Assessing the Transition in Afghanistan

Source: Getty
Testimony Senate Foreign Relations Committee
Afghan security forces cannot stabilize the country amid political meltdown. To get to zero U.S. troops on the ground without Afghanistan unraveling, a different political approach is needed.
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Afghan security forces cannot stabilize the country amid political meltdown, warns Sarah Chayes. In testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Chayes says a different political strategy is needed to wind down U.S. involvement without Afghanistan unraveling.

Policy Recommendations

  • Condition election support on specific criteria. Kabul must adhere to minimum standards—including a truly independent and empowered elections commission and a real complaints mechanism—to receive U.S. financing and support.

  • Don’t focus on military technicalities. Afghan forces are only as effective as the government they serve. The possibility that no U.S. troops will be left in Afghanistan after 2014 is real. In that context, only a different approach—not tactical military capabilities—can preserve Afghanistan’s future.

  • Make Afghan reconciliation more inclusive. A single negotiating track with Taliban leadership was never the right approach and effectively punished the nonviolent opposition to placate violent opponents. Instead, all the major constituencies—including the Taliban and members of the Karzai government—should be engaged as co-equal participants in a broad-based process.

  • Raise the cost for Pakistan using violent proxies. Smart sanctions and leverage can impact Pakistan’s decision to pursue its goals that way. Simultaneously, a proper state-to-state channel should be opened so Pakistan can address its legitimate, strategic concerns with respect to its neighbor.

Chayes concludes, “Only changes in our political approach along these lines can offer a way to conclude U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan without leaving the region even more dangerous than we found it in 2001. Such an adjustment would not require more material resources, just more focus and attention, and the willingness to take some political risk.”


Chairman Menendez, Ranking Member Corker, committee-members, I am grateful for this opportunity to speak with you about conditions in Afghanistan, and the implications for U.S. policy.

My analysis derives from a rare dual perspective: I lived in downtown Kandahar for most of the past decade, among ordinary men and women from the city and the surrounding villages, no guards or barbed wire, no translator. And, from 2009 through 2011, I served as special adviser to two ISAF commanders and then the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Of course, my judgments are my own. They got used to that -- most of them.

Three main topics dominate the current Afghanistan debate: the security situation -- and related to that, the size of a residual U.S. military force -- the 2014 presidential election, and negotiations with the Taliban. In each case, attention is fixed on the formal process, while the real meaning lies beneath that surface.

What is missing is an overall political strategy within which technicalities might add up to something. At this point, that strategy must include a more broad-based reconciliation process that would help set the stage for credible elections, and a different approach to Pakistan.

On elections: Some in Washington argue for making the 2014 exercise central to U.S. policy. They focus on voter registration and other such technicalities. I don’t disagree with the sentiment.

But while we are all discussing the vital importance of a credible election, moves are being made on the ground to ensure it will be no such thing. Sadly, what matters in Afghan elections as they are currently run is not who can mobilize the most votes, but who can control the process. So President Karzai and his lieutenants in the executive branch are grappling with some of your counterparts over the makeup and duties of the election commission and the complaints body. No surprise, Karzai is winning. As of this weekend, the head of the election commission declared that the tussle over the electoral law had gone on too long for the provisions to be implemented, and that Karzai would be enacting regulations by legislative decree.

In this context, I’ve already spoken about the issues raised by U.S. payments to the key political actor.

Recommendation: If the U.S. government is going to lend the moral authority of this country to the 2014 election, then words like “credible” have to mean something. U.S. financing and support for the vote must be contingent on Kabul’s adherence to some minimum standards. A truly independent, empowered elections commission whose members are not appointed by the president, for example, and a real complaints mechanism, with teeth. If President Karzai wants to run an election he can control, that’s his right. But not on the U.S. dime, and not on the democratic reputation of the United States.

On security: Much attention has been devoted to the Afghan National Security Forces’ tactical capabilities. There have been improvements -- though vetting and discipline problems were devastating just a year ago. And the ANSF casualty rate has spiked over last year’s, according to Afghan, US and UK officials. Attrition is also up.

But the technical skills of Afghan soldiers are really beside the point. The real meaning is this. An army -- the best army -- is only a tool in the hands of a government. You can exercise that army, sort of like taking an arm to a gym and lifting weights with it, but if the body to which it’s attached is non-viable, it won’t be able to defend much. That is the fundamental point that keeps getting missed in discussions about ANSF capabilities.

Trying to get a meaningful read on the security situation is elusive. There simply are no numbers. ISAF stopped keeping violence statistics in March. And they were disputable anyway. So only localized anecdotes are left. There are clear improvements around Kandahar. Colleagues of mine are now able to visit areas that were under deadly Taliban control in 2009. The current police chief of Kandahar is keeping the Taliban at bay, but I’m hearing at such a cost in extra-judicial killing that he’s turning much of the town against him. I have known him for more than a decade and this was to be expected. I warned General David Petraeus, then commander of ISAF, about the police chief’s style and the potential Leahy amendment issues it raises. Meanwhile, northern Helmand is already re-infested with Taliban, according to both residents and U.S. military personnel.

