Afghanistan: New U.S. Administration, 
New Directions
Afghanistan: New U.S. Administration, 
New Directions
Table of Contents
  1. Overview
The Taliban’s Neighbourhood and Regional Diplomacy with Afghanistan
The Taliban’s Neighbourhood and Regional Diplomacy with Afghanistan
Briefing 89 / Asia 7 minutes

Afghanistan: New U.S. Administration, 
New Directions

Seven years after the U.S.-led intervention in Afghanistan the country is still at war against extremists and has developed few resilient institutions.


I. Overview

Seven years after the U.S.-led intervention in Afghanistan the country is still at war against extremists and has developed few resilient institutions. A policy review by the Obama administration has reopened debate about how to defeat the forces of violent global jihadism – al-Qaeda and its Taliban protectors – in Afghanistan and in neighbouring Pakistan. In most cases, the ideas on offer – from declaring victory and pulling out, to negotiating with the insurgents, to organising regional conferences, to prioritising relationships with favoured individuals and allies over the development of strong democratic institutions – have been tried at least once in the past two decades, with no success: we know now what not to do.

Knowing what to do, and how to do it, is harder. What is needed in Afghanistan is the creation of a resilient state, which will only emerge if moderate forces and democratic norms are strengthened and robust institutions are built that can uphold and are accountable to the rule of law. Only when citizens perceive the state as legitimate and capable of delivering security, good governance and rule of law will Afghans be able to resist jihadi pressures and overtures. The Afghanistan crisis is the outcome of decades of internal conflict. No short-term solution will resolve the crisis overnight. Time and patience are needed to build the infrastructure and institutions to stabilise the Afghan state and root out the jihadi networks.

While it has made military gains, the Taliban today enjoys little support among an Afghan public tired of war. Its leadership does not command a significant standing army; indeed the Taliban is a disparate network of groups using the name as they pursue different agendas. Disillusionment with both the international community and the state has grown but the vast majority of people remain far more fearful of what would happen if foreign troops were to leave rather than stay. Strengthening popular support and goodwill should be the heart of the counter-insurgency and the creation of a resilient state.

It will be impossible to root out al-Qaeda and other extremist networks without tackling not only the local but also the regional conditions that nurture and sustain them. The Taliban and other jihadis like the Hizb-e Islami and the Haqqani network do not have deep local and popular roots. They are the outgrowth of years of civil war and the Pakistani military’s support to Islamist militant groups, dating back to the U.S.-led anti-Soviet jihad during the 1980s. Militant networks in neighbouring Pakistan today spawn new groups that are increasingly focused not only on undermining the new civilian government there, but also on carrying out attacks in neighbouring Afghanistan and India.

The narrow focus on confronting al-Qaeda through counter-terrorism measures often characterised by aggressive military action, arbitrary detentions, indiscriminate raids and house searches in the Pashtun areas of Afghanistan has not only failed to reduce religious extremism, but fuelled local discontent and violence.

