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Why the U.S. Can’t Abandon Afghanistan

These five principles should guide the U.S.-Afghan relationship after 2014.

AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

With Afghan President Hamid Karzai in Washington this week, he brings with him plenty of good news, as well as a long list of grievances. A skilled politician, he will try to project an optimistic picture of Afghanistan’s ongoing security transition, Pakistani cooperation with peace negotiations, the Taliban’s willingness to embracing politics over terror, and preparations for the 2014 presidential election. Most Afghans and regional actors, however, do not share his optimism — but nor do they share Washington’s growing defeatism and exhaustion.

Afghanistan is changing rapidly for the better. It is more developed, prosperous, democratic, and safe than at any other time in modern history. But this progress is also vulnerable to reversal. Uncertainty about the U.S. exit in 2014 has enveloped numerous constituencies — both inside and outside of Afghanistan — and spawned a series of hedging strategies that threaten to upend the transition.

Declarations about the need for Afghans to "stand on their own two feet" aside, the United States remains indispensible both to Afghanistan’s successful transition and the stability and prosperity of the surrounding region. Moreover, it was Washington’s earlier shortsighted policies — first in supporting violent extremist groups, and then in abandoning the country — which contributed to the destruction of the Afghan state and the immense suffering of the Afghan people. But the West’s moral and legal responsibility to Afghanistan extends back even farther, to the corrosive Cold War rivalries of the 20th century and the so-called Great Game a century earlier.

Today, Afghanistan still stands at the global epicenter of terrorism in all its manifestations — from ethno-terrorism and narco-terrorism to state-sponsored terrorism and even possible nuclear terrorism. But it is also situated at the epicenter of enormous economic opportunity. The regions of South and Central Asia, western China, and eastern Iran remain among the least connected and least prosperous regions of the world — despite possessing immense natural and human resources. Stability in Afghanistan is the key to unlocking the region’s strategic potential.

Instead of devoting this week’s presidential visit to empty rhetoric and unsubstantiated declarations, the two presidents should attempt to reduce the uncertainty surrounding the transition by securing concrete agreements. In doing so, they should consider five mutually supportive principles that could form the basis of post-2014 Afghan-U.S. relations: deterrence, development, diplomacy, democracy, and devolution.


More than a decade of war has left the United States deeply polarized about the merits of using force to achieve political objectives. But the United States must resist the temptation to move from one extreme, where the military was seen as the solution to all problems, to another extreme, where it gives up its ability to deter its adversaries and reassure its allies altogether. Deterrence requires projecting resolve, perseverance, and commitment. This, in turn, requires at least some military capability — though military capability by no means ensures effective deterrence. Strategy matters, too. 

In the aftermath of the Taliban’s collapse, the United States successfully deterred terrorists and their regional supporters with less than 1,000 troops. But it failed to do the same with nearly 100,000 troops in the later stages of its engagement. Potential military gains associated with the "surge" were effectively neutralized by the announcement of a 2014 deadline to withdraw American troops and U.S. efforts to woo Taliban negotiators. Both of these decisions — and American willingness to cave to Pakistani brinkmanship — conveyed U.S. exhaustion, desperation, and unreliability. 

Deterrence is not anathema to dialogue with the enemy. Rather, it’s the leverage that is necessary for meaningful peace negotiations. Deterrence is also about moral credibility and integrity, particularly in the eyes of allies and friends. For example, protecting fragile achievements on women’s rights is critical to preserving America’s moral high ground. For the patriarchal Afghan political class and misogynist Taliban, women’s rights would be the first to auction if the United States backs down. Backing away from this principle will also only invite stronger future challenges to Afghanistan’s fragile achievements in human rights, democratic governance, and international cooperation.


For years, Afghanistan has been a security black hole and a battleground for competing interests. But it also has the potential to catalyze greater regional cooperation and integration. In order to achieve that potential, it needs the cooperation — either active or passive — of its neighbors and allies. From neighbors like Pakistan, Afghanistan needs non-interference, and from allies like the United States, it needs assistance with stabilization and reconstruction.

Projects like the "New Silk Route," "Istanbul Process," and the "Heart of Asia" initiative remain at the public-diplomacy stage. The United States must help translate these visions into concrete projects; examples include expediting the establishment of the Trans-Afghanistan natural gas pipeline and connecting Afghanistan’s railroad networks into the region. 

The region is fearful that Afghanistan will relapse into its violent past, possibly dragging its neighbors with it. Washington and the rest of the international community share such concerns. But so far, U.S. regional diplomacy has primarily followed immediate military objectives, engaging trouble-makers like Pakistan and the Taliban. Likewise, India, China, the Central Asian Republics, Russia, and Iran — all of whom would benefit from a stable Afghanistan as well as deeper regional cooperation — have not been sufficiently engaged. 

