Ronald E. Neumann

Stephen Hadley and John Podesta accurately describe Washington’s policy dilemmas and preferred outcomes in Afghanistan (“The Right Way Out of Afghanistan,” July/August 2012). They correctly note the deep dysfunction of the current Afghan government and convincingly argue for a U.S. policy that relies on more than just military force. They are also right that although some U.S. financial support and troop presence in Afghanistan will be required after 2014, Washington’s current commitments to the country are unsustainable. 

What they fail to account for, however, is that the United States can bring about a stable Afghanistan only if it looks beyond the timeline of transition and focuses more on the reality in which its policies must operate. Hadley and Podesta overestimate what can realistically be accomplished in two years and ignore the dangers of trying to speed negotiations. They call for a synchronized transition strategy “that presses for a more legitimate Afghan government, a political settlement among the broad range of Afghan actors outside the current system (including those Taliban elements willing to participate), and a regional settlement that involves Pakistan.” But these goals exceed Washington’s means and might even increase its difficulties. To judge how much is possible requires looking as much at Afghan realities as at U.S. policy requirements. 

Afghan governance is deeply flawed. Kabul’s excessive corruption, favoritism, and lack of accountability are alienating many Afghans and providing fodder for Taliban propaganda. Yet repeated efforts by the United States to improve this situation have had little effect. Before pushing yet another American-made solution, Washington needs to understand why its past attempts at reform have failed and how it has sometimes made the situation worse.

Hadley and Podesta decry Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s reliance on political appointments and spoils to maintain his alliances and consolidate his power. But Karzai has few other tools at his disposal. He does not have ultimate say over the use of force in his country; the United States does. He has little money. He does not control the parliament, which is itself a weak institution consisting of power-hungry individuals rather than mature political parties. Before Karzai can fire corrupt officials, he needs to know that he can count on reliable U.S. support until a new political culture takes root. 

Current U.S. policies offer no such reassurance. The Obama administration’s public criticism of Kabul has confused many Afghans, leading them to believe that Washington wants to replace Karzai. Feeling abandoned, Karzai has relied more and more on corrupt supporters to sustain his position. The U.S. intervention in Afghanistan’s 2009 election had a similar effect. Washington encouraged politicians outside of Karzai’s circle to run against him, signaling that it wanted the president to lose, but it did nothing to actually oust him. This episode only increased Karzai’s distrust of Washington while teaching him, as a result of his victory, that he could successfully stand up to U.S. pressure. This lesson will make it harder to prod him in the future. 

By repeatedly discussing withdrawal dates, the Obama administration has only made matters worse. Many Afghans I have met in recent years, including government officials, opposition politicians, civil-society leaders, and military officers, have expressed the belief that virtually all U.S. troops will leave by 2014, that Afghan forces won’t be ready to take charge when they do, and that chaos will follow. This fear has encouraged Afghan leaders from Karzai on down to hedge their bets and do whatever they can to assure their survival. Rather than fighting corruption, they are tightening their patronage linkages, preparing for civil war, and trying to make or steal as much money as possible in the event that they need to flee.

What all this means is that, paradoxically, the more Washington rushes and attempts to synchronize all aspects of the transition, the more it undermines its own goals. This is especially true when it comes to negotiations with the Taliban. The redoubled U.S. effort “to establish a road map for negotiations” that Hadley and Podesta advocate might sound reasonable in Washington. In Afghanistan, it appears rife with contradictions. The Taliban are resisting negotiating with Karzai; the non-Pashtun groups in the country trust neither the United States nor the Karzai administration and say they are prepared to fight rather than accept Taliban control. Washington is trying to mediate between these conflicting sides, but it is also a party to the negotiations. This merging of conflicting roles—mediator and combatant—causes Afghans to distrust Washington and fear that it will pursue its own interests instead of fairly arbitrating their disputes.

Above all, Hadley and Podesta err in their call for haste. A number of internal conflicts, from El Salvador to Namibia, have been resolved by negotiations. But each process took many years. If the United States is seen as rushing for the exits, the Afghan insurgents will most likely refuse to participate in negotiations unless Washington offers them a better deal—namely, a U.S. withdrawal with few protections for the government. With the insurgents holding out for a settlement only on their own terms, Washington would then be forced to choose between a weak agreement providing a fig leaf for its abandonment of the country, a total failure of negotiations, and the indefinite engagement of U.S. combat troops.

These are all bad options born of haste—something the region’s powers understand well and that has led them to conclude that Washington lacks commitment to its stated goals. Without firm U.S. backing, Afghanistan will not see the kind of sustainable “regional settlement” that Hadley and Podesta advocate. Pakistan and Iran will expect any agreement to be violated on all sides and will move to reinforce their proxies inside Afghanistan. 

