As the Obama administration negotiates with congressional lawmakers to raise the U.S. debt limit and avoid financial default, it is also negotiating with the government in Kabul to avoid "strategic default" in Afghanistan.
Afghanistan faces a looming security transition: Washington and Kabul are engaged in critical talks to permit a residual presence of U.S. troops when the NATO-led combat mission in the country finishes by the end of 2014. But in the near term, Afghanistan also will face an important political transition, with planned presidential elections in April 2014 to replace outgoing President Hamid Karzai.
In a recent congressional hearing, General Jack Keane (USA, Ret.), former Army vice chief of staff, called Afghanistan's upcoming political and security transitions the country's "most crucial milestone" since the 2001 overthrow of the Taliban. Indeed, if Afghanistan's presidential elections derail or if the Obama administration fails to secure a post-2014 military presence, then Washington and Kabul risk facing what one could call a "strategic default" in Afghanistan, endangering the hard-won but fragile security and political gains that U.S., NATO, and Afghan troops have fought to enable and sustain over the last decade. To avoid that tragic outcome, the United States must successfully clear the following hurdles:
- Successfully negotiate a bilateral security agreement with Kabul. The United States and Afghanistan concluded a strategic partnership agreement in May 2012 that outlined a vision for broad-based cooperation over the next decade. However, the May 2012 agreement required that Washington and Kabul also conclude a bilateral security agreement to create a legal framework for U.S. military and civilian personnel to operate in Afghan territory after 2014. Without this follow-on agreement, all U.S. troops will be legally obliged to withdraw from Afghanistan.
- In a June 2013 videoconference call with President Karzai, President Obama set a deadline for the bilateral security agreement to be reached by Oct. 31. However, the slow progress of negotiations between Washington and Kabul has frustrated the White House, the State Department, and others in the U.S. government. Indeed, the Washington Post recently reported that "[d]espite the Pentagon's pleas for patience, much of the rest of the administration is fed up with Karzai and sees Afghanistan as a fading priority amid far more ominous threats elsewhere in the world."
In a hopeful move, Secretary of State John Kerry visited Afghanistan last weekend to directly negotiate with President Karzai, and reportedly made significant progress towards finalizing a bilateral security agreement. Karzai, however, announced that he would convene what's known as a loya Jirga - a traditional gathering of representatives of Afghan society - to ratify the agreement next month. In light of this development, it is critical that President Obama ease his Oct. 31 deadline to accommodate Karzai, and help ensure that Washington and Kabul conclude a mutually acceptable bilateral security agreement.
- Commit to a sufficient post-2014 residual U.S. military presence and secure funding for the Afghan National Security Forces. Even if the United States secures a legal framework for a post-2014 U.S. military presence in Afghanistan, it will still have important work to do as the 54,500 American troops that are currently in the country continue to draw down.
In particular, U.S. forces are needed not only to help train Afghan security forces, but also to cooperate with them in counterterrorism efforts against al-Qaeda and other extremist groups. General Keane has estimated that a residual U.S. force capable of conducting both missions would need to consist of 20,000 U.S. troops. Other independent analysts have assessed that conducting these missions would require as many as 31,000 troops.
In addition, the United States must continue to fund the Afghan security forces at their current level of 352,000 soldiers and police until 2020. With U.S. financial and military assistance, Afghan security forces have achieved a significant level of independent operations. In a recent congressional hearing, former Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Michele Flournoy told House lawmakers that "some 99 percent of military operations in the country are now Afghan led and almost all are independent" of help from the NATO-led combat mission.
Ms. Flournoy added that while the cost of sustaining the Afghan security forces at their present level will amount to $5 billion per year, it is half the cost that the United States has spent in recent years to increase its size. Failure to commit adequate funding to the Afghan security forces in the future could led to significant cuts in the forces, thereby endangering the Afghanistan's security and stability in the face a potentially recalcitrant terrorist and militant groups in the country.
- Ensure a free and fair Afghan presidential election. Candidates to succeed Hamid Karzai already have filed for the election planned on April 5, 2014. They represent a new but fragile democratic culture that has emerged in the country since the ousting of the Taliban regime in 2001.
Ensuring that this election produces a new president with broad democratic legitimacy is of paramount importance for the future of Afghanistan. The United States, working closely with its international allies and partners, should continue to strongly support Afghan election authorities, and encourage foreign governments and international non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to send election monitors to ensure that free and fair polls occur nationwide.
During a recent congressional hearing, Ms. Flournoy warned lawmakers that "American passivity in the coming Afghan elections could be just as counterproductive as certain aspects of perceived American assertiveness were [in the 2010 elections]." She urges that the United States make clear to Afghan leaders that "[t]he quality of the election process and the quality of the new president's leadership will directly affect international donor decisions on aid."
The United States now faces a situation in Afghanistan that closely resembles the one it faced in Iraq two years ago. After talks for a residual U.S. military presence in Iraq failed in late 2011, the Obama administration completely withdrew American troops from the country. Many experts warned that Washington would quickly lose influence over political events in Iraq, and would leave the Iraqi Security Forces far from able to effectively combat terrorist and extremist groups in the country. Since the U.S. withdrawal, these warnings have been proven true. The White House must recognize that it cannot repeat in Afghanistan the mistake of "strategic default" in Iraq.
Ronald Neumann, former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, perhaps put it best when he said: "We are not 'winding down the war.' We are reducing but not eliminating our presence in a war that will continue." This perspective should guide U.S. negotiators over the days to come. The consequences of "strategic default" in Afghanistan are too grave.Want to learn more? Dr. Frederick W. Kagan of the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) and Dr. Ashley J. Tellis of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (CEIP) will discuss the challenges facing the U.S.-Afghanistan relationship at the Foreign Policy Initiative's 2013 Forum on October 22nd at the Andrew W. Mellon Auditorium in downtown Washington D.C. For more information or to RSVP, visit FPI's website.
Evan Moore is a Senior Policy Analyst for the Foreign Policy Initiative.