The recently launched India-U.S.-Afghanistan trilateral dialogue offers huge potential, as does the U.S.-China dialogue on security in South Asia. Iran-U.S.-Afghanistan offers another possibility for dialogue. Both Kabul and Tehran have already indicated their interest for such an initiative and Washington appears open to — or at least curious about — the possibility.  It’s time for Washington to adopt a more creative approach to diplomacy — one that looks beyond immediate security imperatives and engages the diverse set of actors with an interest in Afghanistan. 


Just as American commitment has wavered between President George W. Bush’s promise of a "Marshal Plan for Afghanistan" and President Barack Obama’s call for "nation-building at home," the reconstruction and development of Afghanistan has seen mixed results. Afghanistan’s progress on most political, economic, and social indicators during the last 10 years has been unprecedented in modern history. But there is still an enormous gulf between inputs and outputs. The United States has poured roughly $20 billion in aid money into the country since 2001, but nearly one-third of the population still lives below the poverty line.

Moreover, there is no credible and sustainable plan for economic development, despite rapid urbanization and population growth. If Afghanistan fails to provide employment for its growing youth population, it risks igniting a semi-urbanized insurgency to go with its already crippling rural and proxy insurgencies. USAID’s post-conflict development models pose significant challenges because they rely heavily on private contractors, handouts, and short-term thinking, with an unacceptable lack of oversight and accountability. America’s post-war reconstruction of Europe, Japan, and South Korea, by contrast, was driven by political objectives, strategic vision, and efficient implementation. In Afghanistan, corporate greed has been a significant driver and the main beneficiary.

The reconstruction and sustainable development of Afghanistan requires political leadership with an inclusive and participatory model, involving the private sector through international financial institutions and direct financial subsidies, such as a sovereign guarantee. Afghanistan is endowed with three significant assets: its geostrategic location as a land bridge between the Central Asia, South Asia, West Asia and China; its rich mineral resources; and its young, resilient, and entrepreneurial population. The United States must help Afghanistan convert these important assets into sustainable development by promoting good governance, education, and infrastructure projects.


The collapse of the Taliban’s regime in 2011 marked the beginning of Afghanistan’s third democratic experiment. The first was initiated by the enlightened monarch Amanullah Khan, who introduced the first constitution in the Islamic world in the early 20th century. The second decade of democracy — in the late 1960s and early 1970s — saw the rise of political parties and independent media. But both were derailed by a combination of internal and external factors, which now threaten Afghanistan’s third democratic experiment.

Despite the steady proliferation of media and civil society organizations, state institutions are being captured by a combination of "necktie Taliban," narco-mafia, and ethnic entrepreneurs. At the same time, there is a growing sense of disempowerment among the silent majority. Rather than pursuing a legalistic approach which prioritizes formal institutions, the United States must empower and widen the civic space in Afghanistan by confronting abusive powerbrokers who have captured much of the state and economy.

In reality, the current peace process is premised on reconciling the narco-elite with a narco/proxy-insurgency. But sustainable peace can only be attained by empowering the silent majority and building space for civil society and good governance. The Afghan youth, who constitute the vast majority of the population, could be the country’s most promising agents of change — but we must invest in them.

Likewise, the country’s democratic institutions must not be undermined by its leaders. Obama should use his meeting with Karzai to state in categorical terms the indispensability of the Afghan constitution and electoral process. Karzai must be discouraged from creating a Putin-type model by manipulating the process and the outcome of the presidential election in 2014. A discredited and contested election would threaten the integrity of Afghanistan as a united polity. Washington should not be misled by an overly optimistic portrayal of the country’s election preparation — and likely outcome. While remaining neutral toward all eligible presidential candidates, the United States should reassure Afghan stakeholders of its concern for the credibility and integrity of and the country’s electoral institutions.  


Afghanistan continues to suffer from a number of interrelated governance challenges: weak institutions, powerful personalities, a highly rigid top-down bureaucracy, authoritarian political culture, and a Machiavellian president with unprecedented constitutional powers. The country’s economic recovery, state-building, national reconciliation, social progress, and the peace process have all been set back by these impediments. Addressing these challenges requires rebalancing the distribution of power between and among different organs and regions within the country.

The devolution of authority should also make the Afghan state more inclusive, opening up the stabilization, reconstruction, development, national reconciliation, and peace-building processes to a wider array of constituencies. This would give Afghan citizens a greater stake in government, while at the same time disempowering the fewer than 300 individuals who have captured the Afghan state, its economy, and international patronage.  

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Despite its understandable disillusion with a lack of sufficient progress in Afghanistan, Washington must not relapse into an isolationist corner. Afghanistan is simply too important to lose, both symbolically and politically; it is the key to winning the global struggle against Jihadist terrorism and stabilizing the increasingly chaotic Islamic world. As the place where East and West first coexisted peacefully under the Greco-Bactrian civilization, Afghanistan also has the potential to facilitate regional integration, building a more harmonious and prosperous Central and South Asia and protecting Western national security. But all of this depends on America’s continued engagement. 

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