After 16 years of fighting, Afghanistan is locked in what Christopher Kolenda, who served as the senior adviser on Afghanistan and Pakistan to the Department of Defense from 2009-2014, calls a teetering stalemate. On its present course, neither the Taliban nor the government stands much chance of an outright victory. However, that could change, for better or worse.
The worst likely outcome would occur if the U.S. pulls out of Afghanistan. While the U.S. is understandably tired of the war in Afghanistan, it still has important interests to protect there, not least denying Al Qa’ida and other terrorist organizations a sanctuary from which it can launch attacks, but also promoting regional stability and economic development. Another important interest is maintaining the U.S.’s reputation as a reliable partner and an invincible adversary; failure in Afghanistan would likely encourage rogue regimes and violent extremist organizations across the globe. The U.S. needs to demonstrate its fortitude. But simply continuing to muddle along as we have will not change the conditions that lead to stalemate.
But the failure of the current approach is not due to its being wholly wrong-headed. Much of the U.S. approach to Afghanistan is the based on best practices learned over the course of the last decade. The problem lies more in what hasn’t been done than what has. In the initial years (and arguably still), this manifested as under-resourcing the effort. Another manifestation is the failure to convince Pakistan to withdraw its support to the Taliban and the Haqqani Network.
Long-term support to Germany, Japan and South Korea helped to bring regional stability, peace and prosperity, and resulted in strong, long-standing trade and diplomatic relationships. Each of these, however, was provided with assurances of continued support in the form of mutual defense treaties. A treaty with Afghanistan along the same lines as that with Japan or South Korea would go a long way in demonstrating U.S. resolve and commitment.
Plan for the Peace: The US has a long and painful history of short-sighted, military-centric planning, in which it plans for the war, but not the peace. But in order to consolidate the benefits of having won the war, consideration must be given to the support that will be provided into the future both in terms of military and civilian assistance. Combatting corruption and improving governance capacity is perhaps most vital in the longer term. Our efforts in this area have been piecemeal and half-hearted, and we need to do better.
Prepare for the Long Term: Any realistic strategy to stabilize Afghanistan must plan for the same amount of time that it seeks to guarantee stability. Afghanistan will require support for a long time. First, as a poor country that has seen more devastation than development, it will require long-term economic, development and fiscal support. More immediately, the Taliban has determined that it can wait us out. We need to convince them that this belief is unwarranted. Changing our message from “we’ll leave as soon as we can” to “we’ll stay as long as we’re needed” could start to reverse the waiting game and incentivize reconciliation.
Resource Realistically: Putting the status quo on autopilot has been the default approach for most of the U.S. involvement in Afghanistan. However, it is not a viable solution. Having already spent more on assistance to Afghanistan than we did under the Marshall Plan, we need to think about how to resource the campaign appropriately. This does not necessarily mean cutting aid: investment at the front end may be warranted if it is expected to reduce costs in the long run. According to Kolenda, “With a credible strategy, we ought to continue funding and supporting Afghanistan and bringing the war to a successful conclusion. But if we’re not going to have a credible and serious strategy, then it’s time to stop bankrolling the place.”
Target Resources Strategically: According to Ronald Neumann, U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan from 2005 to 2007, it is imperative that whatever troops and resources are sent to support Afghanistan, “They are not there to fight an immediate war.… They are there to take up the training and advising role that we left undone when we began to rush out of the country.” This approach will require patience, since as Neumann pointed out, the benefits of training and advising are slow to reveal themselves, likely measured in years. This approach does, however, have systemic effects that can shift the balance of power between the government and the Taliban.
It is foolish to claim that Afghanistan is going well, for us or for them. But there is still reason to hope: Much progress has been made, including tens of thousands of kilometers of roads built, a fifteen-year increase in life expectancy, and major advances in health care, education, and telecommunications. There is also the construction of an Afghan National Security and Defense Forces numbering over 300,000. Continued progress in developing effective security forces, reducing corruption and increasing governance capacity would provide the evidence that continued support is worthwhile.