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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
A snapshot of
The war in Afghanistan is now a slog, at best. Even those of us supporting
the mission there must acknowledge that it has been slower and harder going
than expected. With Osama bin Laden dead and other al Qaeda leaders also out of
the picture (or out of the region), the original motivation for the effort
seems less compelling to many as well.
there are considerable reasons for hope in Afghanistan. These positive
indicators must be kept in mind lest we persuade ourselves incorrectly that the
mission has somehow already failed -- an increasingly prevalent view among Western
publics, parliaments, and some top officials.
the same time, for every hopeful indicator, there is a reminder of how far we
still have to go. This should not be seen as reason for fatalism, but as a
clarion call of just how important the 2014 political transition will be for Afghanistan's future. Reasonably competent and serious leadership -- and there
are many in Afghanistan who can provide such qualities for their country -- can
build on the positive trends, even if it will take a long time to construct a
strong Afghan state. Poor leadership could result in the fragile gains
dissipating and the prospects of stronger insurgency, civil conflict, and
state collapse increasing.
terms of encouraging trends, consider the following:
security forces have almost reached their envisioned full size of 352,000,
counting army and police. They are fighting, too. They are now
collectively taking at least twice the casualties of NATO forces, participating
in at least 90 percent of operations, and leading some 40 percent of
operations (albeit usually the simpler ones at this point). They
repulsed the April 15 Haqqani network attack on Kabul and other cities largely
on their own.
Although the security forces still suffer from political patronage appointments and
corruption, the problems are being partially addressed. Some 50 Afghan army
leaders in the country's east alone have been replaced over the last year;
70 police officers were just fired recently in the country's west for poor
performance; the Defense Ministry has opened a full criminal investigation
into the problems that produced corruption and theft at Afghanistan's main
military hospital last year. Such efforts could be too little, too late. There
are serious corruption problems -- as in the Afghan Air Force. And some
of the firings and hirings raise concerns of ethnic bias in the security
ministries. But on balance the progress is picking up.
Afghan Local Police (ALP), a form of armed community watch overseen by NATO
troops, is generally proving its mettle. These lightly armed and locally
organized forces, which now number some 12,000, are holding their ground
in some 80 percent of firefights, even when sometimes outgunned by the
Taliban, taking the highest rate of casualties of any part of the Afghan
security forces in the process.
have been a handful of cases of abuse within this program, and a number of
illegal militias are falsely adopting the name Afghan Local Police to disguise
their true nature (which is sometimes to attack their neighboring tribes or
communities). But U.S. Special Forces have monitored and worked with the actual
ALP forces effectively and stepped in to address problems when needed. They
only allow the formation of ALP units after several months of getting to know
an area and working with local elders to try to ensure a reasonable mix of ALP
members. The admittedly daunting challenge in coming months and years will be
to keep growing the program while also handing oversight gradually to Afghan special-operations forces.
of the above areas of progress with the Afghan security forces also underscores
the fragility of the situation. While Afghan forces are much bigger and better
than before, they are nowhere near good enough, so professionalism and
discipline must not only be maintained, but improved. While a
large number of incompetent or corrupt leaders within the security forces'
ranks have been replaced, many remain -- and under the present government,
uniformed leaders and ministers of interior and defense only have so much power
to replace poor leaders on their own, given the political interests still at
play in many appointments.
ALP can only be effective in the future if Afghanistan's own special forces are
increasingly able to play the oversight role that NATO has provided to date. This
clearly assumes a level of competence and integrity within the Afghan special-operations forces
that will not survive poor national leadership, should the wrong person wind up
in charge after Karzai. The wrong president could also generate ethnic tensions
that could fracture the overall security force.
we examine the other efforts to reduce corruption and the influence of
patronage networks within Afghanistan, we reach a similar conclusion -- real
and sometimes substantial, but uneven and insufficient, progress that by itself
is neither adequate nor self-sustaining. This was apparent in discussions with
Force-Shafafiyat (a legacy of Gen. David Petraeus and Brig. Gen. H.R. McMaster,
as well as Task Force 2010), which seeks to reduce corruption in how NATO administers
its contracts with Afghans, as well as with Americans and other foreigners. Again,
the importance of future political leadership will be crucial. Consider the
magnitude and complexity of the problems:
courts and prosecutors, by contrast, are pretty good. Lots of big fish have
been going to jail, including recently the second-biggest drug trafficker in
the Attorney General's Office and the High Office of Oversight and Anti-Corruption within the
Afghan government remain disappointments.
the court system in Afghanistan remains poor, with inadequate resources and far
too much bribery and favoritism.
happily, at least one Afghan Supreme Court judge and others are pushing general
judicial reform at long last. This is resulting in the firing of 200 to 300
judges a year (which may be a touch worrisome given that only 125 judges are being
trained or graduated each year). But on balance the judiciary is still very
problematic, weak, and underresourced -- and reforms are making it smaller
rather than larger in the short term, due to all the firings, however necessary.
Personnel changes in the Defense Ministry
and Interior Ministry are generally
encouraging, and the Defense Ministry's inspector general is
well regarded. Yet some big problems remain within these organizations, of
course -- notably, the Border Police and the Air Force still suffer from the
influence of strong criminal patronage networks.
