It is relatively easy to criticize what's going wrong in Afghanistan. It is much harder to propose a realistic way forward. Seth Jones and Keith Crane have done just that. Some critics are content to recommend “get out” or “give up,” but Jones and Crane in a new report for the Council on Foreign Relations, “Afghanistan After the Drawdown,” suggest a calibrated political and military approach that protects U.S. interests at a realistic level of manpower and investment.
I served on the advisory committee for the report, which means I gave input that the authors were free to accept or ignore. The committee included folks with an impressive level of knowledge and experience on the subject, including Andrew Wilder of the U.S. Institute of Peace and Ronald Neumann, former Ambassador to Afghanistan; and folks across the ideological spectrum, including Steve Biddle, whose knowledgeable views I appreciatively critiqued in a previous post; and Micah Zenko, with whom I shared a debate about the dangers America faces in the pages of Foreign Affairs a year ago.
Jones and Crane rightly note that “Even after most U.S. forces are withdrawn by the end of 2014, the United States will continue to have important national interests in Afghanistan and South Asia,” an important point often overlooked by advocates of withdrawal. Among U.S. interests in South Asia are the continued presence of al-Qaida and other like-minded jihadist groups; regional stability and, especially, stability in Pakistan; and the effect of the war on U.S. credibility. (I am less persuaded that the last is a legitimate concern. One can invoke credibility for virtually any foreign policy position anywhere in the world, which means credibility can never help you prioritize among competing interests or tell you when not to get involved.)
If the U.S. still has interests in South Asia affected by the war in Afghanistan, then some level of continuing involvement in the region makes sense. Jones and Crane endorse the current policy of training the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) to enable the government to defend itself and pursuing negotiations with the Taliban. But Jones and Crane go further, advocating a role for the U.S. in brokering a national unity government in Afghanistan through next spring's presidential elections — a political role the U.S. has shied away from since 2009. They also recommend sustaining up to nearly $4 billion per year in economic development assistance to Afghanistan for years to come.
The political and economic recommendations are what set this report apart. I have long argued that governance and development are the weak legs of U.S. policy in Afghanistan. The U.S. has, justifiably, thrown an enormous amount of money and effort at building an entire army and police force from scratch. We finally began seeing the fruits of that massive effort over the last few years, especially since June when the Afghans assumed lead responsibility for security. But the U.S. has never come close, under either President Bush or Obama, to putting out the same level of effort rebuilding the Afghan state or the Afghan economy.
The net result is that the U.S. has built a strong Afghan army and a weak Afghan state. That is not a recipe for lasting stability, and anyone with a passing familiarity with political science or the history of post-colonial states knows what that mixture yields. Jones and Crane are right to complement their security recommendations with strong political and economic components.
The report isn't perfect. Jones and Crane recommend between 8,000 – 12,000 U.S. troops “plus additional NATO forces,” which is probably too small and conveniently consistent with the numbers reportedly under consideration by the administration. If U.S. forces are going to train the ANSF, continue counterterrorism operations, and sustain support for rural, Afghan-led counterinsurgency operations, even 15,000 is a low number. Considering the stakes, there is every reason to err on the high side to ensure the U.S. and Afghanistan can consolidate recent gains before drawing down to a lower troop presence.
That aside, it is refreshing to see a report that does not rely on knee-jerk criticism and does the hard work of proposing solutions that are realistic and achievable. The administration could do worse than to copy and paste CFR's report into a new presidential directive and call it policy.
Paul Miller is a political scientist at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corp. A former CIA analyst, he served from 2007 to 2009 as director for Afghanistan and Pakistan on the White House's National Security Council.
This commentary originally appeared on ForeignPolicy.com on December 4, 2013.