Give Afghanistan a Chance

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In the lead-up to Afghanistan’s presidential elections on April 5, the Taliban has launched a series of high-profile attacks in order to undermine the legitimacy of the vote. In addition, the failure of the Obama administration to secure a long-term partnership with Kabul has already created a level of uncertainty that threatens to roll back Afghanistan’s fragile gains in security and governance. To be sure, Afghanistan faces a difficult future, but if the United States and the international community continue to support Kabul in this critical transitional period, the Afghan people can secure a more prosperous future.

Afghans, as a whole, are optimistic about their country’s future. A February 2014 survey conducted by ATR Consulting found that 80 percent of Afghans see the government now as being in control — 93.7 percent in the country’s North and 73.1 percent in the South. Of course, there are reasons to be hopeful. Key development indicators, including life expectancy, electricity connections and medical care access, are improving, and a new generation of Afghans has taken advantage of the educational opportunities denied to their parents. Indeed, the Department of Defense estimates that “in 2000, Afghanistan had 1.2 million students enrolled in school, whereas now it has over 10 million.”

In recent years, Afghanistan’s women have benefited greatly. The Taliban’s reign during the 1990s was one of the most repressive and brutal in history. Women were barred from public debate, from working a job and from leaving the home without a male relative. Education for girls was all but eliminated. While women in Afghanistan still face serious challenges today, their lives are far better than they were a decade ago. In a high-profile speech, House Armed Services Committee Chairman Howard P. “Buck” McKeon recently cited that three million girls are attending school, 40,000 young women are attending public and private universities or technical institutes, and women constitute 27 percent of the Afghan parliament.

In a hopeful development, the Afghan National Security Force has taken the lead for providing security in the country. Though the Taliban launched a ferocious offensive over the 2013 fighting season, the 350,000-strong force of Afghan soldiers and police held their ground. Still, while Afghan forces are far larger and more capable then they were five years ago, they are still heavily reliant on U.S. intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance and logistics assets. A congressionally-mandated report by CNA Strategic Studies found that Afghanistan will need international trainers and advisors through at least 2018. This is because, according to U.S. intelligence, al-Qaeda is attempting to resurrect itself in Afghanistan should the United States completely withdraw at the end of this year.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s refusal to sign a bilateral agreement that would permit U.S. troops to stay in Afghanistan after 2014 has compounded the country’s difficulties. Though the economy has increased by an average of more than 9 percent from 2002 to 2012, the uncertainty caused by Karzai sparked emigration and an economic downturn at the end of 2013. What’s more, military leaders have repeatedly warned that a precipitous departure would be catastrophic for Afghan security forces. Marine General Joseph Dunford, commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan and the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force, recently warned congressional lawmakers that under a complete withdrawal of U.S. troops, “[t]he deterioration of the Afghan forces begins to happen fairly quickly in 2015. Units would run out of fuel, pay systems would not be completely operable, spare parts would not be available for vehicles and so we’d start to see decreased readiness in the Afghan security forces.” It’s no wonder all of Afghanistan’s presidential candidates support a long-term security deal with the United States.

Any post-2014 U.S. military presence would be only a fraction of today’s total, and operations would be limited to training and assisting Afghan forces, and conducting limited counterterrorism operations against al-Qaeda militants. As Army General Lloyd Austin, commander of Central Command, recently told Senate lawmakers, “a force the size of 8,000 to 12,000, plus Special Operations Forces, would be about the right size to conduct the type of things that we think ought to be conducted going forward.” However, if Kabul and Washington fail to sign a bilateral security agreement, all U.S. troops will be required to leave Afghanistan by the end of the year — an option the Obama administration is now seriously considering. Kabul has until mid-September to conclude the agreement formally, as that moment is the latest that U.S. force can initiate a full withdrawal in an orderly manner from the country before the year’s end.

Since 2001, the United States, our partners and the Afghan people have fought to defeat the Taliban — and their ideology — and to build an Afghanistan that is more secure and a government in Kabul that is more responsive to the needs of the Afghan people. The path forward will not be easy, but the United States still has core national security interests in seeing Afghanistan genuinely prosper. Ensuring that Afghanistan holds free and fair presidential elections and then finalizing a post-2014 bilateral security agreement between Washington and Kabul thus could give the Afghan people real chance to succeed.

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The Foreign Policy Initiative seeks to promote an active U.S. foreign policy committed to robust support for democratic allies, human rights, a strong American military equipped to meet the challenges of the 21st century, and strengthening America’s global economic competitiveness.
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