Crucially, NATO is belatedly cleaning up its own act, no
longer unwittingly funding nearly as many corrupt actors or insurgent groups as
it did before. Task Force 2010, the ISAF organization designed to increase
transparency and accountability in how NATO awards contracts for logistics
services and related activities in Afghanistan, is finally gaining steam. More than
100 companies or individuals have now been barred from ISAF contracting. Transparency
requirements make it easier to check on who is involved in these companies, and
lots more intelligence is being devoted to the problem. It often takes a couple of
months to develop good intelligence on new companies, so when they reorganize
or rename themselves, they can sometimes evade notice for a short time. But
overall this set of problems is getting serious attention.
only recently has U.S. legislation been passed that finally allows the United
States to break contracts with
companies when they are linked directly to the enemy. Until now, the country couldn't do
that unless it had other reasons too! Under U.S. law, apparently, it was
seen as a worse sin to fill out paperwork wrong than to be a member of the
Taliban, until only recently. More than 10 percent cost savings have been
achieved to date, normalized for the relevant workload, by the reforms in
contracting. More important than simply saving money is that this is a promising
indicator of fewer funds being diverted to malevolent actors who skim off the
top of contracts.
there are many areas of the anti-corruption struggle where we are only beginning
to scratch the surface at best. For example, no one whom I spoke with on my
recent trip claimed progress on land reform -- protecting private property and
also regularizing the way public lands are developed. The only good news I
heard on that front was one former minister saying that, in general, the blatant
expropriations of land for the personal gain of well-placed political actors occur
only on public property (though because so many lands in Afghanistan are public, and
so many of those are already used by subsistence farmers, this is of little solace).
So again, this whole set of efforts clearly still has its major limits even
among its most passionate proponents.
Beyond specific reforms that might be made in the next two years, what was
clear from my conversations in Afghanistan this May was that what we need most
is a way to influence the 2014 political transition.
core element of this strategy is to make sure Afghans know, beyond any doubt, that U.S. willingness to support them financially, developmentally, and militarily
after 2014 will be a function of the quality of their governance and the
character of their leaders. It is inconceivable that the U.S. Congress will
sustain up to 20,000 troops in Afghanistan at a cost of perhaps $25 billion a
year, and add another $3 billion to $5 billion annually in direct security and
economic support to the Afghan government and people, if the next Afghan government
is corrupt beyond hope.
that were to happen, I am confident that the U.S. commitment would be scaled back dramatically
-- to levels of assistance perhaps one-third to one-fifth the amounts sketched
out above, or even less. That would be regrettable.
Afghan reformists want us to state a clear preference soon for who the next
president of their country should be and promise to cut off all aid to anyone
else who might win the election. Such an approach by the United States and
other key foreign countries is highly unlikely, as it would constitute excessive
meddling in the internal affairs of a sovereign state. Not only that, we would
quite possibly choose wrong. But what is certainly within our means is to
signal that good Afghan leadership will inspire much greater outside confidence
and related willingness to stay engaged -- whereas the opposite will invalidate
the premise for the current hopeful talk about our long-term commitment to Afghanistan.
Strategic Partnership Agreement or not, major cooperation and financial help
will not be provided to a criminally corrupt or malicious regime. We should
probably also be willing to say, by name if necessary, who the unacceptable
leaders would be, if they choose to run for president. This could be done
privately at first, perhaps, and publicly if necessary.
formal or binding promise is possible; Americans don't yet even know who will run their
own government come 2014, 2015, and beyond. But a coordinated message by
current congressional leadership of both parties -- and by President Barack Obama and
Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney -- could help a great deal and achieve much of the desired
effect. If it is too soon to generate this kind of coordinated message now,
policymakers should think now about doing so soon after America's own November
elections. There is still a little time to sort this matter out, though not that
Afghans think that U.S. interest in their country is so great -- whether for
military bases for operations in broader South and Central Asia or some other nefarious
purpose -- that the United States would never scale back its commitment to their country. That
view is bunk and fails to account for America's war weariness with the Afghanistan
conflict as well as its greater hopefulness that, with al Qaeda central on the
ropes, the future of Afghanistan is slightly less crucial to U.S. security
than it might have seemed a decade ago.
the other hand, many Afghans think the United States will desert them anyway, regardless of
what they do. That view fails to recognize what the country learned by its premature and
precipitous withdrawal from the region a quarter-century ago, together with its lingering worries about the possibility that some part of al Qaeda might indeed
seek future sanctuary on Afghan territory. After so much investment of American
blood and treasure, it is clear that the United States will not simply abandon the effort. And though it favors and hopes for a serious
effort at peace talks with at least some elements of the Taliban, it will not
desert a future Afghan government simply because such talks might fail.
some Afghans seem to think that the United States actually enjoys quarreling with Karzai, since
it often seems that way. In fact, while U.S. strategy toward the current
Afghan government has not been steady or clearheaded at times, the history of
the last 10 years underscores two dueling realities: that the United States wants very much to work constructively
with Afghan political leadership, but that it is increasingly frustrated by
the difficulty of doing so and no longer so confident that success is even
next Afghan leader has a chance to restore America's faith and the strength of its support. He has the chance to help forge the kind of enduring security
partnership that America established over the years, through good times and
bad, from Greece and Turkey to Jordan and Egypt to South Korea and Taiwan. America needs to
find a way to signal this clearly and thereby persuade Afghans to work
cohesively and doggedly to defeat the crooks and warlords who may seek to
replace Hamid Karzai in two years and to elect a serious, competent, and
non-corrupt new president. The fate of 13 years of effort, blood, sweat, tears,
and treasure depends more than anything on how well such an effort can succeed.