The U.S.-led mission in Afghanistan seems to be driving the country toward disintegration. Without substantive changes in the U.S. approach, Afghan government institutions are unlikely to survive the withdrawal of international forces. Preventing an implosion and attendant regional chaos requires expanding stalled reconciliation talks to include a broader range of stakeholders, helping the Pakistani leadership espouse formal channels for addressing its regional interests rather than violent proxies, and cooperating with Central Asian actors.

It has been called the “signature attack” of the Afghanistan conflict. Shootings by Afghan soldiers and police officers of their International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) mentors, which were sharply up in 2012, bear disturbing witness to the fault lines in U.S. policy toward Afghanistan. For many in America and other troop-contributing nations, they served as a symbolic last straw, justifying calls for accelerated withdrawal. These attacks have corroded the principal pillar of U.S. policy: development of the security forces. They highlight the error of emphasizing this one institution to the detriment of a wider political approach. And they reveal an ongoing American misunderstanding of the environment, both inside Afghanistan and in its immediate neighborhood.

These misunderstandings and miscalculations have resulted in a policy that may actually be driving Afghanistan toward the very civil conflict the U.S. government wishes to avert as it reduces its presence in the country in 2014.

No one expects a highly developed and stable Afghan democracy by that point. Still, the ultimate success of the U.S.-led mission depends on a political order remaining behind that will not quickly implode and is solid enough to serve as a foundation for ongoing development. But, without qualitative changes in the U.S. approach to Afghanistan and Pakistan alike—changes that will require enhanced focus and political courage, rather than material investments—such an outcome is in grave doubt. Weak and discredited Afghan government institutions are unlikely to withstand the forces that will be unleashed as the international presence drops off.

The challenge of the Afghan transition is to overcome the temptation to turn the page and to summon the energy and put in the work now to help stave off the worst-case scenarios.

Serious potential repercussions of an Afghan meltdown include renewed hospitality for transnational terrorism and exacerbated instability in Central Asia and the nuclear-armed subcontinent as thousands flee and fragile neighboring countries are dragged into the vortex. Once such consequences materialize, they will be impossible to ignore. The challenge of the Afghan transition is to overcome the temptation to turn the page and to summon the energy and put in the work now to help stave off the worst-case scenarios.

Sarah Chayes

A recalibrated approach must achieve a minimal political accommodation among Afghanistan’s diverse constituencies—not just the Taliban. Such an accommodation is a prerequisite to an acceptable 2014 Afghan presidential election and further adjustments to the currently unpopular political order thereafter. The profound contradiction in U.S. policy toward the Pakistani military also must be resolved by materially raising the cost of its use of extremist violence to advance its national agenda, while simultaneously opening a formal international channel for addressing Pakistan’s legitimate strategic concerns and aspirations with respect to Afghanistan. Finally, the national security implications of an imploding Afghanistan on neighbors to the north cannot be ignored.

None of these policy shifts is possible without a significant improvement in U.S. understanding of the local context.

Understanding the Environment

When the bitter losses caused by insider attacks first gained attention, the reaction was shocked incomprehension. How could a soft-spoken “tea boy,” barely an adolescent, pick up an unsecured Kalashnikov, walk to the makeshift gym used by U.S. Marines on a base in Helmand Province, and in a deafening spray of bullets blow three of them away? How could members of a local self-defense force, supported by uniquely skilled special operators to protect their own villages, ambush their mentors at a rural checkpoint? The irony of these tragedies of a waning war is searing. As one grief-stricken father lamented to a reporter, “My son trained somebody to murder him.”

These attacks illuminate much that has gone wrong with U.S. Afghanistan policy—to begin with, the faulty analysis on which it is based.

Initial explanations beggared belief. According to the first statements, 10 percent of the attacks were due to insurgent infiltration, the rest were personal disputes gone wrong. “It’s a gun culture out there,” Lieutenant General James Terry, operational commander of the international force, told reporters in September. “A lot of grievances and dispute resolutions are done, frankly, at the barrel of a gun.”

The bare notion that it was possible to explain the phenomenon by means of a numerical fraction indicates the depth of U.S. misunderstanding.

A recalibrated approach must achieve a minimal political accommodation among Afghanistan’s diverse constituencies—not just the Taliban.

