The Right Way Out of Afghanistan

Leaving Behind a State That Can Govern

Taking off: U.S. paratroopers in Paktika, Afghanistan, October 2009 (Andrya Hill / U.S. Army)

The signing in May of a strategic partnership agreement between the United States and Afghanistan came at a tense time in the Afghan war. As NATO and the International Security Assistance Force work to transfer security responsibility for much of the country to the Afghan government, the agreement establishes the contours of a long-term relationship and a framework for future cooperation. But it notably leaves out details on the levels of forces and funding the United States will commit to Afghanistan after 2014. Meanwhile, insurgents continue to mount frequent attacks against high-visibility targets throughout the country and have assassinated international personnel and Afghans with ties to the government of President Hamid Karzai. Trust between the U.S. and Afghan governments has eroded as a result of Afghan civilian casualties, attacks on U.S. and other international forces by Afghan troops, and blunders by U.S. military personnel, including the burning of Korans at an air base.

Although the Obama administration has reached out to the Taliban and Pakistan in the hopes of achieving a negotiated settlement, the U.S. transition strategy still prioritizes military activity over diplomacy. As Washington draws down its troops, it has armed both regular and irregular Afghan forces and targeted insurgent commanders and other extremists in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The military campaign has had significant successes, particularly in dismantling al Qaeda and largely destroying its senior leadership in the region, achieving a primary U.S. national security objective. It has also weakened Taliban insurgents and restored Afghan government control over significant portions of southern Afghanistan. 

But in its focus on security, the United States has not sufficiently used its influence to pressure the Karzai government to forge a legitimate Afghan state that is governed by the rule of law, stabilized by checks and balances between the branches of government, and upheld by relatively free and fair elections. This has left the future of Afghanistan and of broader U.S. interests in the region in doubt. A transition that focuses primarily on Afghan security force levels and capabilities cannot adequately address the flaws in governance that have alienated ordinary Afghans from the Karzai administration and fueled the insurgency. Nor can an exclusively military strategy calm regional hostility or eliminate insurgent threats entirely. In addition, 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 the current strategy. 

Meanwhile, Afghanistan will face a rocky political transition, especially if the United States and its allies do not devote to that transition the same degree of attention that they have given the security transition. Karzai is required by the Afghan constitution to step down following the presidential elections in 2014. This electoral process should ideally facilitate the creation of a more inclusive, legitimate political system. Yet political parties in the country remain weak and marginalized, the voter registry is inadequate, and the country's electoral institutions lack guarantees of independence. Policymakers have not prepared for the real possibility of a repeat of the fraud-ridden and destabilizing Afghan presidential and parliamentary elections of 2009 and 2010. 

To make matters worse, distrust between the United States and Pakistan has spiked. The countries hold opposing visions for Afghanistan's political makeup and position within the regional security balance. The United States' objective remains a relatively stable Afghanistan that does not once again become a sanctuary for transnational terrorist groups or destabilize nuclear-armed Pakistan. Pakistan, however, seeks to maximize its own influence in Afghanistan, and minimize India's, through support for the Pashtun-dominated Taliban. Although both the United States and Pakistan have indicated a desire for rapprochement, their disagreements continue to complicate efforts to find common ground even on issues on which the countries' interests have the potential to align, such as counterterrorism and nuclear security.

Guarding against instability in Afghanistan will require the presence of some U.S. forces there beyond 2014. But sustaining the current level of foreign military involvement indefinitely is not an option. Although American and allied soldiers have acted with bravery and professionalism over the past decade, Afghan and Pakistani leaders must take responsibility for their own countries' security and prosperity.

In this regard, the United States needs to synchronize the reduction of its military and financial investment in Afghanistan with efforts to resolve the internal political dimensions of the Afghan conflict. An uncoordinated withdrawal would risk the collapse of the weak Afghan security forces and, in turn, the weak Afghan state. Such a breakdown could spark renewed bloodshed and large-scale population displacement inside Afghanistan and into neighboring countries and leave swaths of territory unprotected against militants and terrorists, thereby undermining U.S. strategic interests in the region. 


The international community has staked its transition strategy in Afghanistan on the strength of the Afghan security forces and the government in Kabul. But that government is deeply flawed and, should the world stop compensating for its deficiencies, in danger of imploding. 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. 

Karzai has failed to use his position to advance a reform agenda or to support merit-based appointments of officials. Instead, his administration has actively opposed measures that would have promoted greater accountability and empowered other branches of government. The weakness of the parliament, the judiciary, and local governmental bodies means that there are few channels, outside the presidential palace, for Afghans to influence decision-making or hold leaders accountable. 

