Up for Debate: US Afghanistan policy


Nearly two decades have passed since the U.S. invaded Afghanistan in the wake of the 9/11 attacks to topple the Taliban regime and root out al-Qaeda, and it is now the longest war in American history. Amid growing pressure at home, not least from President Donald Trump, to wind down American involvement and ongoing U.S.-Taliban talks in Doha, we asked six Afghanistan experts to take stock of the situation and answer one key question: What should be the U.S. objectives in Afghanistan?


Vanda Felbab-Brown
The US has multiple objectives in Afghanistan, but security tops the list

The primary U.S. objective in Afghanistan remains minimizing the chance that Afghan territory would again be used for attacks on the U.S. homeland, people, and assets. A corollary is to minimize the chance that Afghanistan would be used for attacks on U.S. allies. A very important U.S. interest is to make sure that instability in Afghanistan does not jeopardize nuclear stability in South Asia in any of the following ways: by spilling over into Pakistan in a way that threatens the security of its nuclear weapons; by ensnarling Pakistan in Afghanistan’s insecurity in a way that distracts Pakistan from the critical need to improve its internal stability; or by drawing India and Pakistan into a proxy war in Afghanistan that could escalate into a serious military confrontation between the two countries.

However, even as the United States is on its way out of Afghanistan and is revising the mode of its engagement in the country over the past two decades, it still has other interests in Afghanistan’s internal stability. The objective should be to transition out of Afghanistan in a way that minimizes the chance of a massive humanitarian catastrophe, such as an escalating civil war, and that preserves the capacity for humanitarian assistance during such a calamity. Finally, the United States does have an interest in preserving and maximizing political pluralism and human rights in Afghanistan as they best assure the country’s long-term stability and are consistent with our humanitarian and democratic credo.

Clearly, however, the capabilities the United States should devote to these multiple objectives vary and also depend on the domestic support which they can generate.

Dr. Vanda Felbab-Brown is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and author of Aspiration and Ambivalence: The Strategies and Realities or Counterinsurgency and State Building in Afghanistan.

Javid Ahmad
Afghanistan is too dangerous to fail

For more than a decade, the principal U.S. objectives in Afghanistan had been to dismantle terrorist groups, militarily defeat the Taliban insurgency, buttress the central government by strengthening democratic processes, and nurture a new generation of reformist Afghans. In recent years, however, with an outright military win nowhere in sight, Washington’s goal has steadily shifted from winning the Afghan war to not losing it.

But now, as Washington negotiates a political deal with the Taliban, it should concurrently pursue three overarching objectives in Afghanistan.

First, Washington should create the necessary conditions to militarily disengage from Afghanistan by employing a win-win strategy that secures the interests of both the United States and Afghanistan. To do so, it is crucial to pursue an inclusive, dignified, and sustainable peace with the Taliban that is conditional. To that end, Washington must make clear it will not accept a bad deal by conditioning any future U.S. military drawdown on specific actions from the Taliban, mainly to reduce violence. Washington should, meanwhile, pressure the group’s leaders and rank and file to either reconcile, de-escalate, defect, or declare neutrality.

Second, the U.S. should pursue a limited, but intense, counterterrorism engagement in Afghanistan by leaving behind a modest military contingent in the country.

Third, Washington should avoid hastily embracing wild and untested ideas, particularly new governance formulas for Afghanistan, that are likely to create long-term problems. Such proposals run a greater risk of fracturing the Afghan security structures, including increasing defections and desertions. Instead, Washington should emphasize improving governance and political processes and encourage democratic continuity.

Finally, Afghanistan is too dangerous to fail. The country is a “glass half full,” but those gains will be wasted if we end up throwing the glass away altogether. Washington should not repeat history by abandoning it again.

Michael Kugelman
Talking to the Taliban is the right thing to do

Washington is already pursuing the right objective in Afghanistan: Talking to the Taliban.

This is admittedly risky. The Taliban, which unlike America has no urgency to get a deal, has much of the leverage. Also, the current talks have excluded Kabul, which raises the possibility of the Afghan government getting shut out of its own peace process. And even if there’s a deal, paving the way for a U.S. withdrawal, the insurgents could take up arms again once American troops have left.

But pursuing talks is still the way to go.

First, there’s no other option. More than 100,000 U.S. troops couldn’t defeat the Taliban, so the 14,000 there now certainly won’t either.

Second, the war is getting worse, and fast. Casualty figures for Afghan security forces and civilians have broken new records. The Taliban controls more territory than ever before. Drug production, which finances much of the insurgency, has reached unprecedented levels.

Third, conditions have never been better for talks. President Donald Trump, who desperately wants a peace deal to give him cover for a withdrawal, is fully on board. The Taliban, showing its own seriousness, has sent top officials to the talks — including a founding leader and a chief of staff to supreme leader Mullah Haibatullah Akhunzada.

Washington owes it to the Afghan people to try to negotiate a deal with the Taliban. But if it fails, Washington owes it to America — which has spent billions of dollars and lost nearly 2,500 lives — to accept its losses and head for the exits.

Marvin Weinbaum
Afghanistan is vital to US geo-strategic interests and a critical test of its leadership

As pressures grow for the United States to extricate itself from a 17-year-long conflict in Afghanistan, a war-weary American public and an impatient president are increasingly questioning U.S. security interests in Afghanistan and the region. Outright military victory over the Taliban insurgency now seems impossible, and a sustainable, comprehensive peace agreement improbable. With the U.S. having a unique and indispensable role in promoting Afghan and regional stability, the best case for continuing military and financial support for Afghanistan is that it serves the U.S.’s vital geo-strategic interests and credibility as an international actor.