For years, frustration has been rising in the Afghan population at a government that makes a mockery of law and accountability, shaking down citizens, imprisoning people for ransom, trafficking drugs and natural resources, and monopolizing development contracts and reselling them to cronies, until the work done at the end of the line is shoddy and dangerous—all in unbridled pursuit of personal gain. What affords these corrupt officials their impunity, in the eyes of most Afghans, is the protective presence of international troops. Worse, to serve this abusive government, ISAF troops themselves harm Afghan civilians. They cut roads through lovingly tended vineyards, blow up agricultural buildings, block irrigation channels, and sometimes kill people’s neighbors or desecrate sacred symbols.

In the case of the Helmand tea boy, it is obvious to anyone familiar with local ways that he provided other services to his police commander than just serving food. It was a fraught relationship with an official so abusive that prior rotations of Marines had worked to get him removed. These Marines, by contrast, were helping him, in the eyes of the boy. In this context, to an angry and humiliated young man, extremist arguments and fantasies of violence can have some allure. Was that adolescent among the 10 percent? Or did he lash out at a personal grievance?

In fact, while the physical terrain the Taliban controls has shrunk since the troop surge, Taliban thinking seems to be expanding, at least in southern Afghanistan. Hardly a resident of Kandahar, for example, after applauding the Taliban’s fall in 2001, does not now know an extremist sympathizer or does not discuss jihadi ideas over late-night tea. The Taliban, moreover, announced in 2011 that they intended to infiltrate the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF). As insider attacks rose in the following months, a plausible explanation was that the insurgents were implementing their stated strategy.

The United States does not appreciate the degree to which Afghans’ disgust with their own government, together with lack of recourse against it, make them vulnerable to extremism.

International miscomprehension of Afghan realities is seen in the persistent underestimation of the insurgents’ effectiveness and their understanding and manipulation of asymmetric tactics—often with technical assistance by the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and rebranded elements of the al-Qaeda network. The United States also does not appreciate the degree to which Afghans’ disgust with their own government, together with lack of recourse against it, make them vulnerable to extremism.

The United States, therefore, should cease rehashing past messaging about progress in Afghanistan and take sober stock of the dangers this conflict still presents. Those dangers result from policies promoted by both Republican and Democratic administrations, and should not be fodder for partisan one-upmanship. The Obama administration should also devote a greater proportion of intelligence and information gathering to understanding the associations and motivations of Afghan military and governmental officials to allow for more nuanced partnering as the transition proceeds.

Deficient Institutions

The ease with which the Taliban have placed sleepers inside the ANSF, or with which men whose loyalty is wavering have joined or remained in the ranks, points to profound weaknesses in those security institutions—despite the generous support they have received. As expansion of the security forces was hit upon as the device to permit international withdrawal, quantity increasingly trumped quality. Reaching some numerical threshold (the actual number kept changing) became the benchmark of success. Ill-vetted, ill-trained, often underage recruits were rushed into uniform to make up the count.

And when, in 2008, even that hasty process seemed too slow, an idea borrowed from Iraq was introduced into Afghanistan. Villagers afforded yet less vetting and training were issued guns to protect their homes. As many Afghans predicted, these forces have proved dangerously divisive. They shake down their neighbors for “contributions” in kind, they battle for control of land, and they ally themselves with local power brokers. In 2011, several surveys pinpointed abuses by local militias as a main reason for the record number of internally displaced people.

In other words, the very security institutions the international community was depending on to secure its exit from Afghanistan were structurally deficient.

But so was the whole idea that security forces alone could guarantee the country’s stability. For what is an army but an instrument in the hands of a government? No matter how well trained or effective or large it might be, it is only as good as the government—the brain and the body—that wields it. The international decision, solidified in 2011, not to focus on the quality and decency of the Afghan government or the credibility of the political processes that allowed Afghans a voice in choosing it doomed the plan to make the [PQ: Afghan National Security Forces] ANSF the centerpiece of the exit strategy.

The very security institutions the international community was depending on to secure its exit from Afghanistan were structurally deficient.

The new Obama administration should shift focus to rigorously promote the quality, instead of the quantity, of the ANSF and other government institutions to which the United States is providing support. It should direct personnel in Afghanistan to be more selective in partnering decisions, differentially reducing or increasing contact and material assistance based on real knowledge of commanders’ integrity. Although the U.S. government has decided not to seriously address the broader problem of Afghan corruption and poor governance, similar criteria should be applied to relations with other Afghan institutions.

Fueling Centrifugal Forces

The quantitative focus on the ANSF also blinded international officials to ways the force was being structured that are likely to accelerate the centrifugal forces unleashed as the international presence diminishes. Combined with the other main pillar of the U.S. withdrawal strategy—peace talks with the Taliban, to the exclusion of other Afghan constituencies—the result is almost certain to be internal conflict.

