The South Asia Channel

Politics and economics, not troops, will decide Afghanistan's future

As Afghan President Hamid Karzai visits Washington to discuss a bilateral strategic agreement between the United States and Afghanistan, policymakers and the public are debating the pace of troop drawdown and the residual force post-2014, when the security handover to Afghan authorities finishes. Missing from these discussions is a focus on the political and economic transitions underway in Afghanistan - areas that will serve as greater determinants of Afghan stability than whether there are zero, 4,000, or 9,000 U.S. troops. Politics ultimately drive the Afghan conflict, and its resolution will require a broader political consensus and stronger economic foundation than currently exists.

President Karzai's visit offers an opportunity for the Obama administration, members of Congress and others to drill down and express support for a number of political and economic priorities, which could assist in strengthening the legitimacy and competence of the Afghan state as the United States and NATO drawdown. The current Afghan state is deeply flawed and has alienated many Afghans due to its exclusive and predatory nature.  The constitutional system, which vests great power in the hands of the executive without real checks and balances, lends itself to abuses of authority. Officials often use formal state institutions to support their patronage networks, fueling high levels of corruption, cronyism, and nepotism on the national and local levels.  What's more, the dependency of the Afghan government and its security forces on high levels of international assistance for the foreseeable future, especially in a time of global austerity, threatens to undermine a sustainable transition.

Creating a stronger political consensus and a more solid economic foundation for the Afghan state will be required for long-term stability in Afghanistan. In their meetings with President Karzai and his team, senior U.S. officials must state their expectations about these political and economic processes, clarifying that long-term security support is contingent on Afghan progress on these efforts.  Expectations should include the following:

First, a free, fair, inclusive and transparent presidential election is required in which President Karzai transfers power to a legitimately elected successor.  President Karzai must work to ensure that the electoral bodies, including the Independent Electoral Commission and an electoral complaints mechanism are independent and credible.  The United States hopes to see parliamentary approval of the electoral laws and the implementation of a plan to ensure a successful election. 

Second, the United States supports an inclusive political reconciliation process, led by Afghans.  The United States supports outreach by President Karzai to more Afghan stakeholders, including the political opposition, women, and civil society groups, in addition to Taliban insurgents.  The United States and Afghanistan should create a bilateral mechanism to coordinate their peacemaking, public statements regarding negotiations and outreach to stakeholders, as well as to establish a venue, where representatives of the parties to the conflict can meet outside of Afghanistan or Pakistan to discuss a political settlement. 

Third, the United States remains committed to the agreements made at the Tokyo conference in July 2012 by the Afghan government and the international community.  In addition to agreeing to provide $16 billion in civilian assistance through 2015, the international community committed to improving the effectiveness of its aid, aligning its assistance with Afghan priority programs, and providing more aid through the Afghan government's budget rather than through outside contractors.  However, the disbursements of these dollars depends on the Afghan government progressing on its own commitments, including: 

  • allowing for the Afghanistan Human Rights Commission and other civil society organizations to function freely,
  • the implementation of the Elimination of Violence Against Women Law and the National Action Plan for Women
  • enforcement of the legal framework for combating corruption and annual asset declarations of senior public officials
  • asset recovery and accountability for those responsible for the Kabul Bank crisis
  • the implementation of the Public Financial Management Plan and improvement of the management of public funds
  • improvement of Afghan budget execution
  • the development of a provincial budgeting process

Fourth, the United States supports the development of Afghanistan's mineral sector, in a way that benefits the Afghan population and not a select few.  While Afghanistan is already a candidate member of the Extractives Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI), the Karzai administration should develop an Extractive Industries Development Framework that governs Afghanistan's natural wealth through an "accountable, efficient and transparent mechanism which builds upon and surpasses international best practices", as agreed to in Tokyo.  The Ministry of Mines should continue to engage with civil society in order to increase transparency in the mining sector and to respond to the needs of communities affected by mining.   

The Obama administration must focus on political and economic priorities during President Karzai's visit.  Military aspects-troop numbers, training of the Afghan forces, and financial support to the security services-won't be enough to ensure Afghanistan's security and stability over the long term.  Leaving behind an unprepared and expensive force to battle an insurgency that NATO has struggled to contain is more likely to create instability than lasting security.  Instead, U.S. efforts must be focused on building a more sustainable Afghan state.

John Podesta is Chairman and Caroline Wadhams is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress.

MANDEL NGAN/AFP/GettyImages

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