A Strategy for Afghanistan beyond 2015
If Afghanistan is to have a chance of survival, the time to adjust course is now. That should be the message coming from NATO's Chicago summit
While NATO is preparing for this year's summit in Chicago, the elephant in the room sure not to receive the amount of attention it calls for is going to be Afghanistan.
The relief that the alliance now has a timetable for its eventual exit from the Afghan theatre is so enormous that anything even remotely calling into question the current strategy is certain to be dismissed outright.
In fact, there will be one clear message to Afghanistan, the region and the audiences in the allied member states coming from Chicago: NATO is on its way out. But with the combat mission to end as early as next year and the final exit date being set for 2014, Western leaders have time and again re-assured their Afghan partners and regional allies that the alliance will remain invested in Afghanistan and will not abandon the conflict-ridden state. Which begs the question: how exactly do allied leaders plan to live up to that promise?
Would it not be such a relief to finally have a timetable for the exit of allied forces, the West's political leaders would be pressed for a strategy for January 2015 and beyond. The timetable is even more pressing than the arbitrary timeline suggests.
With forces leaving the theatre, it will become increasingly difficult to influence events on the ground and for the next few years allied forces are likely to be pre-occupied with their own withdrawal. If the alliance intends to adjust course it has to do so right away. If it is supposed to be successful, a fresh strategy would have to address three areas in particular. It needs to reach out to the larger international community, talk tough to regional partners and foster governance reform.
The one area NATO recognises as a prerequisite for it being able to leave is the expansion and training of Afghanistan's own security forces. Though this strategy is sound, what it misses is an internationalisation to accompany it. NATO's departure from Afghanistan will leave the Afghan government not yet ready to step in the full void being left behind. But international partners might be able to help the government in Kabul through that difficult period.
The United Nations already maintain a small assistance mission in Kabul that could easily be expanded should Western leaders muster the political will to ask for it. For the past two years, the Arab League and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) have both impressed the international community with a willingness to assume regional leadership. They might be willing to do the same for Afghanistan. While it is a vital interest to the West, a successful completion of the Afghan campaign should be even more important to regional powers such as the Arab League and the GCC.
At the same time, Western leaders need to start talking tough to their Afghan and Pakistani counterparts. For far too long, NATO has operated in Afghanistan without a strategy that took regional politics into account. But NATO needs to convey to Islamabad that as much as NATO is concerned with the future of Afghanistan, it is ultimately the fate of the Pakistani state itself that will be decided at the Hindu Kush. And while President Karzai appears to be intent on co-opting some Taliban into his administration, he is poised to throw out the one source of legitimacy his government still possesses: the empowerment of half of the country's population. Such politics are not only anathema to the principles the West ultimately wants to defend; they will also be self-defeating for the weak Afghan government.
Finally, the West needs to make sure that the Karzai government is making the reforms necessary to sustain the Afghan state. On the one hand, the alliance needs to exert pressure for the Afghan government to improve governance, fight rampant corruption and deliver more and better services for its population. On the other, the West has for too long neglected an issue more important than capacity: legitimacy.
Election fraud, corruption and the willingness to undermine local authorities in favour of short-term security gains have eroded the legitimacy of the Afghan state and NATO's Afghan campaign. Repairing the damage done by this negligence would normally require another long-term commitment for which the alliance is unlikely to receive another mandate. Yet by focusing on legitimacy now, it might be able to get the ball rolling before it is out. And in order to do so it should press the Karzai government to hold elections as early as next year.
NATO's withdrawal will make the formulation and execution of an Afghan strategy more difficult than it already has been for the past couple of years. But the alliance might have one last chance to change course in Afghanistan and prepare the country for its eventual exit.
If it wants to enter 2015 with the Afghan state still having a chance for survival, the time to adjust course is now. That should be the message coming from Chicago.
Dustin Dehezis a Senior Analyst with the Global Governance Institute and a member of the Young Atlanticist Working Group of the Atlantic Council of the United States
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