The List

Why the U.S. Can't Abandon Afghanistan

These five principles should guide the U.S.-Afghan relationship after 2014.

With Afghan President Hamid Karzai in Washington this week, he brings with him plenty of good news, as well as a long list of grievances. A skilled politician, he will try to project an optimistic picture of Afghanistan's ongoing security transition, Pakistani cooperation with peace negotiations, the Taliban's willingness to embracing politics over terror, and preparations for the 2014 presidential election. Most Afghans and regional actors, however, do not share his optimism -- but nor do they share Washington's growing defeatism and exhaustion.

Afghanistan is changing rapidly for the better. It is more developed, prosperous, democratic, and safe than at any other time in modern history. But this progress is also vulnerable to reversal. Uncertainty about the U.S. exit in 2014 has enveloped numerous constituencies -- both inside and outside of Afghanistan -- and spawned a series of hedging strategies that threaten to upend the transition.

Declarations about the need for Afghans to "stand on their own two feet" aside, the United States remains indispensible both to Afghanistan's successful transition and the stability and prosperity of the surrounding region. Moreover, it was Washington's earlier shortsighted policies -- first in supporting violent extremist groups, and then in abandoning the country -- which contributed to the destruction of the Afghan state and the immense suffering of the Afghan people. But the West's moral and legal responsibility to Afghanistan extends back even farther, to the corrosive Cold War rivalries of the 20th century and the so-called Great Game a century earlier.

Today, Afghanistan still stands at the global epicenter of terrorism in all its manifestations -- from ethno-terrorism and narco-terrorism to state-sponsored terrorism and even possible nuclear terrorism. But it is also situated at the epicenter of enormous economic opportunity. The regions of South and Central Asia, western China, and eastern Iran remain among the least connected and least prosperous regions of the world -- despite possessing immense natural and human resources. Stability in Afghanistan is the key to unlocking the region's strategic potential.

Instead of devoting this week's presidential visit to empty rhetoric and unsubstantiated declarations, the two presidents should attempt to reduce the uncertainty surrounding the transition by securing concrete agreements. In doing so, they should consider five mutually supportive principles that could form the basis of post-2014 Afghan-U.S. relations: deterrence, development, diplomacy, democracy, and devolution.


More than a decade of war has left the United States deeply polarized about the merits of using force to achieve political objectives. But the United States must resist the temptation to move from one extreme, where the military was seen as the solution to all problems, to another extreme, where it gives up its ability to deter its adversaries and reassure its allies altogether. Deterrence requires projecting resolve, perseverance, and commitment. This, in turn, requires at least some military capability -- though military capability by no means ensures effective deterrence. Strategy matters, too. 

In the aftermath of the Taliban's collapse, the United States successfully deterred terrorists and their regional supporters with less than 1,000 troops. But it failed to do the same with nearly 100,000 troops in the later stages of its engagement. Potential military gains associated with the "surge" were effectively neutralized by the announcement of a 2014 deadline to withdraw American troops and U.S. efforts to woo Taliban negotiators. Both of these decisions -- and American willingness to cave to Pakistani brinkmanship -- conveyed U.S. exhaustion, desperation, and unreliability. 

Deterrence is not anathema to dialogue with the enemy. Rather, it's the leverage that is necessary for meaningful peace negotiations. Deterrence is also about moral credibility and integrity, particularly in the eyes of allies and friends. For example, protecting fragile achievements on women's rights is critical to preserving America's moral high ground. For the patriarchal Afghan political class and misogynist Taliban, women's rights would be the first to auction if the United States backs down. Backing away from this principle will also only invite stronger future challenges to Afghanistan's fragile achievements in human rights, democratic governance, and international cooperation.


For years, Afghanistan has been a security black hole and a battleground for competing interests. But it also has the potential to catalyze greater regional cooperation and integration. In order to achieve that potential, it needs the cooperation -- either active or passive -- of its neighbors and allies. From neighbors like Pakistan, Afghanistan needs non-interference, and from allies like the United States, it needs assistance with stabilization and reconstruction.

Projects like the "New Silk Route," "Istanbul Process," and the "Heart of Asia" initiative remain at the public-diplomacy stage. The United States must help translate these visions into concrete projects; examples include expediting the establishment of the Trans-Afghanistan natural gas pipeline and connecting Afghanistan's railroad networks into the region. 

The region is fearful that Afghanistan will relapse into its violent past, possibly dragging its neighbors with it. Washington and the rest of the international community share such concerns. But so far, U.S. regional diplomacy has primarily followed immediate military objectives, engaging trouble-makers like Pakistan and the Taliban. Likewise, India, China, the Central Asian Republics, Russia, and Iran -- all of whom would benefit from a stable Afghanistan as well as deeper regional cooperation -- have not been sufficiently engaged. 

