Afghanistan’s future may largely hinge on international efforts from now until 2014. One key issue is the transfer of security responsibility from international forces to a capable Afghanistan National Security Force. Zuhra Bahman, a Kabul-based consultant; Victor Korgun from the Institute of Oriental Studies in Moscow; Assistant Secretary General for Operations of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization Martin Howard; and Clare Lockhart, director of the Institute for State Effectiveness, addressed the critical challenges inherent to the transfer and offered potential strategies for achieving sustainable peace in Afghanistan. Alvaro de Vasconcelos and Luis Peral, both of the European Union Institute for Security Studies, moderated the discussion with Carnegie’s Ashley J. Tellis. This discussion served as the culmination of two days of off-the-record meetings.

Creating More Questions

Peral highlighted some of the questions that had emerged during the meetings, including:

  • Is international and Afghani military pressure on the Taliban conducive to reconciliation? For the United States, Peral argued, reconciliation between the Afghan government and the Taliban and the transition to Afghan security responsibility are mutually reinforcing processes, but many participants challenged this idea during the two days of meetings. They noted that a drawdown by the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) has broader economic and political implications.

  • Should the international community be thinking of a broader transition in governance in Afghanistan? Some participants felt no reconciliation would be possible without broad political and economic reforms.

  • How can Afghanistan become a viable state in the medium to long term? Some participants noted the potential to exploit recently discovered mineral resources, but it could be many years before those resources yield significant public and private revenue.

  • How can the international community coordinate regional cooperation? Participants noted the importance of China’s growing regional influence and argued that regional actors must be more directly involved in the transition. Some also argued that the central geographic position of Afghanistan in Asia had been disregarded so far.

NATO’s Role

Howard reiterated that Afghanistan is NATO’s top priority moving forward, noting that it has consistently stressed the need to build a comprehensive strategy for handling the complicated situation in the country. He pointed out several ways that NATO is preparing to transfer responsibility to the Afghan government.

  • Decisions at Lisbon: Howard noted two decisions made by NATO in Lisbon that will be important for the transition process:
    1. Begin the Transition: NATO agreed with President Hamid Karzai’s call to begin the process of transition in early 2011. Howard emphasized that transition in Afghanistan will be a process, not a single event. He also stressed that this was not a rush to the exit, but rather an opportunity to reinvest resources that the transition may make available.

    2. Enduring Partnership: At Lisbon, an agreement of enduring partnership was signed by President Karzai and the NATO secretary general. This agreement addressed concerns that the security transition would be seen by some Afghans as abandonment.

  • NATO’s Perspective: NATO recognizes that other issues, such as building up the Afghan economy, are important in transitioning Afghanistan to a stable, independent nation. However, as a security organization, NATO is not equipped to deliver on such concerns, Howard said. Other international partners are critical for enabling a complete, holistic effort.

  • Regional Implications: Howard noted that the international community cannot ignore Afghanistan’s borders with a number of powerful global players. Especially in areas bordering Pakistan, regional pressures and the cooperation of Afghanistan’s neighbors could have important effects on the success of the transition. Howard also argued that reconciliation with the insurgency is extremely important, but the process must be led by Afghans and proceed in parallel with transition, rather than one being dependent on the other.

Transitional Worries

Bahman highlighted two elements of the transition that concerned her as both a researcher and an activist:

  1. Security Responsibility: Bahman expressed concern about the transfer of responsibility from NATO to Afghan forces. At the moment, she argued, Afghan security forces cannot guarantee the security of a city, let alone a district or the country. She argued that although opinion polls indicate that Afghans trust the security forces, the reality on the ground is different. In particular, members of the police force are unable to trust people around them: they face the threat of having their food poisoned and too often become hostages in the very places they are trying to secure.

  2. The Flight of Aid: Bahman worried that as the international military presence fades, international aid money will dry up as well. She pointed out that this has already happened with Canadian aid money, which dropped off significantly after Canadian soldiers withdrew from Afghanistan. A decline in aid would force the Afghan government to assume the functions currently provided by the aid community, which it is not equipped to do now.

Regional Dynamics

Given the complexity of the situation in Afghanistan, it is essential that all parties in the region and world actively participate in achieving a viable state, said Korgun. Countries should not be content to merely monitor the situation. Regional actors—with traditional political, economic, and cultural ties to Afghanistan—have a particularly important role to play, both through bilateral relations and through international and regional organizational structures such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the Asian Development Bank, Korgun added.

Lockhart compared a number of key issues in the Afghan transition to those addressed in the Marshall Plan following World War Two:

  • Framing: It is important to frame a goal as economic even if the main outcome is political and psychological, Lockhart said. Although the ultimate goal of an economic approach is to achieve political and security gains, this cannot be stated explicitly or it would undermine the efficacy of the approach.

  • Hope: In the wake of World War Two, many thought that Britain might be unsalvageable. While recovery was difficult, it proved to be possible. The same is true in Afghanistan, Lockhart said. Looking at the international community’s performance in Afghanistan over the last decade, a number of things once thought to be difficult have proven surprisingly easy to accomplish, such as the creation of the National Solidarity Program.

  • Local Ownership: Afghan policy makers need to take primary responsibility for both a political and security transition, and they must play a central role in any attempt at rebuilding for the transition to succeed.

  • Feasibility: Moving forward, the transition process must be tailored to the reality of the situation on the ground in Afghanistan. Conceiving of the country as having an important future role as a land bridge in Asia might be one way to shape the long-term goals of the transition. Another sound concept that progress can be based on should be directing funds to national priority programs that would enable Afghanistan to build itself up. As the transition moves forward, international financial agencies like the IMF and the World Bank will be important in helping Afghanistan with the economic management necessary to achieve these goals.

  • Importance: Lockhart pointed out the obvious importance of economic engagement in Afghanistan, given that youth around the world are demanding jobs and skills and 70 percent of the Afghan population is under 25 years old. Providing young men and women with employment and job skills will be difficult but essential.

  • Further obstacles: Lockhart observed that Afghanistan’s constitutional democracy will need to find a way to pay for its large standing army. Minerals will likely be a crucial source of revenue, as well as customs duties from trade across Afghanistan, the construction industry, and land taxes. At the moment an economy does exist in Afghanistan, she said, but it is in the form of a large thriving criminal economy. This must be replaced by a legitimate economy, she concluded.