Afghanistan after the drawdown

Editor’s Note: This piece originally appeared on Lawfare. 

With the wars in Iraq, Syria, Ukraine, and Yemen dominating headlines, Afghanistan appears to have gotten lost in the shuffle. Afghanistan seems passé, both in U.S. policy circles and among Americans in general. In 2014—for the first time since the 9/11 attacks—roughly half of Americans polled by Gallup thought that the United States should never have sent troops to Afghanistan. Three-quarters of Americans in another poll agreed with President Obama’s decision to withdraw all U.S. forces (aside from a small advisory presence) by the end of 2016. Some thought the withdrawal should proceed even more quickly.

Proponents of rapid withdrawal generally make one or more of three arguments. First, many are disappointed by what the interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq have accomplished and believe that little more is likely to be accomplished after so many years of shortcomings. Second, with “core al Qaeda” in Afghanistan and Pakistan heavily degraded and new terrorist threats emerging throughout the Middle East and beyond, many observers believe that scarce U.S. resources are best deployed elsewhere. And finally, there is a broad sense that U.S. domestic politics will not endure a continued, large-scale commitment to Afghanistan.

Afghanistan does not deserve a blank check, nor will U.S. domestic politics allow decisionmakers to write one even if they wanted to. But Afghanistan does deserve continued U.S. support at lower levels for an extended period of time – likely involving fewer U.S. troops than the 3,500 that are currently authorized for Iraq and assistance at levels between what the U.S. annually provides to Israel and what it provided to Colombia from 2001 to 2010 (i.e., somewhere between US$1-3 billion annually after 2016). 

Aside from the humanitarian implications of a precipitous U.S. withdrawal, the United States has three important national interests at stake in the country. First, Afghanistan possesses bases that are critical to U.S counterterrorism operations. Although the United States could launch these operations from alternative sites, the alternatives come with substantial drawbacks that would severely hinder U.S. intelligence and military activities. Second, a reasonably stable Afghanistan is important for Pakistan’s stability. Pakistani officials worry that Afghanistan will increasingly be used as a sanctuary for militants fighting the Pakistani state, and they worry that a collapsing Afghanistan would unleash a wave of refugees that would further destabilize the region. Finally, Afghanistan represents a critical investment for the NATO alliance. Abandoning Afghanistan would weaken NATO’s reputation for resolve. None of these interests is critical, which means an open-ended commitment to Afghanistan is inadvisable. But all three are important and warrant a continued investment in Afghanistan’s stability.

In this essay, we lay out the reasons for optimism about the potential for a satisfactory (if far from ideal) outcome, important caveats to that optimism, and what a sustainable strategy for the long haul in Afghanistan might look like.

The good news: Progress and the potential for an acceptable outcome

With headlines dominated by suicide bombings and government corruption, there is a widespread perception that Afghanistan is a disaster. These headlines, however, must be understood in context. When U.S. forces arrived in Afghanistan in October 2001, Afghanistan had been devastated by more than two decades of war. Hundreds of thousands of Afghans had been killed, millions wounded, and more than one in six was a refugee. Child mortality (death before the age of five) ran at an estimated 13 percent. Afghanistan was the poorest country in Asia, and it wasn’t even close—the next poorest country, Nepal, had more than twice Afghanistan’s annual per capita income of US$115. Now, more than six million refugees have returned to Afghanistan, child mortality rates have fallen by over one-quarter, more than half of children attend school (compared to approximately 15 percent—none of them girls—under the Taliban), and income levels are roughly six times what they were before the U.S. intervention, according to the World Bank’s World Development Indicators. In interviews conducted by Oxfam, when Afghans were asked to identify the most harmful period in recent Afghan history, 38 percent named communist rule (from 1979-1992), 22 percent the subsequent period of civil war (1992-1996), and 33 percent the period of Taliban rule (1996-2001); only 3 percent identified the post-2001 period as the most harmful.

