The South Asia Channel

Keeping Calm and Carrying On in Afghanistan

U.S.-Afghanistan relations plunged to a new low last week when the Afghan government released prisoners considered to be dangerous insurgents by the American military.

Even prior to the releases, the relationship was fraught. Afghan President Hamid Karzai has refused to sign a bilateral security agreement between the two countries, and was recently reported to have said that the United States was colluding in insurgent attacks. Congress just slashed its civilian funding for Afghanistan in half, and even insisted that it could not be used for the direct benefit of Karzai -- an astonishing affront to America's once valued ally. 

The future of international engagement in Afghanistan -- centered around a U.S.-Afghanistan axis -- is disturbingly uncertain. Dwindling U.S. interest in Afghanistan is now overlaid by exasperation, and the temptation is to walk away.

But the right response to the crisis is to stay calm, carry on, and take concrete steps to bring the situation back from the brink.

The need to remain engaged is underscored by the escalating violence. America's war in Afghanistan may be over by the end of this year, as President Obama put it in his State of the Union address, but as coalition troops withdraw, Afghans are taking their place and they are being slaughtered.

The Taliban, which is expanding its territorial reach as international forces pull back, are killing Afghan police and soldiers on an unprecedented scale: up to 400 a month. While Afghan losses rarely make Western headlines, they raise serious questions about the viability of a strategy that depends upon the resilience of Afghan security forces. Worryingly, a new independent report commissioned by the Pentagon says that Afghan forces have "systemic gaps in capability" and predicts that the insurgency will continue to swell.

The violence is also taking an increasing and unacceptable toll on civilians. According to the U.N.'s annual protection report on average, every month over 700 civilians are killed or injured, and some 10,000 are displaced.

On top of this, there is acute uncertainty among Afghans about what the future holds, given that Karzai is due to step down this year. Moreover, many Afghans fear being abandoned by the international community, as they were during the 1990s.

There is apprehension across the country -- and word spreads: refugee return rates from Pakistan and Iran are among the lowest since 2001. The number of Afghans seeking asylum has tripled since the mid-2000s. And in Kabul, property prices have halved over the past two years. There is a risk of intensified civil conflict, and Afghanistan's neighbors, already nervous, could be drawn even further into the fray.

Such a scenario could lead to Western disengagement. But the United States has invested over half a trillion dollars in Afghanistan, and lost over 2,300 lives. U.S. allies and the Afghans themselves have also paid a heavy price. It would be folly not to explore every opportunity to find a way through the current crisis.

Detainee releases and Karzai's provocations may be exasperating for U.S. officials, but neither is likely to have a major impact on the ground. Moreover, a descent into chaos is not inevitable -- and there are even grounds for optimism. Concerted action on three fronts could help put things on the right track.

First, the international community can help ensure that the upcoming presidential election delivers an outcome that is accepted as legitimate. There will inevitably be security problems, fraud, and irregularities. Media coverage and pressure from Afghan civil society could prompt Western politicians to intervene, particularly if the results are contested. But knee-jerk reactions must be avoided. The focus should not be on individual candidates, but on supporting the legality and integrity of the process.

The key issue is not whether there will be electoral deficiencies, but the extent to which they affect the legitimacy of the outcome. This is a political, not just a technical, issue. It is as much about how the process is perceived as what actually happens.

The international community can encourage the Afghans, including the candidates and the authorities responsible for managing and securing the elections, to agree on ground rules and what constitutes unacceptable behavior. This should then be used as the basis for managing expectations and for holding the candidates to account.

Second, the United States should encourage dialogue about the appointment of an internationally-mandated mediator.

Given the complexity and intractability of the conflict, and deep-rooted mistrust between the parties, it is naïve to expect them to resolve their differences without support. The absence of expert mediation helps to explain why existing efforts have been ad hoc, intermittent, and fraught with misunderstandings and setbacks.

The election of a new president could also reinvigorate peace talks with the Taliban. Now is the time to prepare the ground for the appointment of a mediator empowered, in due course, by a U.N. Security Council resolution and charged with working with the Afghans to establish a structured peace process.

Third, the United States can signal its willingness to provide long-term support to Afghanistan. A reduction in assistance levels is both inevitable and, many argue, even healthy. But a precipitous, unmanaged free-fall could undermine many of the gains made since 2001, and be highly destabilizing. This would be bad news for Afghans, the region, and the United States. 

Given the current mood in Washington, maintaining U.S. support will require a clear reaffirmation by Afghanistan of its commitment to a genuine and accountable partnership. All the Afghan presidential candidates say they are on board, and the winner of the election is likely to find a receptive international community.

With concerted efforts, the current crisis can be overcome. Crucially, the election of a new president will give rise to new opportunities to reset the U.S.-Afghanistan relationship, establish a long-term partnership, and revive peace talks.

The United States should keep calm and stay the course in Afghanistan. 

Michael Keating is a Senior Consulting Fellow at Chatham House and a former deputy U.N. envoy to Afghanistan.

Matt Waldman is an Associate Fellow at Chatham House and a Research Fellow at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government.

SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

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