For the leader of a state in the midst of an uncertain future, and one with 66,000 U.S. troops in it, a visit to Washington D.C. can only be of vital importance. That is, of course, the current predicament of the oft-embattled president of Afghanistan, Hamid Karzai, as he continues his visit to the U.S. on Friday. Meeting with Secretary of State Hilary Clinton and President Obama, Karzai was set to make the case for continued U.S. engagement in Afghanistan after 2014 — the year when NATO-led forces are expected to complete their formal combat mission and transition security responsibilities to Afghan forces.
Yet, what the make up of that U.S. commitment will look like has yet to be decided, and many in Washington are bracing for yet another intense policy debate. As the gamut of options are discussed, ranging from the so-called “zero option” of pulling all remaining forces out to higher recommendations of the commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, General John Allen, two fundamental yet publicly hidden questions should and will dominate U.S. calculus vis-à-vis the future of Afghanistan: who will foot the bill for Afghanistan’s security forces, and what the impact on Pakistan will be?
After Afghanistan surpassed Vietnam as the longest combat engagement in U.S. history back in June, many Americans are left scratching their heads, wondering what was achieved for the loss in blood and treasure. The “war of necessity,” as President Obama labeled Afghanistan, was narrowed to focus on disrupting, dismantling, and defeating Al- Qaeda, but to achieve this, military leaders beginning with General Stanley McChrystal argued that a robust counterinsurgency campaign aimed at strengthening Afghanistan’s state institutions was needed. This was, by design, costly, lengthy, and messy, and even today the sustainability of gains made against the Taliban are in question. To make a bad situation even worse, rampant corruption continues to plague any possible genuine governance progress in Afghanistan; Karzai himself seems either unwilling or unable, or both, to give political clout to stamp out the corruption in his own ranks.
Yet for all the trouble, the American people, and policymakers, should understand that the strategic necessity of ensuring a level of stability in Afghanistan after the bulk of forces pull out lies in two major objectives: the first is ensuring that civil war doesn’t break out after a race for the exits in 2014, which would create a chaos that Al-Qaeda and other transnational terror groups have historically taken advantage of. The second goal should be to contain the spread of instability to Pakistan, a nuclear armed state burdened with a major insurgency problem of its own, and whose tribal areas and strategic “hedge-betting” has both indirectly and actively supported many of the Taliban elements fighting U.S. forces across the border.
It’s for these critical interests why the U.S. would be unwise to pull out all of its forces, but also must refocus on the debate to not mere numbers of forces (which although important, is only a fraction of the costs of engagement in Afghanistan; rather, the options regarding funding of the Afghan National Security Forces needs to be addressed. The current nearly $5 billion per year cost of training, equipping, and paying the Afghan army alone is not sustainable in this fiscal climate, but a lack of alternatives can alone be the primary challenge facing the future of US involvement in the country. Serious thought should go toward burden sharing of the bill with NATO allies, as well as strengthening Afghan capacity to capitalize on the vast mineral resources estimated to be worth trillions. This is more than economic development of the Afghan sate, but it will prove to be central in building the state’s capacity for security independence as well.
Pakistan must remain, also, a central part of any strategic consideration of Afghanistan. The nuclear-armed state has long supported elements of the Taliban, like the Haqqani Network, as a way to hedge against its suspicion of the fragility of long-term U.S. involvement in Afghanistan and for what might come after a withdrawal. Increasingly brazen attacks in Pakistan by groups tied to allies like Haqqani, such as the Pakistani Taliban, shows the double-edged sword of this policy and the potential for the deterioration of events in the nuclear-armed home for terrorist groups. A post-2014 U.S. strategy, for whatever troop levels are chosen as appropriate, must demonstrate to the Pakistanis that the U.S. is not doing a repeat of 1989, when after supporting the Mujahedeen resistance to the Soviet invasion, the U.S. abandoned Afghanistan’s future.
The policy debate regarding the future of America’s involvement in Afghanistan will be intense, as such a vital national security and foreign policy decision should be. The U.S. has already announced its intention to have a strategic partnership with Afghanistan. In deciding what this partnership will look like, policymakers need to avoid getting caught up in the Washington numbers game of troop levels, and instead focus on the vital goals of transitioning financial support for the Afghan security establishment and on ensuring stability in Pakistan. After over a decade of war, the American people deserve no less.