Of course, the question is whether these gains can be sustained. The record so far is mixed, but there are a number of reasons for optimism. It is true that violence has increased as the U.S. withdrawal has proceeded, with civilian deaths increasing from the rate of approximately 3,000 per year (the average from 2010 to 2013) to approximately 3,700 in 2014, according to recent figures from the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan. On the other hand, the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) has taken on primary responsibility for providing security and has defied expectations to become a passably capable, resilient, and nationally representative force. 

Recent political developments also offer grounds for hope. The Afghan political system may be flawed, but it has absorbed many struggles for power—ones that in a previous era would have been settled by violence. The establishment of the Ghani-Abdullah unity government is a premier example of Afghan politicians reaching across ethnic and factional divides to achieve consensus. Furthermore, neither the government nor the Taliban have cast the conflict as an ethnic or sectarian war, and both have generally refrained from engaging in indiscriminate attacks , though that may change if militants affiliated with the Islamic State gain ground. For now, the tradition of pragmatism in Afghan politics, the current government’s broad support base, and a relative absence of communal violence all help prevent the conflict from escalating, and could eventually ease acceptance of a negotiated settlement.

The bad news: A long, hard slog

For all of these relatively heartening developments, though, the challenges facing Afghanistan remain daunting. In the coming years, as the U.S. drawdown proceeds, the ANSF is likely to lose control of several peripheral areas such as portions of Zabul, Helmand, or Kunar provinces. As long as U.S. and other international support is not withdrawn too abruptly, and government morale is not too badly shaken by insurgent gains, the ANSF should be able to retain control of the major cities, highways, and provincial capitals, as well as the large majority of districts.

The odds of the Afghan government actually winning an outright military victory are remote—not because military victories in insurgencies are never possible, but because this particular government is too weak to do so. According to RAND research, governments characterized by low state capacity and a mix of autocratic and weak democratic institutions on average win against insurgents in only one case in five—and Afghanistan scores very poorly on both of these dimensions. Nor is it likely to substantially improve its state capacity anytime in the next decade or more, even with continued international assistance. However, it could, and should, work to improve its political inclusiveness in the hope of eventually reaching a negotiated settlement with the armed opposition.

The odds of the Afghan government actually winning an outright military victory are remote—not because military victories in insurgencies are never possible, but because this particular government is too weak to do so.

Unfortunately, the chances for a peace deal are poor in the short to medium term. Negotiated settlements typically require two preconditions: agreement between the warring parties on the balance of power between them, and mechanisms to ensure all parties to a peace deal live up to their commitments. Neither of these conditions is present in Afghanistan. First, no one is certain how the ANSF will perform as the U.S. and international drawdown proceeds. The Taliban and other militants will likely want to test the Afghan government, probing to see if it will collapse or at least weaken enough to improve the insurgents’ negotiating position. Second, the government in Kabul has yet to demonstrate its ability to commit to political compromises. The government’s credibility was badly damaged in the years after the initial U.S. invasion, when the Karzai administration and its allies rebuffed or exploited efforts by former members of the Taliban to reach an accommodation with the new government. The new administration led by President Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah will need to demonstrate an ability to commit to compromises with dissident groups—a reputation that can normally only be earned over time—before a peace deal can be reached.

Just because a negotiated settlement is highly unlikely in the short term does not mean that one is impossible over the longer term. It is precisely this longer-term prospect of an acceptable peace deal that should guide U.S. policy toward Afghanistan over the coming years.

A policy for the long haul

What should a U.S. policy for the long haul in Afghanistan look like?

There are three key elements to such a strategy. First, the United States and its international partners must prevent the collapse of the ANSF or the loss of truly crucial cities or lines of communication. Such a commitment would entail continued (albeit reduced) subventions for the ANSF, a sizeable advisory presence (numbering in the very low thousands, likely supplemented by small NATO contributions), and air strikes and other limited direct forms of support. The United States has committed to cover three-quarters of Afghanistan’s security budget in 2015; a precipitous decline in this assistance would be disastrous.

