On the political side, there is even less clarity. If the United States is going to leave behind a state that does not implode, an intensive political process must occur that addresses the fact that the Afghan government is in a state of crisis. Absent that process, the Afghan government is unlikely to survive a dramatic reduction in military and financial support from the international community upon which it depends.
At the moment, the processes to create opportunities for greater Afghan buy-in to a political settlement with the current government are still poorly defined. Some outreach efforts to the Taliban have reportedly begun, but their desire to participate in the current narrow and highly centralized Afghan political system is unclear. Meanwhile, the parliament — the one body that has served as a potential domestic check on the executive and a means of bringing opposition voices into government — is under attack as a special electoral court appointed by President Karzai has announced that nearly a quarter of the winners of last fall's highly contested election were invalid.
In 2014, there will be an Afghan presidential election in which President Karzai will hand over the presidency to a successor as required by the Afghan Constitution. Despite the fact that the last two elections have been marred by fraud and abuse, there is no plan in place to undertake significant electoral reform to ensure that the next election does not ignite more conflict.
The prospect of extending continued support to the Afghan government beyond 2014 through the negotiation of a strategic partnership agreement offers potential leverage for the U.S. to press the Karzai administration for greater action now, but only if we identify the necessary steps for political reform between now and 2014 that can make transition a reality.
President Obama set a direction for U.S. policy this week, but many steps are still required to achieve its goals. It is the responsibility of Congress to carry out its oversight role in the coming weeks and months through both legislation and hearings in order to push the Obama administration to provide clarity on the content for transition in all lines of effort, especially on the political side. Without that planning, we risk finding ourselves in 2014, with either transition delayed, or a breakdown in the state.
Caroline Wadhams is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, where she focuses on Afghanistan, Pakistan, terrorism issues and U.S. national security. Prior to CAP, she served as a legislative assistant on foreign policy issues for former Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.). Wadhams also worked at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York and Washington, D.C. She served as a U.S. election observer in Afghanistan's parliamentary elections in September 2010 and Pakistan's parliamentary elections in February 2008.