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Exploding ordnance amid the poppy fields of Kandahar Province. (Baz Ratner / Courtesy Reuters)
If there is to be a viable way forward in Afghanistan -- one that can reconcile on-the-ground developments with American timelines for withdrawal -- Washington has to start talking about tradeoffs. Both President Barack Obama and U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan Ryan Crocker have publicly assured Afghans that the United States will not repeat the mistakes of the 1990s, when the world left the country to its own devices. The result, of course, was civil war and Taliban rule. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has vowed to Afghan women, "We will not abandon you." Washington has also agreed to continue economic and social assistance to help make Afghanistan's gains "self-sustaining" past the U.S. withdrawal in 2014.
But no one works under the illusion that U.S. forces would re-enter Afghanistan to protect women's rights. And the president is already framing investing in Afghanistan as a tradeoff with "nation building at home," which makes it difficult to envision sustained, long-term funding for programs in Afghanistan that create jobs and keep children in school.
Yet tradeoffs were absent from the president's address from Bagram Air Base on May 1. The administration must come clean about what international forces can and can't execute before world leaders assemble later this month at the NATO summit in Chicago to discuss the future of Afghanistan. If this gathering is to be more than an exchange of lofty speeches and question-riddled commitments, it is time to take a hard and realistic look at the promises that the United States and others are making to Afghanistan -- and whether they are too big to keep.
In the Presidential Palace in Central Kabul last week, Obama sat down with Afghan President Hamid Karzai to sign a strategic partnership agreement between Afghanistan and the United States, establishing a road map for the future. In it, Obama affirmed the United States' commitment to direct financial support to Afghanistan's economic development. But whether the U.S. Congress will continue to underwrite such funding is far from certain, since dollars will have to be approved each year through the traditional congressional appropriations process. Presumably there will be no funding workaround possible, since Overseas Contingency Operations funding will likely end in 2014. To add insult to injury, many, including several people in the President's own party, have already turned away -- in 2010, more than 100 House Democrats voted against funding the war in Afghanistan. And the Iraq example shows what happens when fatigue is high and the spotlight is off: in both Fiscal Years 2011 and 2012, Congress halved the money requested for Iraqi police training.
In the United States, the war's popularity has fallen steadily since Obama entered office, reaching a nadir in April, when only 30 percent of Americans polled said that the war in Afghanistan "has been worth fighting." In the coming months, and, should he win a second term, the coming years, Obama will have to expend political capital to convince the American public that the billions poured into South Asia are an investment in global security, not a zero-sum game that needlessly depletes already strained U.S. coffers, as so many of his own party have argued.
Making good on promises to Afghan women will be even more difficult. Right now, many female leaders, including those in the Afghan Women's Network who have lobbied for a seat at the table at past NATO summits, have been left out of Afghanistan's official delegation, but will take part in a "shadow summit" at Chicago's Swissôtel. Afghan women have had to fight tooth and nail for a role in nearly every high-level gathering. Sometimes, as at the Kabul Conference, they succeeded. But most times they have not. Obama and Karzai's strategic agreement stipulates that the "necessary outcomes of any peace and reconciliation process" follow the "Afghan Constitution, including its protection for all Afghan women and men." But even if Kabul were to draw antigovernment forces into formal negotiations, it remains highly doubtful that the Taliban leadership would ever work in accordance with the Afghan constitution's protection of "equal rights and duties before the law." Recent threats to girls' schools in Nangarhar province have hardly inspired confidence.
The fundamental issue is that many of the international actors in Afghanistan have viewed women's rights as a pet project rather than a necessity for stability. Obama noted last week that the agreement "includes Afghan commitments to transparency and accountability, and to protect the human rights of all Afghans -- men and women, boys and girls." But exactly who would ensure that whatever Afghan government takes power following the next presidential election, which is slated for 2014, respects this rule is a mystery. And of late, Karzai has been increasingly accommodative of conservatives who wish to curb women's mobility, in a play to end up on the right side of power when foreigners head for the exits. All of this has led Amnesty International to urge the Obama administration to "adopt an action plan for Afghan women to ensure that their rights are not traded away in the transition."
Even the security gains that U.S. and Afghan troops have achieved since the announcement of the surge in 2009 are in jeopardy. As the Pentagon noted in April, Afghan security forces, set to peak at 352,000 this year, "are the backbone of long-term security and stability plans for Afghanistan." Even as they have grown stronger and more capable, however, Afghan forces, according to the Pentagon's assessment, "continue to confront challenges, including attrition, leadership deficits, and limited capabilities in staff planning, management, logistics, and procurement." There are logistical problems, and there is a lack of medical capacity.
Recently, news reports have suggested the Pentagon is working to put a better spin on ANSF readiness, apparently in an attempt to mollify the American public and congressional overseers before the withdrawal. A report from the AP stated that the U.S. military is "under-reporting the number of times that Afghan soldiers and police open fire on American and other foreign troops." And the Kabul-based Afghan Analyst Network recently charged international forces with "misleading the public by calling military operations 'Afghan-led' even in cases where NATO or U.S. forces are the only troops on the ground." The Pentagon wants to show its Afghan military allies in the most positive light. But that will make it all the more surprising for the American public if hard-fought gains erode, territory is lost, and a security vacuum follows.
Obama gave a hopeful speech about Afghanistan filled with best-case scenarios. But the realities on the ground undermine much of what he said. Should Obama win a second term he will face a restive party, a recalcitrant Congress, and an American public that already wants little to do with Afghanistan. He will have to decide how much of his own popularity he will sacrifice to guarantee "sustainable stability" for what he has called a "war of necessity." And he must at last discuss in detail exactly why it is so important that American forces not leave behind a power vacuum in Afghanistan -- and what it will take to make this possible. Should Mitt Romney emerge victorious, keeping his party in line might prove easier, but public exhaustion would be the same. He would surely learn the lesson that Obama has: In Afghanistan, there are no easy answers or neat fixes, only complicated questions and uncomfortable tradeoffs.