A future Afghan strategy should place political objectives first

The war in Afghanistan is not going well, and prospects for a quick turnaround are slim. The good news is that the announcement by NATO in Lisbon of a 2014 deadline for the transition of security responsibility to Afghan forces helps calm fears of a precipitous international withdrawal and will hopefully refocus attention on achieving ...

BEHROUZ MEHRI/AFP/Getty Images
BEHROUZ MEHRI/AFP/Getty Images
BEHROUZ MEHRI/AFP/Getty Images

The war in Afghanistan is not going well, and prospects for a quick turnaround are slim. The good news is that the announcement by NATO in Lisbon of a 2014 deadline for the transition of security responsibility to Afghan forces helps calm fears of a precipitous international withdrawal and will hopefully refocus attention on achieving a durable peace in Afghanistan. The bad news is that the international community currently lacks a coherent strategy for how to use the additional time to bring about sustainable reconciliation amongst warring parties and genuine political reform.

Over the next year, serious attention must be paid to developing a political strategy for Afghanistan that will clarify the minimum conditions necessary to prevent the return of al Qaeda and establish a stable Afghan state that can sustain itself without extensive international intervention. Accordingly, more work must be done to develop an inclusive political process that accounts for a range of legitimate political interests within Afghanistan beyond those of President Hamid Karzai.

The war in Afghanistan is not going well, and prospects for a quick turnaround are slim. The good news is that the announcement by NATO in Lisbon of a 2014 deadline for the transition of security responsibility to Afghan forces helps calm fears of a precipitous international withdrawal and will hopefully refocus attention on achieving a durable peace in Afghanistan. The bad news is that the international community currently lacks a coherent strategy for how to use the additional time to bring about sustainable reconciliation amongst warring parties and genuine political reform.

Over the next year, serious attention must be paid to developing a political strategy for Afghanistan that will clarify the minimum conditions necessary to prevent the return of al Qaeda and establish a stable Afghan state that can sustain itself without extensive international intervention. Accordingly, more work must be done to develop an inclusive political process that accounts for a range of legitimate political interests within Afghanistan beyond those of President Hamid Karzai.

The need for an enhanced political strategy arises from the shortcomings of the current counterinsurgency-based plan of using military force to facilitate better Afghan governance. For that approach to work the insurgents’ safe havens in Pakistan must be eroded and the Afghan government must embrace its governance mandate and be seen as a legitimate authority in areas that have been cleared of insurgents. 

Unfortunately, after nine years of effort neither of these conditions is within reach. Pakistan is still hedging its bets by refusing to arrest or evict key leaders of the insurgency in North Waziristan, Quetta, and Karachi, or to help seal Afghanistan’s porous border. At the same time, the Karzai administration has repeatedly demonstrated  its unwillingness or inability to provide security, justice, and basic services for its people or to reduce the most blatant forms of cronyism and corruption.

The international community’s response has been to work harder and faster than before.  The military has tried to counter the Taliban’s regenerative capacity by stepping up efforts to kill or capture a critical mass of mid-level insurgent commanders. The "civilian surge" in turn funnels money and international personnel into conflict areas to try to shore up the Afghan government’s flagging credibility. Meanwhile, diplomatic attention remains solely focused on President Karzai and his cabinet — even though doing so still doesn’t prevent Karzai from denouncing the foreign troop presence or seeking to align himself more with Afghanistan’s neighbors than the West.

The concern among many Afghans is that the international community is empowering Karzai and his inner circle to negotiate a quick deal that is favorable to the Taliban and their supporters in Pakistan, but at the expense of Afghans who in large part oppose the Taliban and would suffer from its return to power. Indeed, the members of the so-called Peace Jirga in Kabul and the High Peace Council that resulted from it are largely Karzai loyalists or power brokers who, Afghans note, are far more experienced at waging war than making peace.

A more productive stabilization strategy would look beyond the individuals who currently control Afghanistan and examine the institutions and processes that determine how power is derived and where resources are distributed. The key issues that must be dealt with include:

  • The inequitable distribution of international aid and military contract money, which flows disproportionately to power-brokers in conflict areas;
  • The failure to provide justice for ordinary Afghans;
  • inattention to locally representative sub-national governance, which allows corrupt patronage networks linked to the central government to control decision making down to the district level;
  • under-representation of different tribes and ethnic groups in appointed government posts, particularly in the South and East; and
  • The lack of checks and balances between the executive and other branches of government, which enhances the President’s prerogatives at the expense of broader national interests.

Each of these thorny issues has been on the agenda for years, but repeatedly takes a back seat to policies that focus more on military priorities and achieving short-term stability. Yet Afghans pay far more attention to questions of justice, representation, and resources when considering whether or not to support a reconciliation deal with insurgents, rather than tactical metrics about battlefield gains or new government programs in a few key districts like Nawa or Marjah.

It is often stated that Afghans will ultimately decide to end the war according to a political process. But so far the international community’s strategy has been focused on supporting military operations and President Karzai’s own interests rather than achieving the a more balanced government or an inclusive peace process that will have broad Afghan support. The current military strategy is important, but its primary purpose should be to support a political strategy after the desired end-state has been made clear.

Scott Worden is a Senior Rule of Law Advisor at the U.S. Institute of Peace. He served as a Commissioner on the Electoral Complaints Commission during the 2009 Presidential election and was a legal advisor to the Joint Election Management Body during the 2005 Parliamentary election in Afghanistan.

More from Foreign Policy

An illustration shows George Kennan, the father of Cold War containment strategy.
An illustration shows George Kennan, the father of Cold War containment strategy.

Is Cold War Inevitable?

A new biography of George Kennan, the father of containment, raises questions about whether the old Cold War—and the emerging one with China—could have been avoided.

U.S. President Joe Biden speaks on the DISCLOSE Act.
U.S. President Joe Biden speaks on the DISCLOSE Act.

So You Want to Buy an Ambassadorship

The United States is the only Western government that routinely rewards mega-donors with top diplomatic posts.

Chinese President Xi jinping  toasts the guests during a banquet marking the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China on September 30, 2019 in Beijing, China.
Chinese President Xi jinping toasts the guests during a banquet marking the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China on September 30, 2019 in Beijing, China.

Can China Pull Off Its Charm Offensive?

Why Beijing’s foreign-policy reset will—or won’t—work out.

Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar chairs a meeting in Ankara, Turkey on Nov. 21, 2022.
Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar chairs a meeting in Ankara, Turkey on Nov. 21, 2022.

Turkey’s Problem Isn’t Sweden. It’s the United States.

Erdogan has focused on Stockholm’s stance toward Kurdish exile groups, but Ankara’s real demand is the end of U.S. support for Kurds in Syria.