our resources. The U.S. and its partners should focus on security, governance and the rule of law, and delivery of basic economic development with a strong emphasis on agriculture.

Address Impunity and Improve Governance. The U.S. must act aggressively with its Afghan partners in the lead to break the cycle of impunity and corruption that is dragging all sides down and providing a hospitable environment for the insurgency. First, the Afghan President must demonstrate leadership on this issue, accompanied by the empowerment of an anti-corruption and serious crimes task force, independent of the government agencies it may be investigating. The international community must devote intelligence and investigative support, as well as the manpower to support dangerous raids. In the first few months, several high profile cases including the removal and/or prosecution of officials engaged in criminality, including government officials, should be highly publicized. The U.S. should approach this mission with the same vigor as other key elements of the counter-insurgency campaign.

Decentralize. A top-down, Kabul-centric strategy to address governance and economic development is mismatched for Afghanistan, one of the most highly decentralized societies in the world. The international community and the Afghan government must engage the capacity of the broader Afghan society, making them the engine of progress rather than unwilling subjects of rapid change. The new formula is one where the central government continues to ensure security and justice on the national level and uses its position to channel international assistance to promote good governance and development at the community level.

If international commitment to Afghanistan and the region can be sustained and local leadership empowered, the prospects for Afghanistan and its people carry with them the hopes of us all for a better, safer future.

J Alexander Thier, writing from Islamabad, is the Director for Afghanistan and Pakistan at the US Institute of Peace. He is co-author and editor of "The Future of Afghanistan" (USIP, 2009). He lived in Afghanistan for about 7 of the last 16 years, and travels there frequently.

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