President Obama’s determination to end the war has been apparent since his decision to expand it. Since surging in 30,000 troops in December 2009, his public addresses place heavy emphasis on fulfilling his promise to draw down American involvement by 2014 and to give our domestic issues his undivided attention. Most of his references to the future of U.S.-Afghan relations focus on military cooperation. Only after emphasizing the strategy defeat of the regional al-Qaeda threat and highlighting the on-going security transition does he briefly mention the other problems left behind for the Afghan people to deal with and his desire to help address them. Rarely in these remarks will he detail the efforts of government agencies like USAID and the State Department to support Afghan political and economic stability.
Congress’ support for the war plummeted over the past months and years; its interest in an ongoing relationship with Afghanistan is practically non-existent. Many among them suffer from war fatigue. Others are opposed to all global engagement altogether. This anti-war group of progressive, constituent-conscious and conservative members creates an effective voice, but it will likely crumble as the military footprint diminishes. There is little appetite for long-term political and economic assistance on the Hill.
Media give the issue minimal support as well. Coverage of Afghanistan focuses heavily on the battlefield and the United States’ shrinking role therein. Headlines, to the extent that the war reaches them, explore the difficulties of asymmetric conflict and the struggles of training local security forces to achieve what international forces have been unable to do. From newspapers to broadcast journalism to blogs, nothing gets as much exposure as President Obama’s statements announcing that more troops are coming home. It is impractical to expect the public to engage Congress about Afghanistan’s future if it is not properly educated.
Despite reluctance to talk about the other aspects of the transition, there is certainly more to discuss. Economic concerns abound as protecting aid personnel becomes a greater challenge and the international community struggles to maintain its financial commitments. Without further development and investment, the fragile Afghan economy could collapse upon the roughly thirty-million people whose livelihoods depend on it. Politically, there is reason to believe that the government is not taking the necessary steps enumerated in the Tokyo Mutual Accountability Framework (TMAF) to increase efficiency and transparency. The peace process remains precariously stalled with the Taliban refusing to negotiate with the Karzai government they deem illegitimate. Unless at least some of these issues are addressed by April 2014, a corrupt nation-wide presidential election could destroy what popular legitimacy the government has and precipitate its disintegration.
There is a great deal the United States and the international community can do to help Afghanistan address these problems and ensure that the moderate gains of the past eleven years are only the beginning of Afghanistan’s revival. Programs like the National Solidarity Programme that funnel development funds through the national government into local institutions should continue to operate and promote community empowerment. They can motivate economic and political stability by upholding their financial commitments from TMAF in exchange for Afghan governance reform and engaging the region in economic roundtables. Politically, they can provide expertise and assistance in forming unbiased electoral oversight committees and ensuring voter participation and encourage Afghan leaders to communicate openly and work with the public regarding plans for a stable, transparent and peaceful country. Bolstering the legitimacy of the Afghan government while decreasing foreign military involvement could create the situation on the ground where diplomacy can effectively promote talks between the government and the insurgency.
While the U.S. government and others already support many of these initiatives, failing to promote them sews uncertainty in the minds of the Afghan people. There is considerable concern in Afghanistan that its future could look like its past: in 1992 another insurgency toppled another ineffective, unpopular regime that sparked a brutal civil war between the country’s ethnic and ideological groups. Just as last time, there is fear that the world will turn its back. If not addressed with a clear response, such pessimistic perceptions can spread exponentially, diminish popular buy-in and potentially increase the likelihood that such a nightmare scenario comes to pass.
U.S. leaders and the Obama administration in particular need to make clear to the American and Afghan people alike that remain committed to a candid and positive relationship with Afghanistan through 2014 and beyond – a partnership irrespective of military support. Demonstrating that the U.S. is openly involved in productive activities to promote political legitimacy, stability and peace will do much to quell Afghan fears of international abandonment and to encourage Afghan political leaders to take reforms seriously. We all understand that the U.S. war in Afghanistan is ending. It’s time to articulate what will happen next.
Cohen is a program assistant for Foreign Policy at the Friends Committee on National Legislation.