According to several senior Afghan National Army officers, an effort was under way as early as 2009 to stack the officer corps with former loyalists of the anti-Soviet resistance force that came to be called the Northern Alliance. When Northern Alliance veteran Bismillah Khan Mohammadi became minister of the interior, he launched a similar campaign within the police, even redrawing administrative zones in the north so as to create an unbroken front excluding pockets of the ethnic Pashtun population.

And who could blame him? From his perspective and that of many Afghans—Pashtun as well as non-Pashtun—international policy in Afghanistan and resulting developments have tilted in favor of neighboring Pakistan and its extremist proxies. These are precisely the forces Mohammadi and his comrades fought in the 1990s, and which they assumed the U.S. intervention aimed to check.

Yet, from the start of the conflict, the U.S. policy toward Pakistan has been confusingly equivocal. The aspect of this contradictory approach of most concern to the likes of Mohammadi was its reliance on exclusive negotiations with the Taliban. That effort was also disconnected from context.

For at least the past year, U.S. government officials have publicly acknowledged that the Pakistani military, through the ISI, has not merely turned a blind eye to the development of insurgent groups on its territory but has taken a complex, active role in helping reconstitute them. If so, what would be the purpose? Why would Pakistani officials foment explosive instability right on their border? Why would they take the risk that the extremism they help foster might shift its focus—as it has—to them?

Pakistani government interests in Afghanistan have grown increasingly manifest over the years, and they are linked to the military’s perception of the Pakistani rivalry with India. The constantly evoked threat is Indian encirclement—a too-cozy relationship between Kabul and New Delhi, which could leave Pakistan trapped in the middle.

To forestall this eventuality, it seems increasingly clear that the Pakistani military leadership has aimed to regain a degree of the proxy control over Afghanistan that it enjoyed in the 1990s, by determining the conflict’s end game. Pakistani officials, like U.S. experts, have often stated that insurgencies expire around a negotiating table. Through the establishment of safe havens for Pakistani-trained terrorists, the active protection of diverse and frequently reconfiguring groups, and intimate links with the insurgent leaders they have assisted and cajoled and intimidated into the fight, ISI officers intended to determine who would do the negotiating—if anyone—and what they would settle for.

Persistent interstate disputes are all too common in international relations. Most of them, however, are played out in the political or occasionally the international legal arenas. Although some turn violent, the deliberate instrumentalization of terrorist proxies is the exception. In this case, Pakistan’s determined manipulation of violent religious militants in order to force, and then control, talks spoiled the U.S.-led international effort to stabilize and rebuild Afghanistan.

And yet, U.S. officials are now reportedly asking Pakistan to draw up a list of potential participants to relaunch the stalled negotiation process. Such a decision plays right into the Pakistani military’s game.

Negotiators under ISI control would not be free to accept conditions the Pakistani military disapproves of. The United States (and Afghanistan) would effectively be negotiating with the ISI by proxy. And indications—including those contained in a strategic document sent by Army Chief Ashfaq Parvez Kayani to the U.S. government in 2011—are that the Pakistani military would disapprove of anything short of indirect control of a significant portion of Afghanistan. In effect, U.S. policy has incentivized the use of extremist violence and encouraged Pakistan to reinforce its control over at least the Pashtun swath of Afghanistan.

But whole segments of the Afghan population would likely fight rather than submit to such an outcome again. And, thanks in part to the U.S. focus on building up the ANSF, they have the forces to do so. The consequences of the ensuing strife could extend well beyond Afghanistan, as some Pakistani proxies interact intensively with a rebranded al-Qaeda or implement an international agenda of their own. Spillover violence could send large numbers of refugees into a fragile Central Asia, and reinforce recruitment of non-Pashtun extremists. The terrorist threat would increase not just for Afghanistan, but for those countries and for India as well. Another Mumbai-style terrorist attack, under a less restrained government, could trigger a nuclear escalation in South Asia.

Moreover, as this autumn’s attacks on U.S. embassies in North African countries attest, al-Qaeda franchises are actively adapting their strategy and would likely take advantage of renewed permissiveness on the Afghan-Pakistan border. And, with its extremist proxies in control of parts of Afghanistan, Pakistan would be absolved of responsibility for them and their actions. The fractured and unpopular Afghan government, not Islamabad, would be expected to neutralize them.

Thus, the two main elements of the U.S. strategy for leaving Afghanistan are reinforcing conflicting pressures and actively driving the country toward civil war—with potentially catastrophic international repercussions. A changed approach must prioritize efforts to bring Afghan constituencies together around minimal political accommodations so as to counter already well-developed centrifugal tendencies.

