President Obama's May 27 announcement on how he would withdraw almost all U.S. troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2016 was directed primarily at an American audience that is surely eager to see our involvement in that war come to an end and our soldiers return home.
But there was another audience listening to the speech who may not have had as positive a response: the Afghan people and political elites, who have been waiting for a clear sign of U.S. commitment to Afghanistan beyond 2014.
The Obama administration may hope that Afghans will interpret the president's decision as a vote of confidence in their institutions. It is far more likely, however, that they will interpret it as a signal of abandonment; Fawzia Koofi, an Afghan parliamentarian points out that this is especially true for Afghan women. When the President states that "it's time to turn the page on more than a decade in which so much of our foreign policy was focused on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq." Afghans will hear: "It's time to go back to the 1990s when the world didn't really care what happened in Afghanistan."
Up until this point, the presence of foreign troops is seen as a sign of international commitment. Most Afghans are probably glad to see American troops out of their villages, but they don't want them out of their country.
One consequence of the uncertainty is significant hedging behavior that has hurt the economy. In a recent USIP publication, Bill Byrd, Casey Garret Johnson, and Sanaullah Tasal described some of this hedging behavior. This includes people postponing large spending decisions, removing themselves from universities (both to save tuition and because they fear there might not be a market for graduates), saving more of their paychecks, and stopping purchases on credit.
Some hedging strategies are illegal. There have been several cases of finance officers for ministries or international organizations running away with thousands of dollars. Corruption has also increased, which partly explains the drop in customs revenues and the 11 percent shortfall in government income against the projected target. Finally, there has been an increase in poppy planting, since opium is both a store of value and a guaranteed cash crop.
What spurred this hedging behavior was the refusal of President Karzai to sign the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA), which is a precondition to any U.S. troop presence beyond 2014. But the announcement by President Obama that, even with the BSA, there will be no troop presence beyond 2016 is likely to extend the sense of uncertainty and therefore the counterproductive hedging behavior.
This is particularly unfortunate now, given the successful first round election in April, and the increasing likelihood that there will be a peaceful handover of power from President Karzai to his successor. Many people doubted the presidential election would be held, or feared that it would spark political unrest. That the April 5 first-round presidential election was successfully held on time began to restore the confidence of Afghans in their own future. There is hope that a new, reform-oriented government would be installed and, with the support of the United States and other donors, take measures to reverse the negative trends and address the pressing security and economic problems that have built up in particular during President Karzai's second term.
Seen in this light, the timing of President Obama's announcement compounded the challenges created by its content. The speech came just as the second and decisive presidential vote is about to take place. If the next Afghan government is seen as vulnerable because it lacks international support, the predatory currents of Afghan politics will combine with the unhelpful rivalries of Afghanistan's neighbors conditioned to use Afghanistan as a proxy battlefield. This, in combination with a still-resilient Taliban, may prevent the government from functioning, leading to a breakdown of order.
Every major actor, including the Taliban, is basing their strategies and next moves on their perception of whether the government in Kabul will hold together. Much of that perception hinges on whether or not the Afghan government will have sustained international backing. At the most delicate moment of the political transition -- between the first and second round of the presidential election -- the United States has sent at best an ambiguous message about that backing, and more realistically a signal that its commitment to Afghanistan will decrease quickly, whether or not a successful handover of power takes place, and whether or not the Afghan security forces are able to hold their own in this fighting season.
In order to maximize the chance of a successful transition in Afghanistan, the administration needs to recognize how important the signals it sends are. The decision on troop numbers has been made, but the United States should emphasize in its public statements that financial support to Afghanistan will continue as per the commitments that were outlined in 2012 at the Chicago and Tokyo conferences. All Afghans remember that the Najibullah government was able to survive the total withdrawal of troops in 1989. It only collapsed when the Soviet Union collapsed and was unable to subsidize the Afghan government. Afghans need to be convinced that we haven't forgotten this history either.
Scott Smith is the Director for Afghanistan and Central Asia Programs for the United States Institute of Peace.
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