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 Resources

Discontent among the U.S. public over the war is already at an all-time high. Increased political demands on the White House could lead U.S. President Barack Obama to accelerate the planned withdrawal. In turn, Congress would slash economic assistance. Reconstruction responsibilities in Afghanistan would be left largely to international institutions and the government in Kabul. Even if the European powers, Japan, and South Korea sustained modest economic assistance, they, too, would likely follow the U.S. out the door. The counterinsurgency mission would come to an end.

With a more limited involvement, the United States would still try to pursue basic counterterrorism operations. For example, it would deploy special forces and drone and air strikes, but obtaining bases of operation in the region for these forces might prove problematic, if not impossible. At Pakistan's request, the United States is already withdrawing from the Shamsi air base, which had been used for drone operations. The Central Asian states may be reluctant to make up for the loss of bases in Pakistan; Russia and China would likely encourage them to resist U.S. requests. And Kabul would be less willing to provide base access if Washington focuses narrowly on counterterrorism objectives without a commitment to state building in Afghanistan. That would leave the future of Afghanistan to be determined principally by two factors: the durability of the Afghan government and the outcome of regional rivalries.

After the Soviets left Afghanistan in 1989, the communist regime in Kabul unexpectedly held power for another three years. It was not until the Soviets abruptly cut off assistance—and key internal alliances frayed—that Mohammad Najibullah's regime in Kabul fell. The current Afghan government is more popular than Najibullah's was, but President Hamid Karzai's government is not without vulnerabilities and certainly would not be able to stand entirely on its own. 

Consider that a sharp U.S. drawdown would make nationwide elections, scheduled for 2014, almost impossible. Instead of the Afghan people, outside powers would likely determine the fate of the central government. Pakistan would probably accelerate its support for the insurgency in an attempt to install a client regime in Kabul. China, India, Iran, Russia, and the Gulf States would pursue their interests whether elections worked or not—by funneling support either to the Karzai government or, should it suit them, to favored proxies. In all likelihood, violence would dramatically increase and Afghanistan would, once again, be home to a vicious cycle of proxy wars.

For the United States, a rapid drawdown would have mixed consequences. On the plus side, U.S. troops would no longer be in harm's way, Congress would reallocate resources (albeit while accepting heavy losses in sunk costs), and the United States would have greater freedom of action to engage in other parts of the world.

On the negative side, terrorist sanctuaries would likely reemerge. The Taliban, the Haqqani network, and other extremists, infused with momentum, would make a renewed push for more control of the country. The United States would lose access to markets promised by the New Silk Road initiative, and it would not be able to establish enduring bases to help deal with problems in Pakistan, Iran, and the rest of a neighborhood that is, to put it mildly, dangerous.

The bottom line: After a decade's effort in blood and treasure, Afghanistan could face the 1990s all over again.

Future #2: Phased Drawdown and Internationalization of the Effort

Assuming the U.S. public and Congress allow Obama the political breathing room to pursue his announced strategy and dedicate attention and resources to Afghanistan for a bit longer, Washington would proceed with a drawdown of forces as planned, transferring security responsibility to the Afghans by 2014. The Obama administration could add a new feature to its strategy by seeking greater engagement from outside powers to stabilize Afghanistan.

Considering the significant interests of other major powers in Afghanistan, that prospect is not far-fetched. Russia and India have been the victims of terrorist attacks by groups linked to Afghanistan and Pakistan. China's western territories are vulnerable to Islamist extremists mixed with ethnic separatists. All stand to gain from either the economic growth from a New Silk Road plan or the vast mineral resources in the country. 

With more time, Washington could work with others to reach consensus on desired outcomes and a joint vision for Afghanistan. Collaborating with regional partners, they would exercise coordinated influence over Pakistan and Iran to stem conflict and bring about some modicum of cooperation. China has major influence in Islamabad, and the combined efforts of China, India, and Russia could sway Tehran.

Regional cooperation amid a phased U.S. pullback is most likely to succeed if the UN, with U.S. support, establishes an enduring diplomatic forum, consisting initially of the major world powers, to work toward promoting Afghan peace and regional stability. Washington would use such a body as a vehicle for accommodating outside powers in the decision-making process but only if they contribute their fair share to the mission. Such a great power concert would negotiate redlines for the activities of regional powers in Afghanistan; monitor the Afghan reconciliation process; pressure the Afghan government to improve governance and the rule of law; provide long-term funding for economic development and the buildup and training of Afghan national army and police forces; and finally, construct infrastructure—roads, railroads, pipelines—to establish the new Silk Road connecting Central and South Asia into a single economic zone. The concert would enable major powers to preserve their core interests in Afghanistan while creating the conditions needed to stabilize the country.

Even with greater involvement of outside powers, however, U.S. efforts to internationalize the mission will not succeed without a sustained level of U.S. military and civilian engagement. While the UN would facilitate the concert, the United States is the sole power capable of galvanizing and incentivizing international cooperation behind economic integration and a regional settlement. Great powers are only likely to cooperate so long as they feel that free riding is no longer an option and that cooperation with a U.S.-backed regional design remains the most viable means of securing their national interests. Without a real commitment from Washington, the best plans will fail.

