Author: Max Boot, Jeane J. Kirkpatrick Senior Fellow for National Security Studies, Council on Foreign Relations, June 2012
Afghanistan is approaching a major inflection point in its long and turbulent history. In 2014 most of the foreign military forces are due to pull out. With them will go the bulk of foreign financing that has accounted for almost all of the state's budget. Twenty fourteen is also the year that Afghanistan is due to hold presidential elections. Hamid Karzai, the only president the country has known since the fall of the Taliban, has said he will not seek another term in office. Thus Afghanistan is likely to have a new president to lead it into a new era. This era will be shaped by many factors, principally decisions made by Afghans themselves, but the United States has the ability to affect the outcome if it makes a sustained commitment to maintain security, improve the political process, and reduce Pakistani interference so as to build on the tenuous gains achieved by the U.S. troop surge since 2010.
The signing of a U.S.-Afghan Security Partnership Accord in April 2012 and the Chicago Summit Declaration in May alleviated some of the uncertainty about the post-2014 period—but only some. President Barack Obama and other North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) heads of state agreed to remain committed in Afghanistan after 2014. However, the nature and extent of that commitment remain opaque.
At times Obama has depicted the U.S. mission in Afghanistan in fairly narrow terms—designed, as he said in announcing the troop surge on December 1, 2009, to "deny al-Qaeda a safe haven," deny the Taliban "the ability to overthrow the government," and "strengthen the capacity of Afghanistan's security forces and government." The Chicago Declaration commits the United States to the more ambitious goals of helping craft "a democratic society, based on rule of law and good governance." However attractive the maximalist position, it would require an increased deployment of foreign troops and political advisers, and changes in Afghanistan's political culture, that are unlikely to occur. Yet even the minimalist objective, designed to prevent a return to power by the Taliban (which has consistently refused to renounce its long-standing ties with al-Qaeda and other transnational terrorist groups based in Pakistan and would be likely to provide them a safe haven in Afghanistan), will be impossible to achieve absent a substantial commitment.
Attempts to safeguard U.S. interests "on the cheap" are likely to fail. If the security situation deteriorates, a small number of Special Operations Forces (SOF) would have difficulty operating—as they do today in Iraq, Yemen, Somalia, and Pakistan. The Kabul government is only likely to extend cooperation to SOF if, in return, it receives substantial support to maintain its fragile authority. This memo recommends seven specific steps the United States can take to buttress the fragile forces of authority in Afghanistan, grouped into three categories: security, politics, and Pakistan's role.
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