A point often missed in assessments of security is that the Taliban’s strategy is to obtain the maximum policy impact for the minimum investment of resources. That is what asymmetric warfare is all about. Recent spectacular attacks in Kabul and elsewhere indicate they’re still doing a good job at that.

What local deals are being made between a given kandak and the local Haqqani commander? Whose fighters are waiting for ISAF’s final departure? What depredations are the local police committing? No one can claim to know, beyond a very localized understanding.

So any assessment of current security trends can only be a surface impression. Its significance for predicting outcomes is minimal.

As for residual U.S. troops, 10,000 would not make much more of an impact on security and stability in Afghanistan than zero. My reading of the signals in this town is that zero is a likely bet. And to be honest, in the absence of an overall policy framework within which the commitment and sacrifice would make sense, I find it difficult to argue otherwise.

But how to get to zero U.S. troops after 2014 without leaving a black hole behind? How to get to zero responsibly, honoring the efforts and losses of so many, and preserving some potential for the Afghan people and for regional security? The obligation the United States engaged by intervening in the first place – and the historical memory in that region of the U.S. just leaving -- imposes one last effort to think those questions through.

Recommendation: Don’t look to security structures to provide security amidst political melt-down. The way to wind down U.S. involvement in Afghanistan without the place unraveling behind us is not to focus on military technicalities. It is to take a different approach to the political context.

On negotiations: The idea of a single negotiating track with Taliban leadership was never the right approach to the political context -- for several reasons. The ISI involvement with Taliban leadership may be complex and fraught, but it is deep and effective. It is likely that the ISI started reconstituting the Taliban in late 2002 -- and I watched them doing it -- with precisely the aim of negotiations in mind. They, like us, presumed an insurgency would end in negotiations, and they wanted to drive us there, and then control the outcome. The aim was to regain a degree of the proxy control over Afghanistan that they enjoyed under the Taliban regime. Now, however the relationship may have evolved, the ISI certainly retains enough hold over Taliban leadership to choose who goes to Doha, and what they settle for. And ironically, we have been practically begging Pakistani officials to play that role.

In other words, we would never be negotiating with autonomous representatives of an Afghan movement in Doha, even if talks started. We’d be talking to the ISI by proxy. That carries a couple of implications. It means we are effectively rewarding Pakistan for the deliberate use of violent proxies as an instrument of national policy. Other countries, like Iran and North Korea, may take notice. And it means that the terms of any deal that might result would likely be unacceptable to most Afghans, because they would entail surrendering too much sovereignty.

Which brings me to my next point: it’s not just the Taliban who are bitterly opposed to the way the Karzai government has been operating. Most Afghans are. But the others did not take up arms. Even though the ballot box -- due to fraud -- has not been a recourse. And yet, those Afghans have no seat at these negotiations. We are in effect punishing the nonviolent opposition in our rush to placate the violent opposition. This approach does not line up with our values as a nation. And it is almost guaranteed not to work – but rather to lead to the next war.

Recommendation: Two prongs. With respect to Afghan reconciliation, make it much more inclusive, along the lines of what the French tested in Chantilly late last year. Include all the major constituencies, including the Taliban and members of the Karzai government, as co-equal participants. Choice of participants would necessarily be arbitrary and imperfect at this late date, but it can easily be made more representative than the Doha process. Talks should be facilitated by talented international mediators, perhaps sponsored by one or more of our NATO partners.

With respect to Pakistan, first and -- in concert with our allies including the UK -- raise the cost of using violent proxies as an instrument of policy, by means of an array of leverage and smart sanctions. Certainly do not ask Pakistani officials to act as agents to help organize intra-Afghan talks. Second, open a proper, formal, state-to-state channel through which Pakistan can identify and address its legitimate strategic aspirations and concerns with respect to its neighbor. Again, this is the type of initiative international bodies are well-placed to help facilitate.

Mr. Chairman, only such a change in our political approach can offer a way to conclude U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan without leaving the region even more dangerous than we found it in 2001. Such an adjustment would not require more material resources, just more focus and attention, and the willingness to take some political risk.

Thank you for inviting me to share these thoughts.

