How a Great Power Falls Apart
Decline Is Invisible From the Inside
President Barack Obama's announcement in June of the beginning of a troop withdrawal from Afghanistan was taken in both Washington and Kabul as a sign of the United States' reduced commitment to Afghanistan. His brief speech -- with its minimized objectives, not a single mention of Afghan President Hamid Karzai, and focus on "nation-building at home" -- left the impression that the withdrawal was calculated with only U.S. interests in mind, and that those interests are increasingly incongruent with Afghanistan's.
This need not be the case: in fact, the U.S. withdrawal may be the very best chance for a stable, self-sufficient Afghanistan. The departure of international troops could provide incentives for Kabul to provide better governance while depriving the Taliban of some of its sources of moral and material support. This could leave Afghanistan even more secure than if the troops were to remain indefinitely.
To understand why this is the case, it is important to examine how the Taliban insurgency has proved so viable up to now. In the years after U.S. forces drove the Taliban from power in 2001, many Afghans increasingly lost confidence in the government of Hamid Karzai and began to resent the regime's international backers. By 2006, the Taliban had undeniably reemerged as a military and, in some areas, a political force. After initially denying that the Taliban resurgence was sustainable, Washington and its NATO allies responded in two ways: by deploying more troops (in 2007, there were 25,000 U.S. troops in the country; by the end of 2009, there were 67,000, and by the end of 2010, there were 97,000) and by calling for improved civil-military cooperation to win Afghan "hearts and minds."
By 2010, as even the previously stable parts of the country became the sites of regular Taliban attacks, it was clear that neither strategy had worked. The United States then added two new elements: the reintegration of low-level Taliban fighters, who ostensibly joined the insurgency for economic rather than ideological reasons, and an openness to negotiations with the Taliban leadership to find a "political solution" that would end the conflict.
Yet even taken together these four policies are not so much a strategy as a mishmash of often misjudged reactions to events. It is time to make them more coherent; the beginning of a troop withdrawal might provide exactly that opportunity.
To begin with, Washington must accept that the large international military presence in Afghanistan contributes to the viability of the insurgency. The political economy that has arisen around the U.S. and NATO military presence in Afghanistan in many ways benefits the Taliban. In just one example, the contract to provide supplies to U.S. troops by truck was more than $2 billion in 2009, even before the troop surge. Although some of the funds that have gone to pay for such services have helped build Afghanistan's legal economy, much has likely ended up in Taliban coffers, funneled through Afghan security companies that pay Taliban fighters not to attack convoys under their protection. Put simply, insecurity creates rents -- a number of relatives of senior Afghan government officials operate private security companies whose economic viability depends on the lack of public security.
At the same time, the very presence of international troops in Afghanistan is a major propaganda boon for the Taliban. The Taliban has learned to downplay its unpopular religious ideology and instead has sought to project itself as the defender of national honor. This approach has far wider appeal and plays on the frustration that many Afghans increasingly feel toward a foreign military presence that neither provides security nor seems to end. In particular, Afghan civilian deaths caused by U.S. and NATO military operations strengthen the Taliban and worsen the relationship between Karzai and his international backers.
The large international contingent also encourages a lack of responsibility among those who are the nominal representatives of the Afghan government. Since Afghans, even those high up in government, have little influence over U.S. and NATO military operations -- and since the foreign military presence provides a convenient scapegoat -- Afghan politicians have managed to profit from Westerners while blaming them for the country's insecurity. There is no incentive for them to take charge.
Additionally, development funds spent directly by the military for hearts and minds projects distort the local political economy in ways that contribute to instability. They often create specific enemies by inadvertently favoring one side or another of a tribal rivalry, while generating resentment because they undermine local government structures and are often being unsustainable.
Overall, the international presence has created financial and political incentives that strengthen the Taliban while doing little to encourage Afghans to fight for and build an alternative Afghanistan. Washington, then, should use the opportunity of its troop withdrawal to think about how its policies can best empower and encourage Afghans to ensure that their country remains stable and secure as U.S. forces begin to leave.
First, as part of ongoing talks between Washington and Kabul on the nature of the long-term U.S.-Afghan partnership, both sides should identify and agree on what resources the Afghan government needs to survive after the U.S. withdrawal. By all accounts, the United States wants a deal quickly, and the main sticking point is balancing Washington's desire for long-term military bases with Kabul's need for long-term financial support. But these talks should not be rushed and should not be conducted as an exchange of cash for bases. Instead, the United States should push for clear commitments from the Afghan government on governance reforms, beginning with resolutions of the Kabul Bank and 2010 parliamentary election crises, in exchange for long-term U.S. financial support. The beginning of the troop withdrawal is a powerful signal that the U.S. commitment is not open-ended -- and this signal should be made even stronger by clarifying the U.S. conditions for long-term support.
A further benefit of such a negotiation would be to make the United States' long-term interests clear to countries in the region. Not everyone there will be happy with the outcome, but the current uncertainty about U.S. intentions causes every important actor -- Pakistan, Iran, the Taliban, the drug lords, and semi-loyal subnational leaders -- to make short-term material calculations rather than long-term political ones.
Second, Afghan security forces need to demonstrate that they can lead successful military offensives against the Taliban. Despite the ongoing weakness of the Afghan military, the surge has led to an improvement in its quality. The size of the force cannot sustained without money from the international community; as such, Afghan security forces will collapse if soldiers and police believe that a withdrawal of Western financial support is imminent. This perception must be avoided. It is worth remembering that the Soviet-backed government in Kabul fell in 1992, when Soviet subsidies ended, and not in 1989, when Soviet troops withdrew.
Third, the United States should align its withdrawal with the transition conditions agreed upon at the Lisbon summit of heads of state of those countries contributing troops to ISAF in November 2010. The Lisbon plan calls for Afghan provinces and districts to be gradually handed over to full Afghan control, with decreasing assistance from ISAF. This plan may be optimistic, but it is more coherent than the jumble of policies that have marked the past half decade. The agreements made in Lisbon are primarily focused on security but include political and economic metrics -- for example, the ability of the local government to manage public administration and sustain socio-economic development. And the framework already has a consultative mechanism, the Joint Afghan-NATO Inteqal Board, which can be used to gauge progress and to provide constant Afghan feedback.
Unfortunately, Washington has already lost its first opportunity to gain advantage from a troop withdrawal. Obama's announcement made the Afghan government look weaker by making it seem as if troops are withdrawing on U.S. terms and in pursuit of U.S. interests, rather than as part of a joint strategy building on past progress and based on future commitments. The announcement should have been preceded by discussions with the Afghans -- if only for the sake of appearances.
By removing any possibility that Karzai could share credit for an ordered withdrawal, Washington has handed the Taliban another propaganda victory. The Taliban can argue that the withdrawal proves their long-standing point that Karzai is so illegitimate that even his international partners no longer stand by him. This will probably strengthen the Taliban resolve to keep fighting, rather than enter into a negotiation process with the Afghan government.
Critics of Obama's timetable for the U.S. drawdown have argued that it will not allow the military to consolidate its recent gains against the Taliban. The real long-term threats to the consolidation of these gains, however, are the weakness of the government, the privatization of political forces around an unsustainable war economy, and the growing perception among Afghans that international forces are contributing to insecurity rather than security. If Washington conducts its Afghan withdrawal with an eye toward creating a long-term program of support for the government, removing some of the more damaging side effects of the foreign military presence, and using the clarity of intentions to shape the incentives that currently encourage political and financial irresponsibility, the United States could very well maintain its commitment to a stable Afghanistan even as it begins to pull out its troops.