Time for a Presidential Decision on Afghanistan
WASHINGTON -- It has been eight years since the United States and a coalition of allies first liberated the Afghan people from the horrific grip of the Taliban and Al Qaeda, its terrorist cohorts. It has been a little more than three years since NATO assumed all responsibility for security operations, known as the ISAF mission, in Afghanistan. Yet despite all the international military effort, sacrifice, and financial commitments that have been made during this time, the security situation on the ground has not improved appreciably nor has any semblance of a functioning Afghan national government emerged. Some, such as myself, remain convinced that all is not yet lost and that the effort the United States and its partners have expended on the ground has not been in vain. However, that could be the case if President Obama does not soon decide on the direction of Afghanistan policy and announce what he expects can be achieved there in the next year.
The American people, Congress, the allies, the Afghan people, and enemies in Afghanistan and around the world are waiting for the President to show how serious his commitment is toward the Afghanistan mission. Absent President Obama's strong leadership and commitment, Europe probably will not add more firepower to the fight in Afghanistan, and one could reasonably expect its collective ability to remain on the ground beyond the next 12-24 months to be quite tenuous. In fact, 12 months from now, a perfect storm of midterm U.S. congressional election campaigns, the debate over ISAF mission renewal mandates in the Netherlands and Canada, debates over the FY2010 U.S. defense authorization and appropriation bills, and the one-year anniversary of the release of ISAF Commander General McChrystal's report will serve as not only as points of reflection on the mission but as opportunities to possibly cut off funding for the U.S. effort in Afghanistan. What has frustrated many in recent years is the inability of the United States and its allies to exercise the leverage it holds over the Afghan government in demanding greater performance and accountability from it.
The reality is that nearly 90 percent of all funds in Afghanistan originate from the international community, the majority of all security operations are conducted by the ISAF, and President Karzai derives (or at least derived during the past five years) his legitimacy as leader of Afghanistan from the fact that the international community recognized him as such. That said, we know that the Afghan government has repeatedly failed to tackle corruption throughout the country, the government at all levels, and quite likely within the presidential cabinet itself. Given the tolerance of such bad behavior, it is no surprise that some argue that the international community's efforts are futile. So what is needed now is a convincing declaration by President Obama that he intends to do what is necessary in Afghanistan. Such a declaration should include the following points: that, along with healthcare reform, Afghanistan is the top priority for his Administration and that he understands the consequences of withdrawal; that significant increases in levels of U.S. troops as well as of civilian experts on the ground are needed and will be dispatched in the coming months; that Europe and the international community have joint equities in Afghanistan and that there should be a collective matching of the total increase in U.S. personnel Washington will make; and that a functioning and stable Afghan state cannot be achieved without the help of a capable partner on the ground, in the form of the Afghan government.
President Obama must convey this message so that whoever wins the November 7 runoff presidential election knows how serious the U.S. is in demanding better performance during the next five-year Afghan presidential term. The President should also announce a list of what is realistically achievable in the next 12 months to demonstrate that tangible progress on the ground has been made. Such indicators should not be purely or largely security-focused, such as stating a certain percentage of territory will be held by the Afghan National Security Forces or that a certain number of Afghan troops and policemen will be trained and fielded. These are important indicators. But they are not the most critical in convincing allied publics and parliamentarians and, more importantly, the Afghan people themselves, that progress is being made in the country. Instead, the criteria for progress President Obama should announce must focus on improving the daily lives of the Afghan people throughout the country. No one indicator would be more telling than if whoever wins the currently-debated Afghan presidential election allows for the arrest, prosecution, and conviction of senior members of the Afghan government who are known to be involved in corrupt practices.
This would send a signal to the world and to the Afghan people that its government is committed to the creation of a functioning, rule-of-law state that serves the people, rather than preying upon them. As many have noted, the consequences for the international community's premature withdrawal and failure are real and staggering. However, the United States and the world cannot bring about a stable Afghanistan if the Afghan leadership does not play a constructive role, which has been the Achilles heel of our collective efforts thus far. The President should not hesitate in stating that the U.S. and the international community cannot want a functioning and law-abiding Afghanistan more than the Afghan leadership wants it and, therefore, all international efforts can only succeed if the Afghan government dramatically changes the way it operates and prioritizes what is important for the Afghan people. Some may argue this could be the President's exit strategy: that if the Afghan government does not prove to be a capable and willing partner on the ground then the international community's efforts are doomed to fail. Looking at it another way, demanding accountability from the Afghan government and exerting the leverage we collectively have on the government is the only prudent course of action.
President Obama has an opportunity to refocus not only America's efforts in Afghanistan but also the Afghan leadership's commitment toward this grand project. This will require a convincing announcement by the President that Afghanistan is a priority for him and his administration. Such a decision must come soon.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.