What Afghanistan needs now

Both Afghans and Amer­i­cans need to step up to their re­spon­si­bil­i­ties

The Washington Post Sunday - - SUNDAY OPINION - BY VANDA FELBAB-BROWN, RON­ALD NEU­MANN AND DAVID SEDNEY Vanda Felbab-Brown is a se­nior fel­low at the Brook­ings In­sti­tu­tion. Ron­ald Neu­mann was U.S. am­bas­sador to Afghanistan from 2005 to 2007. David Sedney was deputy U.S. am­bas­sador to Afghanistan from 200

The loss of the Afghan pro­vin­cial cap­i­tal Kun­duz was a psy­cho­log­i­cal shock to the Afghan peo­ple, a strate­gic and tac­ti­cal de­feat for both Afghanistan and the United States, and a tragedy for those at the Doc­tors With­out Bor­ders hospi­tal there. Yet the shock may prompt es­sen­tial changes. It is im­por­tant to ex­am­ine both Afghan and U.S. re­spon­si­bil­ity for the dis­as­ter, what is hap­pen­ing now and what needs to be done. Pres­i­dent Obama’s de­ci­sion Thurs­day to main­tain ex­ist­ing U.S. force lev­els into next year was ab­so­lutely cor­rect to achieve the goal he stated of “sus­tain­able Afghan ca­pac­ity and self-suf­fi­ciency.”

Kun­duz, which has since been re­cap­tured by Afghan forces, was more than just the first pro­vin­cial cap­i­tal to be taken by the Tal­iban; its fall was highly sym­bolic be­cause it was the site of the Tal­iban’s last stand in 2001. The poor ini­tial per­for­mance of Afghan se­cu­rity forces and the tragic bomb­ing of a non­govern­men­tal or­ga­ni­za­tion hospi­tal in the midst of a chaotic re­sponse to the at­tack sparked na­tional dis­ap­point­ment in Afghanistan and in­ter­na­tional con­cern. All this came on the back of a dis­mal year in which many more Afghan civil­ians died than did so while in­ter­na­tional forces fought the Tal­iban, and the na­tional unity gov­ern­ment, which came into of­fice on a wave of hope a year ago, stalled on fill­ing es­sen­tial po­si­tions and re­form­ing gov­er­nance.

The United States and its al­lies share re­spon­si­bil­ity for the mil­i­tary losses. We built se­cu­rity forces that de­pend on air power and need con­tin­ued in­tel­li­gence and ad­vi­sory sup­port. But in­stead of en­sur­ing that th­ese ca­pa­bil­i­ties are avail­able, we have se­verely lim­ited air sup­port, trans­ferred key in­tel­li­gence en­ablers to Iraq and cre­ated a patch­work sys­tem that left key ar­eas, in­clud­ing Kun­duz, with­out ef­fec­tive ad­vis­ers. Our with­drawals from th­ese vi­tal func­tions based on po­lit­i­cally driven timeta­bles ig­nored re­al­ity on the ground, in­clud­ing Tal­iban ca­pa­bil­i­ties and the em­brace of the Is­lamic State by some mil­i­tants.

But Afghans need to un­der­stand that U.S. sup­port is not, and should not, be a blank check. Both the gov­ern­ment and the op­po­si­tion need to work to im­prove their mil­i­tary, po­lit­i­cal and gov­er­nance per­for­mance, and come to­gether in­stead of pulling the coun­try apart.

The Kun­duz set­back does not mean the war is lost. Elite Afghan com­man­dos de­liv­ered by re­cap­tur­ing crit­i­cal ar­eas. Whereas Mo­sul in Iraq re­mains in en­emy hands a year af­ter it fell, Kun­duz has re­turned to gov­ern­ment con­trol. Pres­i­dent Ashraf Ghani and Chief Ex­ec­u­tive Ab­dul­lah Ab­dul­lah ap­pear to be heed­ing the call to ac­tion. Dur­ing our re­cent 10-day visit to Afghanistan, each told us that they have agreed to an ac­cel­er­ated ap­point­ment process. Five new gov­er­nors have been named, in­clud­ing three to crit­i­cal prov­inces; fur­ther ap­point­ments and the long-de­layed re­place­ment of nu­mer­ous se­nior of­fi­cers is promised and must hap­pen quickly. Ap­point­ments must in­volve ef­fec­tive in­di­vid­u­als and can­not be merely po­lit­i­cal pay­offs. Ghani has cre­ated a com­mis­sion to in­ves­ti­gate Kun­duz, with a man­date to rec­om­mend ac­tion, that is led by op­po­si­tion voices, in­clud­ing a former head of in­tel­li­gence, though it sadly lacks fe­male mem­bers.

If gov­ern­ment per­for­mance takes off, pub­lic con­fi­dence could be­gin to be re­stored. More re­mains to be done. Afghan power bro­kers, in­tent on ad­vanc­ing per­sonal agen­das, seek to re­place the gov­ern­ment. They need to be pressed to stand down. The ef­fort to re­duce preda­tory gov­er­nance in the prov­inces and Kabul can­not be shoved aside. Ghani and Ab­dul­lah must work ef­fec­tively to­gether de­spite the ra­pa­cious de­sires of their sup­port­ers and op­po­nents. Broader con­sul­ta­tion with the Afghan peo­ple is needed.

The United States needs to con­tinue to step up to its own re­spon­si­bil­i­ties, as well. Ground com­bat troops are not needed, but ad­vis­ers and air power must be kept in place and not re­duced on some blind, years-old timetable. Air power must be avail­able to pre­empt at­tacks and not con­fined, as it is now, to des­per­ate de­fense af­ter at­tacks have be­gun. Afghan and for­eign of­fi­cials we spoke to fore­see a crescendo of Tal­iban at­tacks as in­ter­na­tional forces with­draw. An even big­ger Tal­iban of­fen­sive next year is likely to stretch bat­tered Afghan forces fur­ther. We have not ended a war, only left it to the Afghans too soon.

The United States should main­tain its cur­rent forces and fund­ing lev­els, which are less than 10 per­cent of ex­pen­di­tures a few years ago, and fo­cus on ef­fec­tively ad­vis­ing Afghan forces. A re­duc­tion of the U.S. ef­fort to a “pure” coun­tert­er­ror­ism ef­fort, still fore­shad­owed by the pres­i­dent’s hope of get­ting to about half the cur­rent force level some­time next year, would be dis­turbingly sim­i­lar to what Pres­i­dent Ge­orge W. Bush tried a decade ago. Such a pre­ma­ture draw­down would aban­don Afghan forces be­fore they are ready, in­creas­ing the risk that a re­newed ter­ror­ist haven will emerge.

Ask­ing our al­lies to do jobs they are not equipped to do raises the risk of more re­ver­sals such as Kun­duz and tragedies like the hospi­tal bomb­ing. Obama’s de­ci­sion to main­tain forces prop­erly avoids pre­empt­ing his suc­ces­sor’s choices about a dif­fi­cult and evolv­ing sit­u­a­tion. That fo­cus, and not a pre­de­ter­mined timetable, should con­tinue to guide de­ci­sions through­out the re­main­der of this ad­min­is­tra­tion. The pres­i­dent’s pub­lic de­ter­mi­na­tion to main­tain our cur­rent train­ing and ad­vis­ing ef­fort un­til Afghan forces do not need such help will pro­vide a needed boost to both Afghans and our NATO al­lies — some of whom have been ahead of us in urg­ing that we stay. And it is the right thing to do for our na­tional in­ter­ests.


A woman and child dis­placed from Afghanistan’s Kun­duz prov­ince.

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