The recently launched India-U.S.-Afghanistan trilateral dialogue offers huge potential, as does the U.S.-China dialogue on security in South Asia. Iran-U.S.-Afghanistan offers another possibility for dialogue. Both Kabul and Tehran have already indicated their interest for such an initiative and Washington appears open to -- or at least curious about -- the possibility.  It's time for Washington to adopt a more creative approach to diplomacy -- one that looks beyond immediate security imperatives and engages the diverse set of actors with an interest in Afghanistan. 


Just as American commitment has wavered between President George W. Bush's promise of a "Marshal Plan for Afghanistan" and President Barack Obama's call for "nation-building at home," the reconstruction and development of Afghanistan has seen mixed results. Afghanistan's progress on most political, economic, and social indicators during the last 10 years has been unprecedented in modern history. But there is still an enormous gulf between inputs and outputs. The United States has poured roughly $20 billion in aid money into the country since 2001, but nearly one-third of the population still lives below the poverty line.

Moreover, there is no credible and sustainable plan for economic development, despite rapid urbanization and population growth. If Afghanistan fails to provide employment for its growing youth population, it risks igniting a semi-urbanized insurgency to go with its already crippling rural and proxy insurgencies. USAID's post-conflict development models pose significant challenges because they rely heavily on private contractors, handouts, and short-term thinking, with an unacceptable lack of oversight and accountability. America's post-war reconstruction of Europe, Japan, and South Korea, by contrast, was driven by political objectives, strategic vision, and efficient implementation. In Afghanistan, corporate greed has been a significant driver and the main beneficiary.

The reconstruction and sustainable development of Afghanistan requires political leadership with an inclusive and participatory model, involving the private sector through international financial institutions and direct financial subsidies, such as a sovereign guarantee. Afghanistan is endowed with three significant assets: its geostrategic location as a land bridge between the Central Asia, South Asia, West Asia and China; its rich mineral resources; and its young, resilient, and entrepreneurial population. The United States must help Afghanistan convert these important assets into sustainable development by promoting good governance, education, and infrastructure projects.


The collapse of the Taliban's regime in 2011 marked the beginning of Afghanistan's third democratic experiment. The first was initiated by the enlightened monarch Amanullah Khan, who introduced the first constitution in the Islamic world in the early 20th century. The second decade of democracy -- in the late 1960s and early 1970s -- saw the rise of political parties and independent media. But both were derailed by a combination of internal and external factors, which now threaten Afghanistan's third democratic experiment.

Despite the steady proliferation of media and civil society organizations, state institutions are being captured by a combination of "necktie Taliban," narco-mafia, and ethnic entrepreneurs. At the same time, there is a growing sense of disempowerment among the silent majority. Rather than pursuing a legalistic approach which prioritizes formal institutions, the United States must empower and widen the civic space in Afghanistan by confronting abusive powerbrokers who have captured much of the state and economy.

In reality, the current peace process is premised on reconciling the narco-elite with a narco/proxy-insurgency. But sustainable peace can only be attained by empowering the silent majority and building space for civil society and good governance. The Afghan youth, who constitute the vast majority of the population, could be the country's most promising agents of change -- but we must invest in them.

Likewise, the country's democratic institutions must not be undermined by its leaders. Obama should use his meeting with Karzai to state in categorical terms the indispensability of the Afghan constitution and electoral process. Karzai must be discouraged from creating a Putin-type model by manipulating the process and the outcome of the presidential election in 2014. A discredited and contested election would threaten the integrity of Afghanistan as a united polity. Washington should not be misled by an overly optimistic portrayal of the country's election preparation -- and likely outcome. While remaining neutral toward all eligible presidential candidates, the United States should reassure Afghan stakeholders of its concern for the credibility and integrity of and the country's electoral institutions.  


Afghanistan continues to suffer from a number of interrelated governance challenges: weak institutions, powerful personalities, a highly rigid top-down bureaucracy, authoritarian political culture, and a Machiavellian president with unprecedented constitutional powers. The country's economic recovery, state-building, national reconciliation, social progress, and the peace process have all been set back by these impediments. Addressing these challenges requires rebalancing the distribution of power between and among different organs and regions within the country.

The devolution of authority should also make the Afghan state more inclusive, opening up the stabilization, reconstruction, development, national reconciliation, and peace-building processes to a wider array of constituencies. This would give Afghan citizens a greater stake in government, while at the same time disempowering the fewer than 300 individuals who have captured the Afghan state, its economy, and international patronage.  

