Up for Debate: U.S. Afghanistan Policy

Summary of Study

Bottom Line: The Middle East Institute turns to six Afghanistan experts to share what they believe the U.S. objectives should be in Afghanistan, nearly two decades after the United States intervened in Afghanistan following 9/11 and entrenched itself in the “forever war.”  

According to Vanda Felbab-Brown, Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution, the United States should prioritize the following objectives in Afghanistan while U.S. forces remain and as they mitigate the range of ramifications in the midst of a drawdown. 

  • Reduce the opportunity for Afghanistan to be a staging ground for attacks against the United States, U.S. citizens in the region, and U.S. allies.
  • Ensure that Afghanistan doesn't jeopardize nuclear stability in South Asia by spilling into Pakistan or instigating a Pakistan-India conflict.
  • Strive to maintain the country's internal stability during a U.S. withdrawal, by encouraging human rights and political pluralism for long-term security.   
  • Mitigate the potential for a humanitarian catastrophe in the midst of a withdrawal. 

Javid Ahmad, senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, takes the prompt from the aforementioned wavetops to detailing targeted, military objectives that Washington must direct U.S. forces to pursue to achieve a successful military drawdown that saves the little face the U.S. has left. Ahmad argues for these three objectives:

  • Employ a win-win strategy amicable to both United States and Afghanistan objectives by pursuing a peace with the Taliban that is contingent on specific Taliban action - chiefly reduced Taliban violence.
  • Pursue a targeted counterterrorism strategy with a small contigent of U.S. forces.
  • Do not test new governing formulas beyond democratic continuity so as not to risk worsening the political situation in the future. 

Despite the uncertainty that always comes with engaging the Taliban dircetly, Michael Kugelman, Deputy Director of the Asia Program and Senior Associate for South Asia at the Wilson Center, maintains that pursuing talks with the Taliban remains the best strategy and shapes his response to U.S. objectives accordingly. According to Kugelman:

  • Way ahead: There is no other option than engaging the Taliban in direct communcation, because the Taliban cannot be defeated militarily - the 100,000 U.S. troops who couldn’t defeat the Taliban speak for themselves.
  • Why? Heightening casualty rates and increasing land grabs by the Taliban point to a worsening war in need of a solution with an ounce of promise.
  • How? Conditions are prime for talks, while POTUS fully behind the pursuit and the Taliban itself responding in kind with top officials at recent engagements.
  • What's left?  If Washington doesn't owe a peaceful resolution to the Afghan people, than it owes such to the Americans who have given life and finances to the war.

Placing a war-weary America alongside a seemingly lost cause of a peace agreement, Marvin G. Weinbaum, Director of the Afghanistan and Pakistan Program at the Middle East Institute, approaches his host organization's prompt with an eye to the best case scenario for "managing" a conflict in which there are no conclusive outcomes.

  • The U.S. is an indispensable predicate for long-term stability in Afghanistan, and the region writ large. Therefore the best argument for Washington to maintain military and financial support should be couched in the geo-strategic value-add that Afghanistan brings to the region.
  • A sustained U.S. commitment to the country will draw out the stability created by the current stalemate, provide the time and space for the Afghan government to pursue much-needed reform in the security, economic and politcal sector, and allow for a gradual reintegration amidst a future withdrawal.
  • Alternatively, a premature departure risks, internally, the collapse of Afghan security forces, and externally, a regional civil war that triggers an uncontrollable refugee situation, a poer vaccum for increased terrorism, an open invitation for great power adversaries.
  • Taken altogether, a hasty withdrawal forfeits the U.S.' ability to stabilize in the near-term and leverage in the long-term the threat of regional conflict and nuclear proliferation by waiting adversaries.

Now that the U.S. seems to be on the path to a peace settlement that ends the 17-year war, Omar Samad, Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council, couches his two cents in the most effective modality to do so.

  • A responsible and effective U.S. drawdown must therefore be bolstered by Afghan and international consensus that aligns core U.S. and Afghan objectives while engaging regional players in the resolution process itself so as to guarantee a long-term solution that sticks. 
  • Aligning U.S. and Afghan objectives means taking into account the unpredictability of an Afghan government in flux - between the pushed presidential elections and multi-party initiative in the works - as well as U.S. officials wed to term limits. 
  • As such, a responsible drawdown that leaves behind an "implementable Afghan-backed political roadmap" will require the integration of U.S. and Afghan, regional and international consensus, alike to have a shot at succeeding.

Turning to a consistently apolitical national security objective, David Sedney, Senior Associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, argues that counterterrorism - namely preventing another terrorist attack in Afghanistan - remains the key U.S. priority there. 

Amidst consistent, long-term objectives in Afghanistan, a combination of U.S. military might and political influence has thus far succeeded in preventing another major terrorist attack on the U.S. or U.S. citizens.

However a country itself must build the capacity to mitigate the terrorist threat; therefore, the U.S. must pursue the following in Afghanistan: 

  • Aid the emergence of modernized Afghan state.
  • Encourage the democratic ideals of freedom of speech, press, and assembly to underpin a successful state. 
  • Advance American values in Afghanistan by encouraging human rights for Afghan women.
  • Balance U.S. geopolitical interests in Afghanistan and the region. 

Access the full debate here.