Foreign Policy introduces "Trip Report," a new feature that takes readers behind closed doors with some of the world's sharpest minds for an intimate, unfiltered look at subjects ranging from the European economic crisis to the course of the war in Afghanistan. Think of it as a new kind of intelligence -- a backstage pass to rooms you haven't been cleared into before.
Where I went: For all the worries about Afghanistan today, there was something uplifting about many of the conversations I was privileged to be part of on my most recent trip there, in May, with former U.S. Ambassador Ronald Neumann as my travel partner and with the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) as the official sponsor of the trip.
A spirit of hopefulness, more than fear, characterized most people I spoke with in Kabul. The recent signing of the U.S.-Afghanistan Strategic Partnership Agreement (SPA) to guide cooperation after 2014, when the NATO combat mission is set to end, reassures many Afghans that they will not be left to their own darker angels -- or the mercy of their neighbors -- when ISAF's transition is complete. Although implementing protocols and a status of forces agreement for the SPA may prove difficult to negotiate, the accord has definitely given a boost to the strides of many Afghan reformers who continue to work hard for their country's future.
What's new: More than ever before, politics is breaking out in Afghanistan. The 2014 presidential election is still two years away, but new political organizations like the Right and Justice Party are forming under the leadership of people like former Interior Minister Mohammed Hanif Atmar. Reform movements designed to get out the vote and improve the independence and integrity of the electoral process, like the Coalition for Reform and Development, are gaining steam.
And everyone is forming shortlists of the most likely candidates for the race. Among the names one hears are former officials like Atmar and Abdullah Abdullah; U.S. citizens with Afghan ties or ancestry, including former U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad and former Interior Minister Ali Ahmad Jalali; current government officials including Education Minister Ghulam Farooq Wardak, presidential advisor Ashraf Ghani, and perhaps even Gov. Gul Agha Sherzai of Nangarhar province. But not all is well; the shortlists also often include some who give major apprehensions to many foreign officials -- among them a former chief of staff to President Hamid Karzai and some of the president's relatives.
There are other hopeful indicators in Afghanistan on the political front, too. For example, recent Asia Foundation work suggests that the quality of governance at the provincial level in Afghanistan is improving. There are still too many bad actors and too much interference from Kabul in the day-to-day operations of regional governments. But by one itemized system of measurement, at least, the average quality of provincial governance has improved at least 10 percent over the last year.
Much still needs to be done on the political front, of course, before 2014 elections even happen. Electoral watchdog organizations need to be strengthened and made more independent of the presidential palace, and means of possible voting fraud need to be reduced. Otherwise, cheating and scandal could delegitimize the election outcomes and contribute to more ethnic tension.
Beyond these technical improvements, we also need much clearer focus on the big issue: how to use Western leverage to ensure that no warlord or extremely corrupt actor is elected president. This is the 800-pound gorilla that is not yet getting adequate attention, perhaps out of too much political correctness that the international community should not pick winners in a sovereign state's own elections. It is true that the international community should not pick a winner. But it can and must identify a few surefire losers -- before they can build up enough momentum to have a chance to win the presidency.
The takeaway: Often, the Afghanistan policy debate has an oxymoronic feel. We focus on the military transition from ISAF-led operations to Afghan-based security, according to a careful plan worked out first at NATO's Lisbon summit in 2010 and recently reaffirmed at the May 2012 NATO summit in Chicago. This is fine and necessary. But we spend far less time thinking about political transition as Karzai's second term ends and what will happen when he is required to vacate the palace come 2014.
Military strategist Carl von Clausewitz taught us that war is a continuation of politics by other means, implying that a successful end to any war must be politically based. This is even truer in counterinsurgency, where much of the struggle is for the proverbial hearts and minds of citizens who might or might not support the insurgency depending on their views about the legitimacy of their government.
Not all is lost. The international community does focus on specific aspects of Afghan politics. We try to pressure Karzai to fight corruption more assertively. Personnel from the U.S. State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development, along with foreign advisors from other countries, embed with military units in the field to try to help strengthen local Afghan governance. We all chase after the elusive and improbable peace deal with the Taliban. And of course, we try to struggle through our tortured half-partnership and half-rivalry with Pakistan.
But in most NATO capitals, we think far less about the fact that Afghanistan is due to have a presidential election in 2014 -- the results of which could be the single-most important determinant of our prospects for reaching an acceptable outcome and averting defeat in this seemingly interminable war. U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker and others on the ground in Kabul are surely aware of the crucial significance of the upcoming election, but it has not yet been grasped in Washington. For example, Crocker and others have, in recent months, helped persuade Karzai to firm up his public pledges that he will not extraconstitutionally seek another term in office. But leverage over the most important Afghan transition of all requires much more than a pledge. We need a strategy to be sure that the next Afghan president is more effective than Karzai -- rather than even more prone to cronyism or even less able to get a handle on corruption and patronage. Right now there is no such strategy, and Afghans can tell.