Can Obama get Afghanistan right in second term?

By Javid Ahmad

The war in Afghanistan was largely ignored in the lead up to the U.S. presidential election. But with a second term now confirmed for President Barack Obama, Kabul is once again vying for Washington’s attention.


Over the next two years, Afghanistan faces three important transitions – political, security, and economic – of which the viability of all are dependent upon U.S. financial commitment. A bilateral security agreement is currently being negotiated between Washington and Kabul, and this will supersede the current status of forces agreement and guarantee a lighter military footprint for the foreseeable future to assist the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) and pursue counterterrorism objectives. And, while Afghanistan’s donor-drunk economy will continue to rely on open-ended financial support from foreign donors for some years, the country’s political transition seems to be on track, with the next presidential vote set for April 5, 2014.


But in the immediate future, the key challenge for Washington is to revitalize the stalled peace talks with the Taliban, discussions that could help put an end to the ongoing deadly confrontations. If withdrawing responsibly in 2014 is indeed high on President Obama’s agenda, then he has little choice but to prioritize and accelerate the peace talks, negotiate a ceasefire between all sides, and reach a settlement that ensures that the Taliban lay down their weapons. If Washington is not serious about pursuing such talks, it should be talking about possible contingencies should post-2014 plans not go as hoped.


The current U.S. exit strategy is largely premised on propping up the ANSF to take the lead on security responsibility and effectively protect Afghanistan’s borders, but this is looking increasingly uncertain. The United States has spent more than $50 billion on raising a 352,000-strong Afghan army and police force over the past decade, slowly turning a quasi-military force into a modern military.


But there is no functional plan in place that stipulates the size, structure, and cost of the ANSF over the long-term. A report released last month by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction warned that “The Afghan government will likely be incapable of fully sustaining the ANSF facilities after the transition in 2014,” citing “deficient budgeting, procurement, and supply systems.” Afghan forces are reportedly handed security responsibilities of bases and outposts by U.S. troops, but lack the necessary equipment such as helicopters, night-vision goggles, and heavy weaponry to defend these positions against insurgents. If Washington cannot ensure the ANSF’s ability to hold its positions, its exit strategy will most likely fail.


But the key challenge ahead for the Obama administration is to address the insurgent safe havens across the border in Pakistan. In dealing with sanctuaries and insurgent support networks, President Obama needs something that was all too rare during his first term – tough talk with Islamabad. This means making it clear to Pakistan’s security apparatus that America will remain in the region for as long as is necessary to complete the job, that Washington will not play by Pakistan’s rules, and – just as importantly – that Islamabad should stop hedging its bets by supporting or tolerating the Taliban.


Days before the U.S. election, a 21-nation BBC World Service poll showed overwhelming international support for Obama. Twenty out of 21 countries surveyed supported Obama with one notable exception: Pakistan. Around 60 percent of those surveyed in Pakistan expressed no confidence in Obama. While Islamabad has few incentives to revisit its Afghanistan policy, reinforcing American statements with more sticks and fewer carrots should not only alter Pakistan’s strategic calculus, but will also go a long way towards salvaging U.S. efforts in Afghanistan. Meanwhile, to further support its efforts, Washington should consider brokering a regional non-interference pact between Afghanistan and its neighbors, especially Pakistan.


President Obama will travel to Cambodia to attend the East Asia Summit this month with a symbolic stop in Myanmar – a first for a U.S. president. A stop in Kabul is not on the schedule right now, but an unannounced visit would send an important signal to all stakeholders that bringing stability to Afghanistan is still a key priority. The Obama administration has four years of experience working to tackle the multiple challenges confronting Afghanistan and the region. The question is whether it has learned the necessary lessons of what works – and what doesn’t.


Javid Ahmad, a native of Kabul, is a program coordinator with the Asia Program of the German Marshall Fund of the United States in Washington, D.C.