Countering Centrifugal Forces

The United States must expand the stalled reconciliation process to include a broader variety of stakeholders, alongside insurgent leaders. Some effort will be required to identify appropriate representatives of key Afghan constituencies. But quiet work has already been undertaken by some ISAF contributors, which could be emulated or expanded.

The process should be structured as a series of sessions actively facilitated by seasoned international negotiators. The skill of those negotiators rather than their countries of origin should constitute the criteria for selection. The United States, while present, might not play a leading role. Key members of the Afghan government who represent its different component factions must be included, but Kabul should not run the process either, since many Afghans—and not just the Taliban—doubt its ability to serve as an honest broker.

The objective should be to elucidate a set of minimal requirements for peaceful coexistence. Issues will doubtless touch upon the exercise of power, mechanisms to check and redress its abuse, control of resources, and control and oversight of the use of force. The aim—reinforced by the facilitators—should be to eventually reach a lowest common denominator, a charter that can guarantee basic peace and serve as a foundation for ongoing work, not a maximalist view of the ideal Afghanistan. The process should not be billed as one aimed at constitutional modification, but if its proceedings lead in that direction, such solutions should not be ruled out.

Little in the current configuration suggests that the Afghan government—and perhaps some other stakeholders—will participate in such a process in good faith. So forcing functions will need to be employed in order to change the terms of the equation. One inducement might be the credibility of the process itself. To date, the Afghan government has been able to exclude key stakeholders from important international gatherings, which have tended to be one-off extravaganzas, rather than serious efforts at negotiation. Other forcing functions can include the Afghan government’s own survival beyond 2014, oversight and monitoring mechanisms embedded within prior international agreements such as the U.S.-Afghanistan Strategic Partnership Agreement signed in 2012, the use of violations of the terms of these agreements, as they occur, as inflection points, and international financial support.

Another key element of an effort to counter centrifugal forces must be a more logical attitude toward Pakistan. Eleven years of engagement and the investment of billions of dollars in military and economic assistance have failed to alter the Pakistani government’s perception of its security environment, or its choices regarding how to address it.

The stated assumption behind this policy was a convergence in security interests between the United States and Pakistan. But this has been revealed to be practically nonexistent. In reality, the relationship boiled down to a quid pro quo: Pakistan provided minimal cooperation on Afghanistan as a means to buy defense assistance, which it largely devoted to the Indian front. Somehow, it managed to convince both the George W. Bush and Obama administrations that it was fulfilling the requisite minimum level of cooperation. But in fact, despite a few tactical convergences, the Pakistani army that was so generously funded was pursuing objectives and actions radically opposed to those of the United States. It was exporting violence into Afghanistan.

America’s permissiveness with respect to Pakistan has baffled most Afghans—not least the members of the ANSF charged with fighting the militants the United States has been indirectly helping to fund. The United States must, at last, draw the appropriate conclusions from the Pakistani military’s persistent use of extremist violence as a policy tool and begin countering it politically as well as militarily.

The Obama administration should encourage the development of a formal state-to-state mechanism for identifying and resolving Pakistan’s real security interests and legitimate aspirations with regard to Afghanistan. Such an effort could build upon the current trilateral process but should raise the level. Proceedings should be intensive and constructed as a process, not a one-off or occasional event.

Eleven years of engagement and the investment of billions of dollars in military and economic assistance have failed to alter the Pakistani government’s perception of its security environment, or its choices regarding how to address it.

It might take place over a several-week period at a retreat similar to the one in Dayton, Ohio, that ended the Bosnian war. As with the internal Afghan reconciliation process, it should be aided by experienced international facilitators. While the United States might play an observer’s role, Washington should not necessarily run the process.

Potential topics for discussion include the international boundary. In this particular case the problem lies less on the Pakistani than the Afghan side. Afghanistan has never recognized the Durand Line, the disputed 1896 border with Pakistan, and it would be politically difficult for any Afghan politician to do so now. This issue could be addressed within the framework of this process, where a variety of mechanisms, such as a United Nations boundary commission, could be explored to promote a solution. Such a commission could also be organized separately. Other topics for discussion might include the security concerns arising from the expanded size of the Afghan National Army, meaning demilitarized zones or international guarantees might be examined, and the density and location of Indian assets on Afghan soil.

This term, the administration also needs to take steps to raise the cost of Pakistan’s policy of using violent extremism to advance its security objectives. In this regard, designating the Pakistan-based Haqqani network as a foreign terrorist organization was a step in the right direction. The U.S. government should utilize all authorities available under that designation to increase pressure on the Haqqani network and affiliated businesses, particularly those that are also linked to the ISI.

