Authors: Seth G. Jones, Associate Director, International Security and Defense Policy Center, RAND Corporation, and Keith Crane, Director, Environment, Energy, and Economic Development program, RAND Corporation
The United States has now been at war in Afghanistan for more than a decade. The sacrifice in blood and treasure has been substantial. Some 2,300 American servicemen and women have lost their lives, more than 19,000 have been injured, and nearly $650 billion has been spent over the course of the United States’ longest war. The results, however, can only be described as inconclusive. The reach and effectiveness of the Afghan central government remain circumscribed, challenged by various armed groups and undermined by pervasive corruption. The economy has grown rapidly, albeit from a low starting place, but remains largely dependent on international aid flows that will certainly shrink.
The combination of high costs and middling returns has left the American public increasingly skeptical of the utility of the U.S. commitment to Afghanistan. The 2011 death of Osama bin Laden, mastermind of the 9/11 attacks that brought the American military to Afghanistan in 2001, only reinforced that perception. Yet the United States retains interests in Afghanistan, including preventing the reemergence of a terrorist safe haven and promoting stability in the region, which could be further undermined by a total withdrawal of American military forces.
As this Council Special Report explains, 2014 will be a pivotal year for Afghanistan. An election will, presumably, bring a new president to Kabul. The U.S. military will complete its transfer of responsibility to the Afghan National Security Forces, making the war effort Afghan-led. And, as donor financing begins to come down, the Afghan economy will need to find sustainable, internal sources of growth.
Authors Seth Jones and Keith Crane recommend a number of steps the United States can and should take to advance its interests during this transition. During the presidential elections, they write, Washington should encourage multiethnic political coalitions to increase the representativeness of (and decrease divisions within) the Afghan government. The United States should also help the Afghan National Security Forces and other relevant authorities secure election sites and improve the quality and transparency of the election itself. They further recommend a continued military presence in Afghanistan of eight thousand to twelve thousand U.S. soldiers pursuing a “foreign internal defense mission.” These troops, ideally with further support from NATO and other allies, would conduct strikes against terrorists and train, advise, and assist Afghan national and local forces; as is obvious, all this depends on the willingness of the Afghan government to agree. The authors also encourage the United States and other donors to continue their civilian aid pledges, provided that Afghanistan meets its commitments to good governance and transparency, and suggest small-scale economic initiatives to help improve relationships among countries in the region. Finally, they acknowledge that there is unlikely to be a major change in the troubled U.S.-Pakistan relationship, in no small part because Islamabad continues to provide a sanctuary to the Afghan Taliban. As a result, the authors recommend that Washington seeks ways to reduce its dependence on Islamabad for what the United States does in Afghanistan and tightly calibrates its military assistance to the Pakistani government.
Afghanistan After the Drawdown is a sober, thoughtful assessment of Afghanistan’s prospects in the coming year and beyond. It offers U.S. policymakers a realistic set of options in the political, security, and economic realms that are consistent with the scope of American interests, the resources the United States can reasonably bring to bear, and Afghan realities. Despite the many challenges facing Afghanistan in the years ahead, this report argues persuasively that the United States still can, and should, seek a role in its future.