The perception that the United States wishes to disengage from the region is already impeding the coalition's ability to influence key players. After all, during periods of ascendant influence, Washington was never able to persuade Pakistan to cease support for insurgents in Afghanistan. Relations with Karzai, meanwhile, have become difficult, with the coalition struggling to persuade his government to tackle corruption. Disengagement is likely to make these problems worse, as government leaders worry about their own futures.

Future #3: Sustained, Determined U.S. Engagement

A determined U.S. strategy would maintain a high level of military and civilian engagement in Afghanistan until the Kabul government is capable of policing its own territory. Washington would negotiate with the Afghan government on a long-term strategic partnership, including a sustained military presence for the foreseeable future. It could be complemented by a multilateral effort to create a great power concert to stabilize Afghanistan and the region. 

U.S. engagement would need to concentrate on three goals. First, it would have to force Islamabad's hand to shift its policy from supporting the Taliban, the Haqqani network, and other insurgents to facilitating a political settlement. Washington would have to offer Pakistan a variety of inducements, while addressing legitimate Pakistani concerns—for instance, by offering a guarantee that Afghan territory is not used as a staging ground for attacks against Pakistan. 

If Pakistan does not cooperate, however, Washington would escalate coercive tactics, dramatically reducing military assistance, curtailing support programs to Pakistan through international financial institutions such as the International Monetary Fund, and increasing military operations against insurgent targets on Pakistani territory.

If this effort fails, the United States should explore a long-term effort to contain, isolate, and transform Pakistan into a more stable, moderate state. This would require a sizeable presence of residual U.S. and allied forces in Afghanistan to harden the Afghan state and conduct cross-border operations on Pakistani soil. The United States would also need to enhance bilateral relations with India and strengthen Afghan security forces to the point where they can withstand Pakistan's possible escalation of pressure. These moves would give Kabul and New Delhi sufficient leverage to negotiate a reasonable agreement with Islamabad. 

Second, the United States would improve the capacity of the Afghan state. It would need to continue counterinsurgency operations, conditioning its drawdown on the ability of Afghan security forces to take over. Washington would continue to push for international assistance but would need to assume greater and even unilateral responsibility to build up and train Afghanistan's national army and police.

On the political front, the United States would need to persuade the Afghan government to deal with corruption and the rule of law. Significant progress on governance issues should be linked to the completion of negotiations with the Afghan government on a strategic partnership agreement governing the post-2014 U.S. presence. If real progress is not made on the governance front, the same objective will need to be pursued by strengthening pro-reform forces in the country so that they can influence the results of the next presidential elections in 2014. 

Third, Washington would pursue a positive vision for the region based on economic integration and the establishment of a New Silk Road. Preferably in conjunction with allies, the United States would strengthen Afghan institutions. While a certain amount of aid will be necessary during a transitional period, the objective would be Afghan self-reliance. Engagement with the private sector would help Afghanistan develop its agriculture sector and mineral resources. And proactive U.S. diplomacy would be the critical factor in commencing negotiations to reduce trade barriers and develop roads, rails, pipelines, and other infrastructure projects.

For now, sustained U.S. engagement is the strategy most likely to ensure regional security. Heavy combat operations need not continue indefinitely, but core U.S. interests would require the U.S. to remain in Afghanistan for another decade to build up and train Afghan forces, conduct counterterrorism operations, and respond to regional contingencies. By and large, the Obama administration has embraced a determined U.S. strategy in Afghanistan. Now, it should explain the imperative of getting the endgame right. Cementing a long-term U.S. and NATO presence in Afghanistan would enable counterterrorism missions in the region and give Afghanistan's national security forces enough time to reach a sufficient size and capacity to assume responsibility from the coalition. The United States would have a platform for dealing with a variety of regional contingencies, such as a Pakistani state collapse in which nuclear weapons fall into the hands of extremists.

Most important, a demonstration of U.S. willpower provides the greatest hope for preventing counterproductive hedging by Afghan political players and regional powers, leaving them no choice but to accommodate the reality of a strong and stable Afghanistan with political and military ties to the United States.

Of Any Future

Regardless of which approach, or combination of approaches, the United States ultimately pursues, Washington must plan for a wide number of contingencies.

Even in a positive scenario—in which the United States makes progress on key priorities such as counterterrorism, managing Pakistan, reconstruction, governance reforms, and a regional settlement—consolidating gains will require other forms of U.S. engagement for some time to come. The military component would be a much smaller part of the U.S. strategy, while the relative role of diplomacy and economic involvement would increase. 

Since World War II, U.S. statecraft has succeeded by sending American forces to regions of critical importance and working with partners—for decades if needed—to address mutual threats, build stability, and foster progress.

This formula eliminated major power wars in Europe and East Asia for more than a half century and successfully concluded the Cold War—a historic triumph. The necessary engagement in Central and South Asia will not be nearly as difficult or expensive as those previous efforts, which involved U.S. occupation governments and a military presence large enough to counter the looming communist threat. Given the risks and the opportunities ahead, it is an investment worth making.

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.

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  • ZALMAY KHALILZAD was U.S. Permanent Representative to the United Nations from 2007 to 2009, U.S. Ambassador to Iraq from 2005 to 2007, and U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan from 2004 to 2005.
  • More By Zalmay Khalilzad