National Security Network

A Growing Consensus on Afghanistan

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Report 16 December 2010

Afghanistan Afghanistan Afghanistan Afghanistan Strategy military


Today, the Obama administration released its strategy review of the war in Afghanistan. The review shows fragile progress in the military campaign against the Taliban, as well as robust actions against al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan - but has less to say about civilian and political milestones. Over recent months, a consensus has quietly emerged among experts across the centrist-realist-progressive spectrum on a way forward in Afghanistan. This consensus recognizes the importance of military gains but promotes the primacy of political efforts, looks ahead to a military drawdown and promises to be more effective, more sustainable - and less costly.  This fall, the Council on Foreign Relations, the Center for American Progress, the Afghanistan Study Group and the Center for a New American Security all issued reports on Afghanistan that - perhaps surprisingly - largely agreed on the eight central points below.

Negotiation is a central part of the strategy. "The solution to Afghanistan's insurgency will need to be political, not military. Irreconcilable insurgents will need to be killed or captured, but enduring stability will come only when the vast majority of Afghanistan's people reach minimally acceptable terms with their state." [Council on Foreign Relations, 11/10]

A military drawdown must begin in 2011, moving faster, not slower, if progress is lacking. The Council on Foreign Relations writes, "The president has said that the United States will continue its present military surge until July 2011. If there is confidence that the current strategy is working, then that should enable the United States to steadily draw down its forces starting in July... If not, however, a more significant drawdown to a narrower military mission would be warranted."  NSN's Gen. Paul Eaton and Heather Hurlburt summarize: "CAP and the Afghanistan Study Group both seek a faster drawdown; CNAS would take it slower." [Council on Foreign Relations, 11/10. Paul Eaton and Heather Hurlburt, 12/15/10]

America and its allies need to engage the region to find a solution. "Engage regional and global stakeholders in a diplomatic effort designed to guarantee Afghan neutrality and foster regional stability. Despite their considerable differences, neighboring states such as India, Pakistan, China, Iran and Saudi Arabia share a common interest in preventing Afghanistan from being dominated by any single power or being a permanently failed state that exports instability to others." [Afghanistan Study Group, 8/16/10]

Pay attention to economics - both Afghan and American. The Center for New American Security report states: "given the global nature of current and potential demands on the U.S. military, and the high economic price the United States is paying, Americans have the right to question whether the prolonged deployment of tens of thousands of general purpose forces (GPF) to execute a large-scale counterinsurgency in Afghanistan is a sound strategy and whether it is, in fact, making them safer. Over the last century, the overwhelming strength of the U.S. economy has allowed the United States to spend whatever it needs on defense. But in the coming years, unprecedented deficits and a rapidly growing national debt will place greater pressure on all elements of U.S. discretionary spending - including defense." Regarding Afghanistan, CNAS writes, "The economic component of the new strategy should be reshaped to prioritize the improvement of the macro conditions necessary to enable sustained Afghan economic growth."[CNAS, 12/7/10]

De-centralize political power to improve governance and fight corruption. The Center for American Progress report states that, "The Afghan government structure is one of the most highly centralized in the world. President Hamid Karzai and the parliament are democratically elected but the system is fundamentally autocratic in nature. The executive branch controls appointments from provincial governors to district police chiefs to mayors and community leaders. It operates on a patronage model in which it distributes resources, access to international funding, and power to individuals in return for their loyalty to the Karzai government. The Afghan public's resentment of this imposition from Kabul and the inherent lack of accountability in the system fuels the insurgency and is a chief means of its mobilization." Eaton and Hurlburt write, "Historically, the most successful Afghan regimes allowed substantial power at the provincial and local levels. These local governments could aid the U.S. efforts to establish government legitimacy, help combat corruption and re-establish the balance among ethnic groups and regional interests." [Center for American Progress, 11/23/10. Paul Eaton and Heather Hurlburt, 12/15/10]

Training and funding police and military is central to a U.S. exit -- and Afghanistan's long-term stability. CNAS writes, "Afghan security forces will take ownership of the fundamental mission of population security across the country, replacing the large numbers of U.S. and NATO conventional forces performing these tasks today. Over the course of this plan, this new division of labor will permit the withdrawal of the bulk of U.S. and NATO conventional forces directly engaged in COIN operations today as the ANSF assume those responsibilities."  CAP further explains, "The United States and NATO-ISAF should continue training the Afghan National Security Forces so that the Afghan National Army and Afghan National Police reach their respective 2011 goals of 171,600 and 134,000 by 2011. Training the army and police is critical to transferring responsibility to an Afghan government capable of providing for its own defense." [CNAS, 12/10. CAP, 11/10]

Define an acceptable end state: a government that does not harbor transnational terrorist groups and can secure its borders to prevent regional terrorist safe havens from developing. CFR writes, "An acceptable end state in Afghanistan would be one in which the Afghan people are secure and strong enough to prevent the rise of new terrorist safe havens inside Afghanistan and avert a return to civil war without relying upon U.S. or international military forces." CAP writes in parallel, "Preventing state collapse in Afghanistan and managing a stable and enduring transition of responsibility to Afghan leaders would enable the United States to best meet these core security objectives in the region." [CFR, 11/10. CAP, 11/10]

U.S. metrics should focus on political and civilian progress, not just military. Without the former, the latter's effects are limited. "Progress will be difficult-but necessary-to measure. The Obama administration must address such issues as the capacity of the ANSF; the momentum of the Taliban in contested areas; the extent to which normal life is starting to return in recently secured territories; progress in building local security and civilian capacity; and the seriousness with which the Kabul government is fighting corruption in its own ranks." [CFR, 11/10]

What We're Reading

The U.N. Security Council lifted a raft of sanctions designed to contain Iraq and prevent it from developing weapons of mass destruction, more than two decades after Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait

In a move likely to escalate tension on the Korean peninsula, Seoul's military says it will resume live-firing artillery drills from the island shelled last month by North Korea.

Iran's Interior Minister Mostafa Mohammad-Najjar said the terrorists who carried out recent bomb attacks received training in Pakistan.

Arab foreign ministers have rejected further Palestinian-Israeli peace talks without a "serious offer" from the U.S. on ending the Middle East conflict.

China has launched a bold financial move to deepen economic engagement with neighboring India in an attempt to strengthen the often fractious ties between the world's fastest-growing big economies.

The International Criminal Court prosecution office has named six Kenyans, including the deputy prime minister and finance minister, as alleged masterminds of the country's worst post-independence bloodletting, which claimed at least 1,200 lives.

Would-be Ivory Coast leader Alassane Ouattara stepped up his efforts to seize the levers of power today, urging people to take to the streets to help him seize control of key government offices.

BP shares have fallen after the U.S. said it was suing the oil giant for alleged violations of federal safety laws over the Gulf of Mexico oil spill.

The Obama administration wants to promote resilient reactions to a nuclear attack but is worried about seeming alarmist.

Sweden's recent suicide bombing underscores how the threat of attacks is spreading beyond locations traditionally considered targets for Islamic extremists.

Commentary of the Day

Andrew Exum explains how Obama can reverse the dangerous deterioration of conditions in America's longest war.

The Washington Post editorializes that the slow progress of democracy in Africa has been hindered by two bad bargains the continent's leaders have made in recent years.

David Ignatius explores the split in Pakistani and American interests and wonders whether Pakistan do any more to fight insurgents.