Policy debates over whether we "need" more troops in Afghanistan miss the point. We do need more troops, but military might, alone, will not address the long-term problems. US policy toward Afghanistan will require a fundamental shift in order to stabilize that country. A focused, coherent, and long-term approach to Afghan and regional stability is necessary to get Afghanistan out of its vicious cycle of insecurity, insurgency, impunity, and corruption.
Unrealistic, short-term thinking has beset Afghanistan. Insecurity, whether due to insurgency, terrorism, regional meddling, or warlordism undermines the potential for progress on all other fronts in Afghanistan. While additional international forces may be needed, any effort to establish stability through troop increases alone will lead to short-term improvements at best. Ultimately, success is impossible without competent Afghan security institutions. Of equal importance is the legitimacy of the Afghan government itself and its will and capacity to implement the rule of law. While growing violence in Afghanistan must be brought under control, the U.S. and the international community must get back to the basics by placing critical focus on rule of law, economic empowerment and the regional context.
The future of Afghanistan also depends upon the ability of its national and local leaders to organize for a common, positive purpose. The international community and the Afghan government must engage the capacity of the broader Afghan society, making them the engine of progress rather than unwilling subjects of rapid change. The new formula is one where the central government continues to ensure security and justice on the national level and uses its position to channel international assistance to promote the rule of law and development at the community level.
Finally, the U.S. must work with Afghanistan's neighbors to create a regional environment conducive to Afghanistan's success. Regional competition continues to undermine Afghanistan's long-term prospects, whereas renewed regional cooperation could provide a significant security and economic boost in Afghanistan, Pakistan and the region as a whole.
What is needed now is a coherent strategy to bridge the gap between conflict and democracy, between burkas and women's equality, between tribal councils and a Supreme Court. The next decade must be about building those bridges. The first step is to realign joint priorities and expectations. The solution going forward is a melding of top-down and bottom-up approaches, creating a condominium of central government institutions addressing larger challenges beyond the capacities of communities while enabling local capacity to deal with other issues.
Under such a framework, central government would be responsible for those issues requiring collective action, such as fighting insurgents, building primary roads, regulating media, and protecting basic rights. Community-based structures would be heavily engaged in local governance issues such as water management, agricultural development, and dispute resolution. Civil society and private enterprise would expand media, protection of basic rights, and revitalization of culture. Such an approach would increase citizen participation, develop civil society, improve the delivery of basic services at the local level, and enhance the legitimacy of both national and local institutions.
The Future of Afghanistan makes ten key recommendations:
1) Prioritize: We must get back to the basics, addressing security, governance and rule of law, economic development with a focus on agriculture, and positive regional engagement. We must concentrate Afghan and international resources on tackling a few key problems effectively.
2) Secure the Population: The security of the population must become the primary objective of international and Afghan security forces. Security will create the space for political, social, and economic development.
3) Build Afghan Security Forces: Ultimately, Afghanistan can only be secured by Afghans. We must redouble efforts to build capable and legitimate Afghan military and police to protect Afghanistan and its citizens.
4) Think Nationally, Act Locally: Efforts to promote governance, dispute resolution, economic development, and human rights should be planned and implemented at the local level, using international, national, and local resources to marry bottom-up with top-down approaches. Afghan citizens must become the engine of economic, political, and social progress.
5) Improve Governance and Rule of Law: The legitimacy of the Afghan government depends upon its ability and willingness to govern fairly and implement the rule of law. Intensive effort is required to make provincial and local government capable and trusted.
6) End Impunity: Numerous Afghan government officials at all levels and their affiliates are engaged in corruption and other criminal enterprises and have committed human rights abuses in the past and present, tarnishing the reputation of government and the international community and undermining stability. Accountability must become the new regime in Afghanistan.
7) Focus on Agriculture: Afghanistan needs a "food surge" to boost economic development, food security, and provide an alternative to the opium economy. Enhanced agricultural production, a core of the Afghan economy, will rapidly produce much needed employment and trade.
8) Engage Citizens and Civil Society: Promoting democracy, human and women's rights, culture, and media freedoms requires Afghan civil society and an informed, mobilized citizenry. Afghan ownership in these critical and sensitive areas requires Afghan leadership throughout the country.
9) Address Regional Challenges: We must engage intensively with Afghanistan's neighbors to improve the regional environment and reduce competition. Renewed regional cooperation on security, trade, and counter-narcotics could provide a significant security and economic boost.
10) Adopt a Realistic, Long-Term Vision: Afghanistan faces enormous long-term challenges, and Afghans must become the master of their own destiny. Without abandoning core principles, we must also be realistic about how quickly sustainable, Afghan-led change can occur.