Up Front

Afghanistan-Pakistan Review Acknowledges Challenges

Vanda Felbab-Brown

The Afghanistan-Pakistan Review (pdf) focuses mainly on policy inputs and emphasizes some of the important tactical gains. Nonetheless, implicitly buried in the Summary is the acknowledgement of two significant challenges for the stabilization effort: the persistence of Taliban sanctuaries in Pakistan and the poor quality of governance in Afghanistan. The Review discusses these two challenges in terms of inputs – U.S. engagement with Pakistan and efforts to build strategic partnership with Pakistan and U.S. and international efforts to work with local, such as district, Afghan officials to improve governance.

In fact, both issues remain enormous obstacles for success: Despite U.S. large financial aid to Pakistan and the establishment of strategic dialogue and extensive engagement with Pakistan, Rawalpindi and Islamabad continue to differentiate between Salafi groups focused on attacking Pakistan and those focused on Afghanistan and do not fully and resolutely target the Afghan-oriented terrorist groups. Despite the strategic engagement, the U.S. government has managed to build few levers with Pakistan.

Similarly, the poor governance and corruption in Afghanistan has escaped effective management by the international community. Aggressive pressure on President Karzai has alienated him from the international community without making him deliver on improved governance. The resulting “solution” to governance improvement has been to “go local”: deal with local officials, especially at the district level. But local officials are appointed by Kabul, and their budgets depend on Kabul. Often they are as venal and incompetent as officials in Kabul. Moreover, a whole host of decisions need to be taken at the national level. Thus, dealing with local officials can supplement, but not compensate for governance that needs to come from Kabul.

Significantly, the summary tries to straddle both the 2011 and 2014 timeline and reiterates that while Lisbon made the 2014 commitment strong, there will be a reduction in U.S. forces in 2011. U.S. domestic considerations were likely a key component of why 2011 was again emphasized it in the Review, despite the credibility costs of U.S. commitment it generates in Afghanistan and Pakistan. One needs to wonder whether the U.S. and international commitment to 2014 can be seen as credible in a sufficiently robust way for Afghans and Pakistanis to move away from their current short-term focus on power and profit maximization toward a long-term focus on building up two very fragile states and robustly linking them to their populations so that the legitimacy of governance on both sides of the Durand Line can be resurrected.

Efforts to improve governance can be further complicated by the pressure on resources and times and the need to resort to shortcuts on the battlefield, such as through the use of irregular forces called Afghan Local Police. It is significant that this highly controversial policy mechanism is emphasized in the review and its role is defined as helping to bring about stability, not merely being eyes and ears for ANSF. Although the formal definition of the Afghan Local Police is that they are not militias, supposedly because the Afghan Ministry of Interior has an oversight role, it is hard to see how such a distinction is not merely semantic. In fact, the Afghan Local Police can easily become yet another version of a long list of militias and militia-like efforts, all of which have so far backfired and worsened governance.

Rather significantly, the Review also embraces Afghan-led reconciliation with the Taliban – a major development in Washington’s thinking over the past year. For a long time, Washington has been reluctant to embrace anything more than local reintegration of individual Taliban fighters who come in from the cold. But over the past year, Washington has come to accept a much more expanded concept of reconciliation that involves even negotiations with the Taliban, albeit with some redlines. The Review does not define what reconciliation means, but its acknowledgement in the assessment is a significant shift compared to last year. Nonetheless, serious questions and dilemmas continue to be with reconciliation. Is U.S. embrace of reconciliation a sign of weakness and sense that resources will be limited? Or is it a sign that the surge has generated sufficient progress for the U.S. to feel that the Afghan government can now negotiate from a position of strength? Even if there is some clarity as to redlines – such as no safe havens for Al Qaeda and no Taliban control of territory – what are the offers the Kabul government and the international community are prepared to make to the Taliban? How can the redlines be enforced?

Clearly, some major improvements and tactical gains have been accomplished in parts of Afghanistan since the president’s 2009 review and the surge. The questions remain as to whether these gains can be expanded to a strategic and Afghan-wide level and whether they can be sustained.

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