Courtesy Reuters

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

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