End of document

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Comments (7)

  • Faizullah Zaki, Spokesman of Afghanistan National Front (mainstream legal opposition).
    One of strongest,most honest and most realistic analysis heard since the Bonn Conference. Let's hope that this voice of reason is heated by policy makers.
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  • César De Lucas Ivorra
    I believe one that could help the situation in Agghanistan is to create a pipeline and a gas pipeline to take petrol and from the north to the south of the country giving a great money to Agfhanistan Goverment to improve the situaton in that country.With these two substance transport systems could take petrol from Russia and Kazajstán or Uzbequistan to arrive to the countries like Pakistan, India or China.This system wouldn´t have political problems, or problems related to the terrorism, not creating any war.
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  • ringo
    1 Recommend
    It is easy to say what should happen, the devil is in the execution of the desired policy. As a case in point, while inclusive talks with all stakeholders is highly desirable, what option do you have when the Taliban refuses to participate in talks which feature Govt representatives and are puppets in the hands of their proxy controllers. Lack of total military victory has led to an impasse where the narrative cannot be changed by any single stakeholder and will need a degree of compromise by all. But this is unlikely to happen because the Taliban probably feels its writ will run once the draw down is completed. Hence the environment for compromise and talks will only happen post drawdown when false notions of superiority are dispelled.
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  • wrf
    Ms. Chase's observations, assessment and recommendations are, as always, insightful and solution-driven. However, in addition to the three main topics Ms. Chase identifies, the ubiquitous Afghan narcotics production and transit 'industry' have to be recognized and addressed as an obstruction to the establishment of rule of law, equality before the law and human rights, and legitimate economic development. Any political solution will be undermined if the narcotics problem is not addressed.
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  • Popalzai
    Some how it seems that Ms Sarah Chayes has again taken a view with a mind set which does not understand actual ground realities in Afghanistan. Her claim of knowing things on ground by living in Kandhar should be taken with a pinch of salt. She never saw the actual realities while interacting with that portion of Afghanis who will be exiting once USA scales down its military presence in Afghanistan.
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  • Dr. Makni
    Sara Chayes has explored the subject thoughtfully. However I would differ about her perception about Pakistan though I recognize her right to an opinion. She writes, "With respect to Pakistan, first and -- in concert with our allies including the UK -- raise the cost of using violent proxies as an instrument of policy, by means of an array of leverage and smart sanctions. Certainly do not ask Pakistani officials to act as agents to help organize intra-Afghan talks." Then she goes on to assert that, " Second, open a proper, formal, state-to-state channel through which Pakistan can identify and address its legitimate strategic aspirations and concerns with respect to its neighbor." The text, it may be seen, has contradictions within. On one hand she talks of smart sanctions to keep Pakistan out of proxy war, an assumed scenario, and the role it could play as a facilitator and then sounds inclined to recognize its 'legitimate strategic aspirations.' Iran and Syria cases are proving that sanctions only punish the poor people when their woes get compounded. It is also fortunate that the West except America recognizes critical Pakistani forces role in war on terror. Mr. William Hague, British Foreign Secretary did not have to appease Pakistan if it did not deserve such compliments when he said in Islamabad yesterday," Britain is proud of its friendship with Pakistan." His visit to Pakistan aimed at securing its facilitator role and hence Sara's point seems not so popular with UK to keep Pakistan out of the loop and for right reasons. Perhaps when Sara was writing, another analyst was paying compliments to Pakistan, "Pakistan military and Para military forces performed remarkably, losing about 4000 officers, junior commissioned officers and other ranks; a staggering number, more than what US lost in over a decade in Afghanistan. Besides, the country suffered about 35000 civilians’ fatalities. Repeat of ‘do more’ mantra by US surprised Pakistani intelligentsia. US-Pakistan working relationship, even though claimed to the contrary, remained complicated all along." May be she also finds some useful point at
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  • Graciana del Castillo

    Sarah Chayes rightly mentions the three topics that dominate the current Afghanistan debate. Notoriously missing from such debate is the issue of economic reconstruction or the economics of peace, that is, the challenge of reactivating the economy in an inclusive and sustainable way, which is fundamental to creating peace and stability and reducing aid dependency.
    Our policy of channeling a large percentage of our aid off-budget and of building a school here, a road there, and a clinic elsewhere—without a clear and well-thought economic reconstruction strategy—has resulted in ineffective, fragmented, and wasteful aid, a fact well documented by our own oversight institutions.
    This would not be so tragic had it not been for the tremendous cost to US taxpayers and the sad fact that it has led to an unnecessary aid dependency in Afghanistan, which is clearly not sustainable given President Obama stated desire to do nation-building at home. Just to mention some figures of this folly, in the 2002-13 period, US security and non-security aid to the country was five times larger than Afghan GDP during that period. Legal GDP may underestimate the size of the economy, but aid was still more than 3 times larger than GDP even if we increased it by 50 percent to account for illegal drug production.
    The allocation of US aid has been appalling. Of roughly $70 billion appropriated for reconstruction in 2001-11, over $40 went to finance the Afghan security forces and only $1 went to finance agriculture and rural development. Not surprisingly, the country has become highly dependent on food imports (for which we have appropriated about $1 billion also), after having achieved food security before the war started in the late 1970s.
    We are good at expressing concern about gender issues in Afghanistan. Women are highly dependent on agriculture for their livelihoods and that of their families. Creating a level playing field in this area, so that women have access to all the inputs necessary for agricultural production would be the best we could do, not only for them and their families, but also for promoting peace and security in the country.
    There is indeed a vacuum of thinking and debating in this area. It is critical that such debate takes place as we think how to assist Afghanistan in the post-2014 period.
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