The absence of transparent and effective systems of justice and law has provided Taliban insurgents with an opening to mobilize domestic opposition to the Afghan government. The ability of the Taliban to organize marginalized and disaffected communities contributes as much to the Taliban's resiliency as do their safe havens across the border in Pakistan. Furthermore, the centralized, winner-take-all political system complicates efforts to reconcile Afghanistan's competing constituencies. Opponents who might otherwise opt to share power have few guarantees that those with authority will not abuse it.

Unlike other centralized political systems, the Afghan government actually has very limited means to support and assert itself. Although the Afghan economy has grown by double digits since 2002 and the government has improved its ability to collect taxes and customs revenues, Kabul still depends on financial assistance from the international community to fund the majority of its operations, salaries, and services. The cost of fielding the large Afghan military and police forces established by NATO trainers over the past several years eclipses the country's entire national budget. 

The United States and other international donors will not sustain their current levels of assistance indefinitely. The dismal state of the global economy, attacks by Afghans against foreign personnel, and disputes between the United States and Afghanistan make it extremely risky for Kabul to rely so heavily on external aid. The Afghan government must expand its base of domestic support, both politically and financially. Crafting a more stable political system will require a combination of reforms that address the lack of accountability and undue centralization of the executive. To move beyond years of unrest, the government must also seek a political settlement with nonviolent opposition groups and other elements of Afghan society, as well as with the armed insurgents.


Left unaddressed, the major weaknesses in Afghanistan's political structure will reduce the likelihood of a stable and secure Afghan state after 2014. The United States needs a more robust political strategy to actively support the transition, one that presses for a more legitimate Afghan government, a political settlement among the broad range of Afghan actors outside the current system (including those Taliban elements willing to participate), and a regional settlement that involves Pakistan. 

Breaking up is hard to do: Hamid Karzai and Barak Obama in New York, September 20, 2011 (Kevin Lamarque / Courtesy Reuters)

First, in order to help bring about a more legitimate Afghan government, the United States and its partners must ensure a smooth presidential transition in 2014, when Karzai is constitutionally required to step down. In the short term, the United States will need to make clear, as it has to date, that its pledges of support under the strategic partnership agreement are conditioned on Karzai's ceding power to a legitimately elected successor. Karzai may reasonably expect assurances that when he departs, he and his family will be kept safe, his core allies and constituents will not be shut out of the government, and he can leave office with honor. Offering him a senior position either in Afghanistan or in an international institution after his term expires could help assuage his fears of marginalization and open the door for other political actors to emerge. 

Facilitating a democratic transition of power that truly broadens political participation also requires the international community to press for badly needed electoral reforms well in advance of the presidential and parliamentary elections in 2014 and 2015. These should include the establishment of a credible national voter registry (or an effective substitute) and a commitment to the independence and transparency of the Independent Election Commission and the Electoral Complaints Commission, Afghanistan's two main electoral bodies. Burdensome party-registration processes and the single nontransferable voting system, which offers voters only one choice among potentially hundreds of candidates for multiple parliamentary seats, have disempowered voters in previous elections and have also hamstrung the formation of political parties that could more effectively represent the interests of Afghanistan's fractious political landscape. As the principal financial and logistical contributors to Afghanistan's recent elections, the United States, the United Nations, and other international donors must demand that the 2014 and 2015 elections meet higher standards than previous contests have while, of course, leaving the actual choice of leaders to the Afghan people.

Over the long term, the United States needs to use its diplomatic muscle to support the creation of stronger checks and balances and other reforms that would allow opposition groups to participate on a level playing field. This will require holding the Afghan government accountable for the pledges it has made to that end in the strategic partnership agreement and at international conferences. The international community can grant more explicit recognition to legitimate domestic opposition and civil-society organizations by interacting with them and sponsoring formal training programs for political parties. To strengthen Afghanistan's ability to manage dissent peacefully, the United States should encourage the parliament to take on an increased role in overseeing the appointment of government officials and in the development and approval of national budgets. Only through such reforms can Afghanistan heed the concerns of the public and offer former combatants the ability to advance their interests through politics rather than the use of force.

Moreover, U.S. financial assistance should support Afghanistan's political transition, seeking to ensure that the Afghan state does not collapse as foreign aid drops and the economy weakens. Several successful programs initiated during the past decade deserve continued support, such as the National Solidarity Program and a program to develop a basic package of health services, which work at the community level to deliver services and fund development projects often overlooked by national planners. Washington should support management teams in important ministries, such as the Ministry of Finance and the Ministry of Mines. The United States should also channel a higher percentage of its assistance through the Afghan budget, rather than through outside contractors, and then use it as leverage to push the government toward stronger anticorruption measures. These measures should include the prosecution of some high-profile offenders, such as those who recently brought down Kabul Bank, to make clear that impunity will no longer be the norm.