*  *  *

Despite its understandable disillusion with a lack of sufficient progress in Afghanistan, Washington must not relapse into an isolationist corner. Afghanistan is simply too important to lose, both symbolically and politically; it is the key to winning the global struggle against Jihadist terrorism and stabilizing the increasingly chaotic Islamic world. As the place where East and West first coexisted peacefully under the Greco-Bactrian civilization, Afghanistan also has the potential to facilitate regional integration, building a more harmonious and prosperous Central and South Asia and protecting Western national security. But all of this depends on America's continued engagement. 

AFP/Getty Images

The List

Four Surprises That Could Rock Asia in 2013

Are we paying attention to the wrong crises?

As the world's center of economic gravity shifts from the Atlantic to the Pacific, it's moved from a region of enduring peace to one of pervasive friction. Last spring, China and the Philippines nearly came to blows over a small shoal in the South China Sea. In mid-December, Japan dispatched eight fighter planes after a small Chinese plane entered Japanese airspace, near a group of disputed islands in the East China Sea. North Korea tested another missile in mid-December, and appears to be preparing for a third nuclear test. Peace between India and Pakistan remains elusive, while Indonesia and the Philippines continue to wrestle with Islamic terrorism.

But there are quieter threats to Asia, potentially more explosive than a North Korean missile. Here are four underappreciated threats to the world's most populous region:

Taiwan Independence

Since President Ma Ying-jeou came to power in 2008, Taipei and Beijing have improved ties and deepened their economic integration: cross-strait trade reached $127.6 billion in 2011, an increase of more than 13 percent from 2010. Some national security experts misinterpret this trend, thinking that growing economic interdependence will overwhelm factors pushing the two sides apart, and that interdependence will provide Beijing with leverage it can use to compel unification. But while Taiwan's businesspeople enjoy closer ties with China, the average Taiwanese voter continues to move toward independence. Over the last 20 years, the portion of citizens of Taiwan identifying as "Taiwanese" has increased from 17.6 percent of those polled in 1992 to a whopping 53.7 percent today; those identifying as "Chinese" has declined over the same period from 25.5 percent to just 3.1 percent today. Support for independence has nearly doubled over the last two decades, from 11.1 percent to 19.6 percent. Support for immediate or eventual unification, meanwhile, has more than halved, from 20 percent in 1992 to 9.8 percent in 2012.

Economic integration is apparently failing to halt what Beijing sees as a troubling trend. With a cross-strait trade agreement and a slew of other, easier deals already on the books, Beijing now expects Ma to discuss political issues. But Ma doesn't have the domestic political support to pursue political talks -- in March 2012, two months after his reelection, 45 percent of those polled said the pace of cross-strait exchanges was "just right," but the share of respondents answering "too fast" had increased to 32.6 percent, from 25.7 percent before the election. Any Chinese shift toward a more strident Taiwan policy could portend a new crisis in the Taiwan Strait sooner than many expect, as a lack of progress on these issues may buttress hawks in the new Xi Jinping administration. And America would surely be dragged in: Even low-level coercive measures against Taiwan -- a top 10 U.S. trading partner and security ally -- could throw U.S.-China relations into a tailspin.

Jihadists Attack China

China has managed simmering unrest in its Western region of Xinjiang for decades, including a major riot in July 2009 that left nearly 200 dead. Beijing has long repressed Xinjiang's roughly 20 million Muslims, most of whom belong to the Uyghur minority, denying them the right to freely practice Islam and citing counterterrorism as an excuse for silencing dissent. In the summer of 2011, authorities even outlawed fasting for Ramadan. So far, China doesn't seem to be a preferred target for al Qaeda and other jihadi organizations. Its internal policing -- Beijing spends more on domestic security than on defense -- also makes it a hard target.

But as China extends its economic and military reach around the world, while continuing to repress its sizable Muslim minority, the likelihood of it being the victim of a major terrorist attack increases exponentially. While al Qaeda views the United States as its primary antagonist, it bears ill will toward China as well. According to the Jerusalem Post's translation of a November statement attributed to current al Qaeda head Ayman al-Zawahiri, China is one of "five arrogant powers ... who impose their will on the rest of the world's peoples" through the United Nations Security Council. Zawahiri excoriated the U.N. for its acquiescence in allowing non-Muslim countries to seize Muslim territories, including China's takeover of "Eastern Turkistan," the name by which Xinjiang separatists refer to their territory. Washington's longtime support for the Saudi royal family has provided terrorists with at least a rhetorical rationale for attacking the United States. Beijing's decision to pull closer to Riyadh -- driven by a desire for more flexibility in China's relationship with Iran -- will not win it any plaudits from al Qaeda.

