The Three Futures for Afghanistan

Why the Country Needs a Long-Term Commitment From the United States

This piece was published as part of The Future of Afghanistan and U.S. Foreign Policy, a collaboration between the Chicago Project on Security and Terrorism and ForeignAffairs.com. (Photo: The U.S. Army / flickr)

Ten years after the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, the gains that the international coalition has made with its local partners are real but reversible. Afghanistan is no longer a global hub of terrorist activity, but a Taliban resurgence would threaten to make it one again. Reconstruction assistance has produced demonstrable progress in health, education, and economic well-being, but corruption and governance problems have undermined popular support for the government in Kabul and constrained the overall level of progress. Internationally, a coalition still backs the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) military mission. However, NATO's will is waning; China, Russia, and India are largely free riders; and Pakistan and Iran publicly say the right things, while destabilizing Afghanistan by privately meddling to their own ends.

Political and economic realities in the United States make the current level of American engagement in Afghanistan unsustainable. But as the commitment of coalition partners fades, what Washington decides will shape the future of South Asia. Looking ahead, there are three different scenarios for American engagement in Afghanistan.

It remains to be seen exactly which route Washington will take. But it is clear that U.S. interests require a long-term commitment not only in Afghanistan but across the region. Lest it be forgotten, the consequences of ignoring the region in the 1990s were visited upon the United States on 9/11. So the most vital goals today are defeating the remnants of al Qaeda in Pakistan, preventing the reemergence of terrorist sanctuaries in Afghanistan, ensuring the security of Pakistan's nuclear weapons, and discouraging Pakistan's use of extremism and terror as a policy instrument. 

There are three ways forward. Each entails a different degree of involvement and carries varying risks and rewards. The first option is the riskiest.

Future #1: Immediate Departure and the Reallocation of

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