Second, the United States must facilitate a political settlement among Afghanistan's opposing factions. Any strategy for reconciling Afghan's diverse groups should include an effort to reach out to the Taliban. The success of such an effort is far from assured: the Taliban have repeatedly rejected talks with the Afghan government; their plans to open a political office in Qatar, once seen as a step toward negotiations, have not materialized; and U.S. efforts to coordinate a prisoner exchange have hit an impasse. Both the Afghan government and the insurgency are fragmented, and Karzai has insisted on controlling the negotiations. Insurgent commanders and criminals in Afghanistan who benefit from the persistence of conflict, as well as regional spoilers such as Iran and Pakistan, have made negotiating a settlement all the more difficult. 

But even an ultimately unsuccessful effort may carry benefits. By promoting negotiations, the United States can test the intentions of various actors in Afghanistan and Pakistan, clarify which Taliban representatives have the authority to speak for which parts of the movement, and better understand the vision of Pakistani leaders for Afghanistan's future. And outreach efforts by the U.S. and Afghan governments may themselves weaken the insurgency. Recent reports suggest that the Taliban's discussions with the United States have lowered morale and generated confusion and conflict within the insurgency's ranks. 

The basic contours of a political settlement with the Taliban have been in place for several years: the Taliban must respect the Afghan constitution, renounce armed conflict, and sever their ties with al Qaeda. Little progress has been made, however, in establishing a process to operationalize these concepts in an agreement. For a successful settlement to be reached by 2014 or soon thereafter, this work must be undertaken in earnest.

As a first step, U.S. civilian and military officials must redouble their efforts to establish a road map for negotiations that includes not only the United States and some combination of the Taliban and the Karzai administration but also other stakeholders, such as the parliament, domestic opposition groups, and women's and civil-society organizations. The whole of Afghan society must be made to feel comfortable with the process of reaching out to the Taliban and whatever results from it. If the negotiations are not transparent, each participant will suspect that its counterparts are attempting to forge separate peace accords. This would weaken both the prospect for a consensus agreement and the ability of leaders to negotiate on behalf of their supporters, who remain divided over the benefits of talks. Whether negotiations take place under the auspices of the United Nations, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, or another neutral mediator, the process will gain traction only through sustained engagement by all the relevant parties. 

Washington should also suggest a number of confidence-building measures that could advance peace talks. Leaders of the Taliban and the Afghan government need to demonstrate to their constituents that their interests will be best protected through negotiations, not violence. Steps to build mutual trust that are already under discussion include guarantees of safe passage for negotiating teams and prisoner transfers. If the insurgents took certain positive steps, such as entering into a serious dialogue with the Karzai administration or halting assassination attacks on government employees, the United States might respond by supporting the removal of Taliban figures from the UN blacklist, which groups them together with al Qaeda members and subjects the group to international sanctions. 

Third, any political solution to the conflict in Afghanistan will be sustainable only if it forms part of a larger regional settlement. The Pakistanis, in particular, need to come on board and may require some U.S. prodding to get there. Pakistan has undermined the prospects for long-term peace in Afghanistan by providing sanctuary, training, and financial support to the insurgency, in part to counter what it fears will be undue Indian influence in the country. U.S. officials must pursue a frank and candid dialogue with Pakistan's civilian leadership and security and diplomatic establishments to figure out what role they can play in reconciliation efforts. Without these conversations, Pakistan appears unlikely to use its influence to bring militant groups to the table. Of course, the Karzai government must be part of these discussions.

Greater dialogue with both insurgents and the Pakistanis will clarify which groups might be willing to engage in negotiations and which remain irreconcilable and thus will need to be defeated by force. The United States should appoint an official, based in the region and reporting to Marc Grossman, the U.S. special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, to be specifically tasked with working with Afghan and Pakistani officials to develop a plan for engaging the Taliban. The United States should use both carrots and sticks to get Pakistan to act against those insurgents who are unwilling to negotiate.


The future of Pakistan, even more than the future of Afghanistan, will determine the stability of South Asia as a whole and thus has greater implications for U.S. national security. Therefore, one of the central objectives of the U.S. mission in Afghanistan has been to prevent the further destabilization of Pakistan. But the Afghan conflict places tremendous pressure on Pakistan's society and leadership and increases friction between Washington and Islamabad, complicating the United States' ability to advance its interests when it comes to Pakistan. These interests are threefold: eliminating transnational terrorist groups that can directly threaten the United States and its allies, preventing the use or proliferation of the country's nuclear weapons, and supporting its transition to a mature, civilian-led democracy.

