Parties shouldn’t make Afghanistan an election issue

The Strategic Partnership Agreement signed with Afghanistan on May 2 is historic but still a skeleton awaiting detail to give it the musculature to articulate its full meaning. It is historic in declaring an American determination to remain involved in Afghanistan so that the Afghan state can survive; the difficulty of reaching agreement after lengthy negotiation and the incorporation of earlier agreements on prisoner handling and night raids adds to the significance of the commitments. It also puts on record the U.S. commitment neither to establish permanent bases in Afghanistan nor to use the country as a base from which to attack its neighbors. The negative commitments are enormously important to the region and to Afghanistan’s own sovereignty, even though the neighbors will view these statements with suspicion for some time. 

In signing the agreement, the Obama administration has taken a significant step toward answering doubts about our commitment — doubts that lead insurgents to avoid negotiations, Afghans to hedge on all sides and avoid long-term investments or commitments and Pakistan to base its policy on the assumption that everything we have worked for in Afghanistan for 11 years will collapse when America runs out of will.

Yes, the commitments of the partnership are important. But the details have yet to be negotiated. Whether they are called advisers or trainers, will some U.S. combat forces remain to take the field with Afghan soldiers and link them to the air power, supply and medical evacuation that the Afghans will still lack for some time after 2014? Will the international community, including the United States, actually fund adequate Afghan security forces? Will Afghans keep their commitments to better governance and less corruption? There are reasons for doubt. The absence of detail will continue to call our true policy into question until the implementation policies are agreed to and undertaken by both governments. 

War, as most great commanders and writers since Sun Tzu have recognized, is as much about psychology as it is about force. This is particularly germane in Afghanistan, a traumatized country shattered by 30 years of conflict. Afghans have learned that suspicion is the price of survival. They are disinclined to believe in words — only the proof of the details will make them believers. Moreover, they tend, in my experience, to focus on the present, seeing that as the condition against which to make their calculations for survival with little faith that promises will be redeemed. What they see now are security forces not yet ready to stand on their own, and potentially ethnically factionalized, and an ally that speaks in the same breath of support and withdrawal. 

President Obama speaks of progress. But Afghan forces are shaky and still to be tested by real responsibility. The dangerous areas of Afghanistan are only now being transferred to Afghan control. Much might be accomplished in two years, but only in the next year will the military transition to Afghan forces’ lead be tested, and the claims of progress be put to the proof. 

Rushing the pace of withdrawal of U.S. forces and funds cuts the chance of success to a razor-thin margin. Rushing gambles that the enemy cannot regroup in sanctuaries and retake transferred territory before weak Afghan forces are ready. Rushing confuses PowerPoint charts of success with a complex reality on the ground.

In the midst of the silly season of campaigning, U.S. politicians should think carefully about the positions they take as the Afghanistan policy unrolls. If the confusion of voices in our electoral season leads Afghans to doubt that the partnership or agreement has meaning, their resulting actions will make success that much more difficult. Those in the United States tired of the war should nevertheless be careful of declaring failure before the strategy has actually been tested. 

Should Obama win reelection, the Democrats will have four years to live with the consequences of his policy. A breakdown in Afghanistan and the reemergence of al Qaeda could well renew old questions of the Democratic Party’s ability to handle national security issues. Republicans need to remember that if Mitt Romney wins, they will still be responsible for bringing the war to a successful conclusion. If they have undercut confidence, the new president will be left with the unpleasant choices of again increasing troop strength or taking responsibility for failure well into his presidency — a Hobson’s choice indeed. 

Both sides need to resist the temptation to make Afghanistan an electoral issue. Quiet support while waiting to see if the strategy can deliver results would be the much better choice for all concerned.

Neumann served as U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, Bahrain and Algeria.