There are conflicts in international affairs for which there are likely to be no conclusive outcomes and, given the alternatives, are at best managed. The continuing U.S. commitment in the face of a stalemated conflict must be at a level sufficiently high to provide for Afghanistan’s defense and economic viability, and low enough to retain the support of the American people and government. Stability can buy time in which the Afghan government may be able to provide improved security, economic opportunities, and needed justice reform. With these gains, there exists an opportunity, however challenging, to outlast the insurgency. Through a gradual process of reintegration, incentivized Taliban commanders and their fighters, convinced that time is on the side of the state, can be reabsorbed into Afghan society.

A premature departure by U.S. troops will almost certainly bring the early collapse of the Afghan security forces, resulting in a protracted, chaotic civil war fueled by regional powers. The flight of millions of Afghan refugees would threaten regional stability. Disengagement reduces the U.S.’s ability to counter global terrorist organizations operating in the region. It also forfeits the leverage the U.S. has to monitor and curb nuclear proliferation, and contribute crisis mediation to head off major conflict between Pakistan and India. With the vacuum the U.S. leaves through disengagement, others regional stakeholders such as Russia, China, and Iran will pursue unwelcome political and strategic agendas. The Afghan theater offers, then, a critical test for the extent to which the U.S. is willing to retain its long exercised leadership in maintenance of a global order.

Omar Samad
The US should aim for a responsible drawdown and an Afghan-backed political roadmap

When asked about U.S. objectives in Afghanistan, one can expect a variety of answers. However, now that a strategic decision – to end the stalemated post 9/11 U.S.-led intervention and aim for a just and viable Afghan political settlement – is a work-in-progress, the end-state must be defined with as much Afghan and international stakeholder consensus as possible. Doing so would help aim for an orderly and responsible drawdown that could coincide with an inclusive political transition assuring a stable, secure, and forward-moving Afghanistan.

To do this would require taking stock of the results of talks thus far, engaging further with key regional actors and major international contributors, and more clearly defining the complex transition leading to a desirable end-state that does not embolden terror groups and undermine core accomplishments that most Afghans deem critical. Moreover, a competent and representative pan-Afghan entity must be formed to tackle the details to be negotiated, if and when intra-Afghan talks take off.

Of the tasks ahead, one part falls on American and international shoulders, while the other is an Afghan responsibility that should avoid undermining consensus-building around a unified stance. While Afghan presidential elections were pushed back once again to September with governmental consent, a new multi-party initiative aims to organize a second intra-Afghan discussion in Doha in April. It is not clear yet whether President Ashraf Ghani – whose status the Taliban does not recognize – will agree to send representatives, and if so, in what capacity.

Aligning core Afghan and American objectives will help current efforts aimed at talks-towards-negotiations that are integral to a settlement. They can also help to:

Finalize the existing draft blueprints on longer-term objectives, such as the phased drawdown of international forces linked to effective future counter-terrorism cooperation and guarantees;
Strike an agreement on a comprehensive ceasefire; and
Pave the way for substantive intra-Afghan dialogue as part of a political roadmap that may impact the date for elections.
Despite the recent and temporary souring of Kabul-Washington relations, efforts must remain focused on how to make the best use of approaching deadlines and long-term interests, while mitigating the spread of violence and narrow politicized expectations.

While the cost of war is well known, the cost of peace needs a fresh look. The tab for counter-terrorism, enforcement mechanisms, streamlined social and economic development, and institutional sustainability cannot be discounted.

Consequently, American objectives, influenced by political timelines, need to aim for a responsible drawdown and an implementable Afghan-backed political roadmap. Both interrelated objectives must be sustainable, inclusive, and enforceable. Core Afghan social and political authorities and entities must be involved in the process and key international actors need to be kept engaged to ascertain their buy-in and future commitments toward counter-terrorism, development, and stability.

David Sedney

Our primary aim must be to prevent another terror attack from Afghanistan

The United States, the world’s most powerful and important nation, leads on issues from protecting citizens to advancing human rights and keeping the world safe. These goals are not shared by all Americans at all times and not prioritized the same way over time. But, as the great country it is, the U.S. has consistent long-term objectives in Afghanistan, objectives that span administrations, Republican and Democratic.

In Afghanistan our objectives are clear. Our primary objective from Sept. 11, 2001 to today and into the future is to prevent another terror attack from Afghanistan. A combination of U.S. military might, political influence, and assistance has, so far, ensured that objective.

But we cannot attain this objective in the long term without enabling Afghanistan itself to prevent terrorism. To achieve this goal, U.S. objectives include:

Assisting the emergence of a stable, effective, modernizing Afghan state;

Helping entrench freedoms of speech, press, and assembly, essential for a successful state;

Advancing American interests and values by helping Afghan women enjoy the human rights all women should have; and

Balancing our geopolitical interests.

U.S. geopolitical interests, particularly with Pakistan, create conflicts with our Afghanistan objectives. Concerns about the safety and surety of Pakistani nuclear weapons/material and about India-Pakistan tensions cause us to adopt policies that detract from our Afghan goals.

But disparate U.S. goals and interests often come into conflict and present us with imperfect choices and the need to balance competing interests. This is the price of power. The fact that the choices are hard and the time frame long is no reason to abandon our core interest of ensuring we are not again attacked from Afghanistan.