Time to Make Key Decisions in Afghanistan

By Stephen A. Mackey
As the United States enters its second decade in Afghanistan, it is wise to examine the nation’s interests and use them to inform the path ahead. Nations do not have permanent friends and allies, only permanent interests. 

The cost of U.S. intervention in Afghanistan over the past decade has been staggering. The real question is whether the investment has paid off. Regrettably, the answer is not clear in spite of a deluge of National Security Council documents over the past years.

It is in the national interest to deny terrorists Afghanistan a staging ground from which to export violence. In the years before 9/11, Afghanistan was compliant with, if not overtly supportive of terrorist groups. The Taliban government offered a “nest from which terrorists could plot and plan attacks against the world,” said Afghanistan’s First Deputy Minister of Defense Enayatullah Nazari in October 2012. Madrid, London and New York were the results. 

Afghanistan is a nation of 32 million ethnically diverse people situated in a one of the world’s toughest neighborhoods. Do we want an unstable, potentially fundamentalist Islamic nation to destabilize a nuclear neighborhood? Pakistan wrestles to control its nuclear inventory in a dynamic domestic political setting. Do we want to add more complexity by allowing an uncontrolled Afghan insurgency at best or a radical Islamic state at worst sharing an ill-defined and historically disputed border with the world’s most unstable nuclear power?   

Both of these represent existential threats to the United States and its coalition allies. 
The Afghan people are truly tired of the killing. They assert they have fought the enemies of the United States, and by extension the coalition, for more than 30 years. First, they hosted the final battle of the Cold War and served as a proxy to foment the demise of the Soviet Union. Second, they have been a willing confederate aiding the United States and its allies. These struggles have cost many Afghan lives. In my conversations with Afghans over the course of my year as an adviser, it was clear that the Afghan nation is tired of war and would be amenable to an accommodation that would end the killing. 

Additionally, the appearance of stability and vestige of a functioning government are key Afghan national interests. A functioning government allows for the continued international financial support which is the preponderance of the Afghan gross domestic product. International aid, and leakage to top leaders, is a key component that, regrettably, promotes stability. Leakage to the elites is not a trivial issue in the discussion. Open hostilities and the threat they pose to the continued money flow is not a financially attractive option to Afghan senior decision makers and colors their thinking and actions. Politics begins at home and in the pocketbook.

Afghan paranoia is a logical growth out of the last 40 years. Pakistan and Iran are both formidable and idiosyncratic neighbors. Both have a vested interest in keeping the Afghan state weak. Iran sees Afghanistan as a market hungry for its goods. A stable Afghanistan may be one in which commerce can thrive. This runs counter to Iranian interests.

Pakistan, ever concerned about the Indian giant to its east, looks at a weak Afghanistan to provide strategic depth. A weak Afghanistan also lacks capacity to be a meaningful ally to India and to put pressure on the already embattled Pakistani state. Finally, Pakistan sees Afghanistan as an outlet for its homegrown terrorists.

The scope of U.S. and coalition support is a key element that the Afghans consider when plotting the way forward. Decrementing this support significantly could alter the internal calculus Afghan leaders use to make the pragmatic, self-serving decisions that have been the hallmark of the fledgling Afghan democracy.

In 2012, the United States spent $84 billion on the conflict in Afghanistan. In my talks with Afghans, never too far from the surface was discussion of what Afghanistan would have to do to keep the money coming. The most basic behavior the United States seeks is an Afghan National Security Force — Afghan Army, Police and the National Defense Service — that maintains stability.

The interests of Afghanistan’s elites are clear: continue to harvest the leakage from this money flow for their self-interests. Is this flow of illicit money the glue that is holding the country together? Can we look past this and recognize it for the value it is?  A properly motivated ANSF can continue to move U.S. interests forward for a fraction of the cost that direct military action by the coalition would cost.   
In spite of enormous effort, neither the Afghan central government nor the coalition has truly controlled large swaths of the southern and eastern portion of country. It might not be realistic or even wise to think that the fledgling ANSF will be able to “drain the swamp” of insurgents who have been actively opposing the central government for over a decade. Senior Afghan leaders assert that the domestic insurgency could be stopped in days and that the real driver is interference from Pakistan. Recognizing these forces and letting the future reality accommodate them leads to an informal form of federalism. 

Specifically, Afghan leadership ceding control of the Pashtun belt either formally or by tacit agreement — not a new concept to the Afghans — harnesses the power of tribal and local leaders who have been exerting control over the past decade as a shadow government in these areas. Augmenting this local power base is the continued development in size and capability of the Afghan Local Police. The ALP is a primitive form of the early American militias. If backed by an expanding ALP, will local leaders allow continued infiltration of foreign fighters, particularly when they are no longer killing members of the coalition? Probably not. Mosul in northern Iraq provides a historical model.

Stability requires money, and more money. U.S. funding supports a 352,000 strong ANSF.  This allows for continued pressure on the insurgents, keeps a cohort of military-aged males on the side of the government and allows for the continued leakage that plays such a vital role in keeping stability. This sets the tone for other members of the international community to follow.  International contributions allow the Afghan government to continue buying capabilities and the associated good will of the population.

Equally important is the role that the continued flow of funds plays in keeping the world focused on Afghanistan. Abandoned by the Americans and Soviets, Afghanistan was cast into a bloody civil war that leveled Kabul. Money and the eyes of the world that accompany it may serve as a hedge to prevent this dismal fate from being revisited. The fact that funding equals long-term interest is not lost on the Afghan elites.

The cost of Afghans continuing to advance U.S. interests by keeping a large ANSF in the field is pennies on the dollar compared to the cost of American sons and daughters venturing into this harsh and foreign land. Now is the time to look past today, look at the future, and make the fiscal decisions required to get to that state.

Stephen Mackey completed a one-year tour as a senior adviser to the Afghan Ministry of Defense in July 2013. He has prior tours on the Joint Staff and the office of the secretary of defense. He is a 2003 graduate of the National War College.

Topics: Defense Department, DOD Policy

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