Hadley and Podesta’s objectives make sense. But to achieve them, Washington must focus not just on getting to 2014 but also on what comes after. To their credit, the authors recognize that some forces and financial aid will be necessary beyond 2014. And the Obama administration has sought to convince the Afghans, the insurgents, and regional powers that NATO and the United States will not bolt after 2014. Yet the constant talk of departure dates undercuts the credibility of Washington’s recent agreements to maintain a presence in the country. If Washington wants Pakistan and the Taliban to negotiate seriously, it must stop sending mixed signals.

Convincing others that Washington will not allow the Afghan government to collapse or the insurgents to win requires broadening the emphasis of policy beyond Hadley and Podesta’s focus on 2014. The paradox is that trying to accomplish too much before 2014 will reduce the chances that the United States can ultimately withdraw without defeat. Rapid drawdowns of U.S. forces will undercut the plausibility of the United States’ recent pledges and squander an opportunity to improve the quality of the Afghan military. Washington should therefore commit to some level of troop presence beyond 2014 and continue to emphasize that its financial promises to Afghanistan will be kept. 

Such moves will not sit well with the war-weary American people, and neither the president nor his Republican opponent, Mitt Romney, can be expected to commit to them before November. But the challenges will all be waiting after the U.S. presidential election. And in order to secure a modicum of success from its experience in Afghanistan, the United States will still need a policy that pays close attention to the realities on the ground.

RONALD E. NEUMANN was U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan in 2005–7 and is the author of The Other War: Winning and Losing in Afghanistan.



Our essay argued that given the reality on the ground in Afghanistan, a U.S. strategy dominated by security concerns alone will not produce a stable country with a legitimate government. The United States therefore needs to focus more on the political and economic elements of the transition and synchronize them with the current plan to hand over security responsibility to Kabul in 2014. Only in this way can there be a chance for a peaceful and sustainable settlement to the conflict in Afghanistan, one that avoids a continued insurgency or a return to civil war.

An important goal of the integrated strategy that we advocate is to ensure that Afghanistan holds an election in 2014 that leads to a more legitimate national government. President Hamid Karzai is constitutionally ineligible to run for reelection in 2014, and despite Ronald Neumann’s sympathetic description of the political challenges that Karzai faces, Neumann himself observes that the Afghan government is plagued by “excessive corruption, favoritism, and [a] lack of accountability.” So the political transition in 2014 is essential, and U.S. policy must aim to ensure that it succeeds. 

Unless Afghanistan undertakes the kinds of electoral reforms and political outreach we recommend, its upcoming presidential and parliamentary elections will likely produce a government with little legitimacy. Such a government would not be able to carry out the primary security responsibility it is scheduled to assume beginning in 2014. This failure would be catastrophic not just for the United States but also, particularly, for Afghanistan, which might see a repeat of the disastrous civil war of the 1990s.

The goals we suggest for the political transition may be challenging to achieve, but they are not, as Neumann charges, an “American-made solution.” They are the policies that many Afghans recommended to a bipartisan working group we chaired in 2011–12 on U.S. policy toward Afghanistan. These goals are important, therefore, not only because of “U.S. policy requirements” but also, and especially, because of “Afghan realities.”

Neumann is right that stability in Afghanistan will require continued U.S. engagement beyond 2014. That is why we so strongly supported the signing of the U.S.-Afghan strategic partnership agreement, in which the United States committed to a long-term diplomatic, economic, and security relationship with Afghanistan. The United States and the international community have now pledged at least a decade of financial support to Afghanistan, and the United States has made a troop commitment past 2014, the exact size of which has yet to be determined.

If the political and security transitions of 2014 do not go smoothly, the Afghan people will not have the time that both we and Neumann believe they need to bring stability to the country. Our insistence that Washington focus on the transitions was not, as Neumann claims, an ill-advised “call for haste.” It was based on a realistic analysis of the consequences for the long term if the existing plans and timetables already agreed on by Afghanistan, the United States, and the international community are not carried out successfully.

When it comes to outreach to the Taliban, Neumann criticizes an approach that is not our own. We share his assessment of the risks and the need for caution. So we proposed testing the willingness of some elements of the Taliban to leave the insurgency and enter the political process. The Afghan government must lead this process, in the context of a broader political outreach to all of Afghan society. Proceeding this way would help relieve the Afghan public’s understandable anxieties about engaging with the Taliban. Washington should harbor no illusions about the prospects for a peaceful settlement. But now is the time to test the waters, while the Afghan government still has the benefit of tens of thousands of international troops in the country.

At the end of the day, of course, the United States cannot “bring about a stable Afghanistan.” Only the Afghans can do that.

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