Given the distrust in the relationship, the United States may be tempted to escalate its indirect conflict with Pakistan over Afghanistan, break any pretense of cooperation, and instead seek to contain the Pakistan-based insurgency to prevent it from operating in Afghanistan, India, or elsewhere. Proposals for ramping up pressure on Pakistan include increasing the drone strikes, conducting U.S. Special Forces operations in the country, cutting Islamabad off from international financial resources, labeling Pakistan a state sponsor of terror, and imposing sanctions. But ending cooperation with Islamabad would considerably undermine U.S. interests in the country. And given the resiliency of the Taliban insurgency and the inability of the Afghan government to support itself, such a break is unlikely to achieve U.S. goals in Afghanistan, either.

The United States should thus attempt to de-escalate tensions with Pakistan and restore security and political cooperation. Washington should maintain the ability to act unilaterally in cases in which the United States' immediate security is at risk or if renewed cooperation with Islamabad fails. But this approach will prove too costly -- for both the United States and Pakistan -- if pursued over the long term. 

That is why the Obama administration and Pakistani leaders are attempting to redefine the relationship in the wake of the Pakistani parliament's lengthy review of the two countries' terms of cooperation. The United States and Pakistan will continue to disagree on a host of issues, such as drone strikes and the perceived threat from India. But after a series of crises in the relationship over the past year, both sides should see with renewed clarity the need to find a working relationship that accommodates their core interests. 

The United States should also encourage Pakistan's transition to a mature, civilian-led democracy. Lacking basic mechanisms of accountability, successive Pakistani military and civilian governments have faced few consequences for their mismanagement of the country's deep political and economic challenges. The failure to educate and provide opportunities for the country's burgeoning youth population and the lack of success in integrating the country's economy into the region have left Pakistan at risk of falling behind its neighbors. 

A more democratic, civilian-led Pakistan would better respond to the will of its citizens, expand the rule of law, and begin to address its economic crises and fraught civil-military relations. This could stabilize Pakistan and its ties to its neighbors, two important U.S. national security goals for the region. Despite strains in the U.S.-Pakistani relationship, Washington must do what it can to support Pakistan's civilian institutions and fledgling democracy. 

To start with, Washington should send clear diplomatic messages to all Pakistani political actors that military coups or other extra-constitutional ousters of a civilian government will carry drastic consequences for U.S.-Pakistani cooperation. Over time, Washington also needs to shift its principal forum of dialogue with Pakistani officials from the military to the civilian sector. To be sure, working with the military through the civilian government, rather than directly, may be impossible at a time when the United States' policies in Afghanistan and Pakistan are so intrinsically linked. But Washington can start by lowering the public profile of the visits of its military envoys to Pakistan in favor of enhancing its interactions with civilian counterparts. Moreover, the United States should not limit its engagement with Pakistan's civilian leadership to only those serving in government but engage with all political parties and civil-society groups in the country. And Washington should cultivate relationships with the next generation of civilian leaders, who offer the best hope for a turnaround in Pakistan.

Taking a longer view of Pakistan's democratic transition will also require the United States not to hold its economic and development assistance hostage to short-term security objectives. This does not imply condition-free aid. Rather, the conditions Washington sets for its economic and development assistance should focus on ensuring the effectiveness of that assistance, through transparency and accountability, and encouraging the Pakistani government to develop its own methods of boosting growth. 


Achieving U.S. interests in Afghanistan while simultaneously reducing the high costs of American involvement there requires a more robust political strategy. This strategy, which needs bipartisan support domestically and support from U.S. allies abroad, should aim for an inclusive political process and badly needed governmental reforms that can reconcile the fractious elements of Afghan society and foster more legitimate and effective governance for Afghanistan's people. With Pakistan, Washington should reinvigorate its diplomatic ties, challenge Islamabad to contribute to a peaceful settlement in Afghanistan, and commit to the country's long-term democratization. As the United States brings its engagement in the region to a more sustainable level, it must focus more on this political strategy, synchronizing it with its military activities.

 Many U.S. policymakers have attempted to identify the best means to conclude the decadelong intervention in Afghanistan without squandering the United States' hard-earned gains and countless sacrifices. One must be mindful, then, that the success of this proposed political strategy is far from assured. But in order to have a chance of succeeding, these efforts must start now, before the military and political transitions of 2014 are suddenly upon us.