Second, while levels of international development assistance are scheduled to—and should—be substantially reduced, sufficient assistance must be maintained to prevent a fiscal crisis or rapid economic contraction. Simultaneously, U.S. diplomats must work to keep corruption in Afghanistan below stratospheric levels, to prevent backtracking on political power-sharing arrangements, and to encourage outreach to critical leaders and populations that have largely been left out of political life and its attendant patronage—including efforts to reach out to the armed opposition.

Obviously such efforts are easier said than done. But the reallocation of a sizeable proportion of international assistance to direct Afghan budget support (rather than spending, for instance, on foreign contractors) should help to make a reduced aid allocation go farther. Moreover, reductions in international assistance should help to reduce opportunities for corruption, although it will likely persist at high levels. Leverage has been and will continue to be a challenge. American diplomats seldom enjoy much leverage over countries that are strategically important to the United States. But the U.S. drawdown should help to convince Afghans that the threat to condition aid on the government’s performance is now a very real possibility. Afghanistan will remain one of the most aid-dependent countries in the world, making Afghan elites potentially vulnerable to U.S. efforts to exert leverage.

Finally, if neither victory nor a political settlement are likely in the short term, and if complete withdrawal is unpalatable, then the United States must ensure that its support of Afghanistan remains politically sustainable. The costs of the efforts outlined above are substantial, but they are within the bounds of other policies that the U.S. has sustained for decades in other parts of the world. The United States is currently deploying over 3,000 military personnel in Iraq to perform a similar mission as the one envisioned here for Afghanistan. The United States has maintained between 1,000 and 1,600 military personnel—and many more contractors—for over a decade in Djibouti as part of its efforts to support counterterrorism partners throughout the Horn of Africa and conduct operations in Yemen. Other operations numbering in the hundreds or thousands of U.S. military personnel have endured for a decade or more in Colombia, the Philippines, the Sinai Peninsula, and Kosovo. Although the actual scale and composition of a force for Afghanistan would have to be tailored to that country’s particular circumstances, there is no reason to believe that a similar mission—with numbers appropriate to meet our objectives—would be unsustainable in Afghanistan.

If neither victory nor a political settlement are likely in the short term, and if complete withdrawal is unpalatable, then the United States must ensure that its support of Afghanistan remains politically sustainable.

Of course, U.S. personnel would be taking higher risks in Afghanistan than they have in these other theaters, and only time will tell if the American public will tolerate the small number of casualties that this presence would likely entail. After fourteen years of fighting, however, Americans appear willing to accept some losses in counter-terrorism missions, particularly if those losses are not a prelude to a larger intervention.

The costs of direct security and development aid to Afghanistan would also be sizeable—but again, in line with other commitments that the United States has sustained over long periods. Assistance to Afghanistan is currently expected to cost the United States approximately $4 billion per year by 2016—a dramatic decrease from its peak of $16.7 billion in 2010 and bound to fall further. By 2016, the costs of U.S. assistance will fall to roughly the levels that the United States has provided annually to Israel for decades; in the years after that, U.S. assistance is likely to gradually fall closer to the $700 million per year that the United States provided to Colombia from 2001 to 2010.

If the Afghan government is performing well on a number of critical dimensions (e.g., keeping corruption under control, abiding by power-sharing arrangements, and making progress toward reconciliation with elements of the armed opposition), then the United States should be willing to reinforce this progress with contributions at the higher end of this range – and maybe higher for short periods of time, if it would help to bring opposition groups into the fold. On the other hand, if the government is showing no signs of progress, the United States should keep its commitments relatively low, even at the risk of major setbacks in the country.

For a relatively reasonable price, the United States can dramatically reduce the chances that the Afghan government will collapse. Neither victory nor a negotiated settlement, however, is likely in the cards for some time—at least five years, and quite possibly a decade or more. Instead, the United States should expect a prolonged military stalemate, with gradual progress toward a political resolution of the conflict possible over time. Such an outcome is much less than that for which American decisionmakers had once hoped. Given the alternatives on display in places such as Iraq, Syria, and Libya, however, it should be an acceptable one—both for the United States and the Afghan people.