The Study Group believes that the U.S. strategy in Afghanistan should aim at realistic and attainable objectives. The strategy should become less reliant on military force in favor of a focus on political inclusion, economic development, and regional diplomacy. The United States and its allies must recognize that they cannot dictate Afghanistan’s political future, and—more importantly—that it is not necessary for them to do so to realize their core strategic interests. Accordingly, the Study Group recommends a new strategy comprised of the following five elements:

1) Emphasize Power-Sharing and Political Reconciliation. Afghanistan will not achieve a sustainable peace without broader support from the Afghan people themselves. Accordingly, the United States should fast track a peace process designed to decentralize power within Afghanistan and to encourage a power sharing arrangement among all parties.

Under the current Afghanistan Constitution, the President has unchecked authority to appoint provincial governors and hundreds of other positions in government. As David Miliband wrote, in many parts of the country, district governance is almost nonexistent, half the governors do not have an office, fewer than a quarter have electricity, and some receive only six dollars a month in expenses. As an important start to reform, the Afghan Parliament should be given confirmation authority for major appointments, district councils should be elected, budgeting authority decentralized, and elected provincial representatives should be included in the national level council that determines the portion of funds distributed.  The ethnic base of the Afghan army should be broadened. More generally, governance should depend more heavily on local, traditional, and community-based structures.

In contrast to President Karzai’s recent and narrowly conceived “peace jirga,” political outreach should include leaders selected by key tribal and village leaders in all of Afghanistan’s ethnic and regional divisions, including rural Pashtuns. This effort should be open to those among the fragmented Taliban who are willing to engage in genuine reconciliation, a step that can help marginalize those Taliban who remain defiant. Preconditions for negotiations, such as recognizing the existing Afghan Constitution, should not be required.

2)  Scale Back and Eventually Suspend Combat Operations in the South and Reduce the U.S. Military Footprint. Simultaneous to these efforts at achieving a new, more stable political equilibrium in the country, the U.S. should downsize and eventually discontinue combat operations in southern Afghanistan. The U.S. needs to draw down its military presence, which radicalizes many Pashtuns and often aids the Taliban’s recruitment effort.

The Study Group recommends that President Obama firmly stick to his pledge to begin withdrawing U.S. forces in the summer of 2011—and earlier if possible. U.S. force levels should decline to the minimum level needed to help train Afghan security forces, prevent massive human rights atrocities, resist an expansion of Taliban control beyond the Pashtun south, and engage in robust counter-terrorism operations as needed. We recommend a decrease to 68,000 troops by October 2011, and 30,000 by July 2012. These residual force levels should be reviewed as to whether they are contributing to our broader strategic objectives in the fall of 2012 – and if not, withdrawn in full over time.

This step would save the U.S. at least $60 billion to $80 billion per year and reduce local resentment at our large and intrusive military presence.

3)  Keep the Focus on Al Qaeda and Domestic Security. The U.S. should redirect some part of the savings from this troop reduction toward improved counter-terrorism efforts and protecting U.S. citizens from terrorist attacks. Special forces, intelligence assets, and other U.S. capabilities should continue to seek out and target known Al Qaeda cells in the region. They can be ready to go after them should they attempt to relocate elsewhere.  The Study Group also believes that more effort should be made to exploit potential cleavages among different radical groups in the region, a goal that would be facilitated as the U.S. military presence declines.

4)  Promote Economic Development. Afghanistan is one of the world’s poorest countries, and endemic poverty has made some elements of the population susceptible to Taliban overtures. Moreover, failed and destitute states frequently become incubators for terrorism, drug and human trafficking, and other illicit activities. Therefore, efforts at reconciliation should be coupled with a broad internationally-led effort to promote economic development. Potentially useful measures include:

  • Giving Afghanistan preferential trading status with the U.S., Europe, Japan and other leading global economies.
  • Promoting investment in local and national infrastructure by national and international companies.
  • Providing subsidies, loans, and technical assistance to local (non-poppy) agricultural producers, construction companies, and artisans.
  • Promoting “special reconstruction zones” for foreign and domestic companies to produce export goods. Such zones could offer investors preferential tax treatment and access to enhanced security and infrastructure measures, at least initially.
  • Helping Afghan women directly through micro-lending and educational support programs, and by making some portion of U.S. assistance conditional on the protection of basic human rights, especially women’s rights.
  • Considering the purchase of Afghanistan’s poppy crop, to give Afghan farmers immediate economic gains, reduce Taliban revenues, and reduce the flow of illicit narcotics to the West.

To the extent possible, external assistance should be channeled through a more decentralized Afghan government. Such decentralization would build capacity, give legitimacy to the government itself, enhance transparency, and limit corruption. Decentralization ensures that aid monies go directly to helping Afghans rather than to consultants, NGOs, and other international agencies.

5)  Engage Global and Regional Stakeholders. The Afghanistan conflict reflects long-standing rivalries among the different ethnic and tribal groups within the country, but it has long been exacerbated by outside powers seeking to protect or advance their own interests.

The United States now bears a growing share of the costs of this conflict, even though virtually all of Afghanistan’s neighbors have larger and more immediate stakes in its resolution. Despite their considerable differences, neighboring states such as India, Pakistan, China, and Iran share a common interest in preventing Afghanistan from either being dominated by any single power or remaining a failed state that exports instability.

Accordingly, the Study Group recommends that the substantial reduction in the U.S. military role be accompanied by an energetic diplomatic effort, spearheaded by the United Nations and strongly backed by the United States and its allies. This initiative should seek a formal commitment to Afghan neutrality and a resolution of existing border disputes. They need agreements to recognize and support the more inclusive and decentralized Afghan government described above. The United States should also use its influence to reduce tensions among the various regional actors—and especially India and Pakistan—in order to decrease their tendency to see Afghanistan as an arena for conflict or to view the Taliban or other non-state groups as long-term strategic assets.

The United States should also place greater reliance on allies and partners whose ability to work with Afghans exceeds ours. Non-Arab Muslim states such as Indonesia and Turkey—the latter a NATO ally that is already present on the ground—could play substantial “mentoring” roles in the areas of education, political reform, and human rights. Such states could help Afghanistan conform to international standards as well as their own principles.

Abandoning a predominantly military focus could actually facilitate a more energetic diplomatic effort. As long as the U.S. military is doing the heavy lifting against the Taliban, the Karzai government has no immediate need to broaden its base. Other states can free-ride on the U.S. effort, and regional actors can pursue their own agendas at less risk. Once the U.S. signals that its patience is not infinite and that its military campaign is winding down, then both contenders for power within Afghanistan and Afghanistan’s neighbors will have a greater incentive to negotiate agreements designed to stabilize the situation.

Above all, these five broad measures, which can be translated into action through an integrated planning process, must be pursued with a keen eye toward what is possible and with a clear sense of the costs and benefits. The Study Group is under no illusions about the difficulty of this task and urges U.S. policymakers to adopt a realistic sense of what can be achieved. Specifically:

  • It is not possible to eliminate all extremist groups from this region, but it is possible to significantly reduce the danger they pose.
  • It is beyond our capacity to dictate Afghanistan’s political future, but we can help move Afghanistan’s leaders toward political arrangements that are consistent with past traditions and with our own minimum goals.
  • Afghanistan will not become a stable and flourishing society in short order, but international support can still have positive effects on the lives of its citizens.
  • A diplomatic agreement resolving all the tensions and rivalries that currently exist in the region is highly unlikely, but the United States can help negotiate more stable arrangements than presently exist.

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This report was published on August 16 2010.

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