What Should Be Done

In Afghanistan

  • Back representative government: Any successful and sustainable effort to stabilise Afghanistan rests on the presence of robust, representative and accountable governing institutions, with checks and balances between the executive, legislative and judicial branches. There is need for more democracy, not less. International efforts should strengthen the legitimacy and reach of constitutionally-mandated institutions, not support parallel structures, as well as placing new emphasis on strengthening local government structures for delivery of services. Such an approach is also preferable to relying on the good intentions or promises of chosen individual clients. 
  • Emphasise the rule of law: There should be an intense new focus on building the institutions to enforce the law, as well as new emphasis on holding officials accountable for any abuse of power, incompetence or illegal actions. Law and order are basic building blocks to ensure state legitimacy and integral to any successful counter-terrorism measures, as well as efforts to combat opium production and trafficking. U.S. actions must similarly conform to legal norms, including an end to arbitrary detentions. The Obama administration should also have a timeframe for closing the Bagram prison and negotiating a Status of Forces agreement.
  • Expand Afghan oversight and U.S. civilian management of development assistance: Development efforts must enhance the capacity of Afghan government structures and respect Afghan sovereignty. Additional project funding should be expanded to a range of Afghan agencies, with provisions for careful monitoring and evaluation. At the same time, the U.S. Congress should shift control over assistance funding away from the Defense Department to experienced civilian agencies. USAID’s direct-hire staff for Afghanistan should increase.
  • Improve coordination: Success in Afghanistan requires far more effective coordination by the U.S. not just with the Afghan government, but also with the UN and other nations involved. Formal and informal mechanisms should be developed to ensure a consistency of purpose and effort.
  • Build Afghan army and police: Training the Afghan army must be a core role for new U.S. troop commitments. The reform of the ministry of interior should also be a priority, with greater civilian oversight over police reform. The development of professional security services, under clear civilian command and control, would provide foreign forces their ultimate exit strategy. Emphasis must shift from using the police to fight the insurgency to using it to fight crime and reinforce law and order. Corruption and political appointments are derailing these efforts and must be addressed. Tangible steps include appointing a career police commissioner and establishing community liaison boards.
  • Identify appropriate roles for U.S. security forces: In addition to helping build the Afghan army and police, the U.S. military should focus on securing and protecting population centres and roads rather than on large-scale sweeps through areas with a limited Afghan institutional presence. The U.S. should also work with Pakistan to secure known crossing points along the border. U.S. Special Forces operations should be brought under the command of the head of ISAF and U.S. Forces in Afghanistan. 
  • Respect government advice on use of force: The Afghan government’s appraisals of the sustainability of political and development initiatives should guide the efforts of additional military forces, from training local forces to securing areas. There must be no fighting for fighting’s sake. U.S. forces should severely limit the use of air power, given its potential for significant civilian casualties.

In Pakistan

  • Strengthen civilian rule in Pakistan: By helping to consolidate civilian control over national security policy, U.S. support for Pakistan’s democratic transition will help a fragile civilian government, committed to preventing Pakistan’s borderlands from being used by al-Qaeda, Afghan insurgents and Pakistani extremists to launch attacks to its region and beyond. It will also empower the civilian leadership to implement its policy preferences. Another direct or indirect military intervention in Pakistan’s political governance will, as in the past, only serve to embolden jihadi groups and networks in Pakistan and across the border in Afghanistan.
  • Support political reform in FATA: The U.S. should support political reform in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and make further economic assistance, including for Reconstruction Opportunity Zones, contingent on such efforts. The U.S. should also respond to a humanitarian crisis by expanding assistance to the hundreds of thousands displaced by the conflict in FATA and Swat. This will help win hearts and minds and deprive the jihadis of a potential pool of recruits.
  • Condition and monitor military assistance: The U.S. should improve oversight and accountability mechanisms over the disbursement of Coalition Support Funds. It should also condition military assistance on demonstrable steps by the Pakistani military to support the civilian government’s efforts to eliminate al-Qaeda command and control and to wind up local and regional jihadi networks countrywide, imposing targeted sanctions in the event of non-compliance. 

What Should Not Be Done 

Negotiations with jihadi groups, especially from a position of weakness: While the possibility should not be excluded of identifying and negotiating with Afghan insurgent groups prepared to abandon their jihadi ambitions, lay down arms, and accept the Afghan constitution and rule of law, great caution is appropriate. Numerous peace agreements with jihadi groups and networks, in Pakistan and in Afghanistan, have broken down within months. In each case they have enhanced the power and activities of violent insurgents while doing nothing to build sustainable institutions. While agreement may be reached not to attack Afghan or Pakistani forces, violence then tends to be directed at others, mostly unarmed civilians, until agreements break down and insurgents once again target security institutions. 

Focus on generalised regional solutions at this time: Iran, Pakistan and the Central Asian states will all play a major role in Afghanistan’s future, but separate bilateral negotiations are likely to be more immediately productive than attempting a regional package deal brokered by the U.S., which would be difficult to obtain now, and probably have little impact on the ground.

Pulling out: Withdrawing international troops with the threat that any regrouping of jihadis or al-Qaeda can be countered by air power and special forces would simply return the country to the control of jihadis. Air power has not proven successful against insurgents or terrorist bases. Neglect would allow the region to descend into further chaos, as it did in the 1990s.

  • Find the right Pashtun: Putting in power a tough Pashtun leader to rule with an iron fist would inflame ethnic tensions within Afghanistan, reignite a proxy war among regional powers and return the country to an even worse cycle of violence.
  • Arm the villagers: Afghanistan is awash with weapons and armed groups. Creating unaccountable local militias – based on false analogies with Iraq – will only worsen ethnic tensions and violence. 

Kabul/Washington/Brussels, 13 March 2009

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