Troop Think

This evening, President Barack Obama is set to announce his plan for withdrawing troops from Afghanistan. The speech comes just weeks before the July 2011 deadline for beginning the drawdown of American forces, which the president set when he announced the 30,000-troop "surge" in December 2009.

With Osama bin Laden out of the picture, both conservatives and liberals -- including Prospect contributor Matthew Yglesias -- have pressured the president to expedite the pullout. Others, including outgoing Defense Secretary Robert Gates and, reportedly, General David Petraeus, have argued for a slower reduction. But as Americans debate the speed of the drawdown, other important questions have been put on the backburner.

Fixing the broken Afghan government is the most obvious. The Arab Spring made clear that a government's long-term stability depends on its legitimacy. Illegimate rulers may bend to U.S. demands in the short-term, but they don't provide long-term stability. As Caroline Wadhams and Colin Cookman of the Center for American Progress have written, Afghan President Hamid Karzai presides over an "unstable rentier state" suffering from "political exclusivity, overconcentration of executive power, and dependency on external aid to hold the system together." In other words, Karzai is an Afghan version of former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, only less successful.

These problems will come to a head sooner rather than later. Karzai's second term ends in 2014, the year NATO has set for the full transfer of security to Afghans, and the Afghan constitution prevents him from running for a third term. Ensuring Karzai gives up power in a free and fair election, which he will likely to try to avoid, is crucial to the survival of the Afghan state.

Beginning a significant troop reduction starting next month will show the Karzai government that America is serious about leaving, and that if he wants to remain in power, he'll have to make real reforms. The Strategic Partnership Agreement currently being negotiated between Karzai and the U.S. - roughly equivalent to the Status of Forces Agreement with Iraq - will codify the terms of the relationship. This represents a last best chance to incentivize reform; America should take advantage of it to push for a real government, not to placate one man.

Part of both winning the war and improving Afghan governance writ large must come from a political settlement that incorporates all parts of Afghan society, including the Taliban and regional players. Talking to the Taliban represents the best chance for a successful conclusion to the conflict in Afghanistan, as General Petraeus is the first person to acknowledge. He has said, "You have to promote reconciliation. You can't kill or capture your way out of an industrial-strength insurgency." Recent administration moves point in the right direction, but significant changes need to be considered to ensure the war is progressing towards a settlement, not away from one--foremost among them is figuring out whether we're killing all the commanders who are willing to talk.

Another vexing question is how to promote sustainable economic growth. The Afghan economy is in shambles. A recent Senate Foreign Relations Committee report showed that foreign military and development spending now accounts for 97 percent of the country's GDP. Another report, released last week by the Commission on Wartime Contracting, revealed that billions of dollars worth of infrastructure projects completed in the last few years will fall into disrepair because no money exists to operate or maintain them. The commission's report also noted that a key part of the strategy, maintaining the Afghan police and army, will cost $8 billion a year. Kabul's operating revenue is roughly $2 billion. So unless Afghanistan suddenly finds a stash of cash, the U.S. and international community will have to pick up the tab indefinitely.

The Pentagon's suggestions that Afghanistan's mineral wealth will provide a panacea only highlight the lack of real planning on this issue. Since so much of the economy stems from the war, a drawdown will weigh heavily on the economy. As the U.S. transitions out of the country, we should rethink our plans for building sustainable economic growth and consider long-term aid agreements that can support local enterprises as well as efforts aimed at capitalizing on Afghanistan's prime location as a potential regional trade hub.

One cannot talk about the problems in Afghanistan without mentioning that, at its core, the current counterinsurgency strategy--which calls for clearing insurgents off of territory and protecting the population so that local officials can provide services and win the loyalty of the people--has failed. According to the UN, May was the deadliest month for Afghan civilians since it began keeping count in 2007. The vast majority of those deaths were caused by the Taliban, but the bottom line is the same -- Afghans aren't safe. The increased level of military operations has also infuriated Afghans, losing much-needed support from the population.

While focusing on troops is understandable from a political point of view-troops have all-too-real human and financial costs and represent an easily understandable measure of America's commitment to the war--any realistic strategy for cobbling together something that looks like "winning" in Afghanistan has to look beyond troops and ask the larger question: What are we fighting for, and will it last after we're gone?

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