There is no reason, moreover, not to retain the option of sanctioning Pakistan as a state sponsor of terrorism. Ahead of such designation, Washington can take steps to protect U.S. security interests, in line with what might be implemented against other state sponsors, such as further restricting landing privileges for flights originating in Pakistan or sanctioning individual former or serving ISI officers who actively facilitate insurgent activity. And the administration can raise Pakistan’s active connivance with militant groups such as the Haqqani network, the Quetta Shura Taliban, Lashkar-e-Taiba, and others, in international forums.

On a graduated basis, the Obama administration can reduce support for Pakistan’s receipt of economically beneficial international agreements, until its actions are in compliance with international norms. And it can condition U.S. economic as well as military assistance—and potentially other aspects of the economic relationship, such as trade policy—on reduced support for insurgent activity and use of the alternate, formal mechanism for resolving issues with Afghanistan. Maximal flexibility should be retained in calibrating changes in such support, so explicit linkage to broadly defined behavior in the language of budgeting law—which is often subsequently waived—may be counterproductive.

The government of Pakistan is unlikely to greet such a perceptible shift in the U.S. approach passively. Countermoves might include the closure of land routes into Afghanistan; heightened anti-American rhetoric in the Pakistani media or organized “popular” demonstrations; reduced access to Pakistani territory for U.S. personnel and technical assets; increased extremist attacks on U.S. personnel and facilities in Pakistan as well as Afghanistan; and interference, via Pakistani proxies currently in the Afghan government, with U.S. activities in Afghanistan.

The risks of such countermoves are real, but U.S. policy should not be predicated on the sole objective of avoiding them. When land routes through Pakistan into Afghanistan were closed starting in November 2011, the U.S. intervention was inconvenienced and its cost was raised, but it was not crippled. Clear-sighted measures to mitigate such risks must be part of a changed U.S. approach. Escalating responses is one alternative, as is considering or taking steps to isolate Pakistan internationally.

Employing the Entire Region

To limit broader reverberations of a withdrawal gone wrong, the new U.S. administration must pay more attention to the real security concerns of Afghanistan’s other [PQ: Central Asian] neighbors. Political leaders in fragile Central Asian states are already predicting an Afghan meltdown and planning against such a scenario. Ironically, their own actions—such as material support for the northern forces—might exacerbate the likelihood of the very developments they fear.

Tajikistan, whose government corruption most resembles Afghanistan’s, and whose long border with Afghanistan lies largely unsecured, has the most to fear. The situation is far different than it was in 1989, when the Soviet withdrawal led to the last major bout of turmoil. Even a collapsing Soviet Union could still secure its borders, then. A tsunami of Afghan refugees could further blur the already indeterminate frontier, leading toward a de facto merger of large swaths of the two countries’ territories and further facilitating drug and weapons smuggling. Disaffected young people, already turning to extremist teachings, may be increasingly radicalized.

To limit broader reverberations of a withdrawal gone wrong, the new U.S. administration must pay more attention to the real security concerns of Afghanistan’s Central Asian neighbors.

Pressures from a disaggregating Tajikistan would affect the whole region. Uzbekistan, perhaps the most stable of the states on Afghanistan’s northern border, faces governance issues of its own. Its tense relationship with Tajikistan precludes substantial cooperation to address the common threat.

Enhanced U.S. and North Atlantic Treaty Organization attention to potential dangers on Afghanistan’s northern and western borders could increase real understanding of the environment, while helping relieve some of the concerns of bordering countries—concerns that might prompt those countries to make ill-advised decisions. The U.S. Central Command should enhance planning cooperation with the militaries of key Central Asian countries. And the U.S. government should consider reorienting the ongoing ANSF training mission to put more focus on border security and improving the capabilities of Afghanistan’s border police.

Avoiding Catastrophic Failure

The changes envisaged here are qualitative, not quantitative. In most cases they entail a reduced, but more judicious, application of resources. Most significantly, ahead of an ultimate troop drawdown, they represent a fundamental shift in the way nonmilitary instruments of influence should be brought to bear to avert a damaging and dangerous outcome in Afghanistan.

Such a shift will require a different kind of investment, sometimes harder to make: a willingness to incur political risk. But the risks of not making such a shift are increasingly clear. This fall’s uptick in insider attacks shed light on many elements of what is awry with the Afghanistan mission. Yet if the only reaction to those attacks is to implement protective procedures for ANSF trainers, then their underlying significance will have been fatefully missed.