Another risk factor for China is Africa, which, aggregated together, will likely replace the European Union as the country's largest trading partner within five years. Working conditions at Chinese-owned interests in Zambia, for example, are notoriously bad. At a copper mine in 2010, two Chinese managers fired shotguns into a crowd of workers protesting over poor pay and conditions, wounding 11. Some miners in Chinese-run operations in that country must work for two years before they are provided with safety helmets.

China, with its massive business interests in Nigeria, Niger, Algeria, and Sudan (all unstable nations host to large Muslim populations) -- and with a sustained naval anti-piracy mission off the coast of Somalia -- might increasingly find itself the recipient of violence that has thus far been directed elsewhere. Attacks like the April 2007 raid of a Chinese oil concern in Ethiopia by Somali separatists, which killed 74 Africans and nine Chinese workers, could become much more common.

Beijing may have concluded that such is the cost of doing business in Africa. But a terrorist attack on its own territory would be a shock. Beijing would likely respond to a major internationally launched terrorist attack in China by expanding its already intrusive surveillance apparatus and further limiting civil liberties -- especially in places like Xinjiang and Tibet. (After the July 2009 riots, Beijing took the extraordinary step of shutting off most of the Internet throughout the region for 10 months.) A devastating terrorist attack could make China rethink its longstanding policy of non-interference in other country's domestic affairs, which, despite its maritime meddling, it has kept since its 1979 invasion of Vietnam. On the positive side, the United States might find common cause in combating Islamist terrorism. But if the ruthlessness of China's domestic counterterrorism is mirrored in its foreign ventures, the United States and China would find themselves at loggerheads.

The U.S. Navy Can't Save the Day

On December 26, 2004 a massive tsunami in the Indian Ocean caused the deaths of over 230,000 people and left widespread devastation in its wake. In response, the Pentagon launched Operation Unified Assistance, at a cost of $200 million, as part of a U.S. government effort to provide relief to afflicted areas. It deployed more than 11,000 people, 29 ships, and 46 airplanes. The United States had the logistical ability and the budget to provide medical care to the sick and injured, food to the hungry, hope to the hopeless while fighting wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

In 2004, when the tsunami struck, the United States had a naval fleet of 292 active ships. The Navy estimated that if budget sequestration -- automatic cuts to the defense budget provided for in the 2011 Budget Control Act -- occurred, actual fleet size could drop to roughly 230 ships in a decade. Republicans in The House Armed Service Committee estimated in September 2011 that sequestration would cut the number of U.S. airlift planes from 651 to 494. The fiscal cliff deal reached on New Year's Eve delayed sequestration by two months. Even if sequestration is averted, new defense cuts will be part of a deficit reduction agreement. These, combined with the $889 billion in cuts already approved during President Obama's first term, will reduce U.S. capability and its ability to fund expensive rescue missions.

The King of Thailand Dies

The 85-year-old King Bhumibol Adulyadej has been Thailand's head of state since 1946. Over the past several decades of his rule, Thailand has seen numerous coups, wars in neighboring states, economic booms, and economic busts. Violent street protests in 2010 left more than 90 dead and 2,000 injured, and 2012 saw a deepening constitutional crisis. Through it all, Bhumibol's immense popularity and moral authority had ensured that he remained a crucial and stabilizing figure in Thai politics.

Lèse majesté laws restrict criticism of the king, but his popularity amongst Thais is not in doubt. The same cannot be said for his son and heir, the Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn, who has had three wives (compared to his father's one wife of 62 years) and threw a lavish and unseemly birthday party in 2009 for his miniature poodle Foo Foo. Thais may be legally barred from saying so, but the king's passing and the crown prince's coronation is a worrying eventuality. After a rumor of his ill health swept the country in October 2009, the Thai stock market dropped more than 8 percent and the value of the baht tumbled. Bhumibol's death could usher in a new period of Thai politics, in which the new king lacks the authority or charisma to impose stability on an unstable system.

Enduring unrest could destabilize Thailand's neighbors, including the fragilely democratizing Burma, and make Bangkok a less reliable treaty ally for Washington as the U.S. pivots to Asia. And Thailand's economic health matters: The 1997 collapse of the Thai baht set off the Asian financial crisis, whose global economic fallout included the sudden devaluation of the Russian ruble and the collapse of what was then one of the United States largest hedge funds.

The threats posed by territorial disputes in the East and South China Seas are imminent. North Korea has the potential to collapse quickly and without warning. But it is precisely because these issues are so pressing that the crises described above could take Washington by surprise.