Afghanistan: Rightsizing Expectations

Speaking Out


Afghanistan is a country that I love. My friends there are men and women of great character and bravery, who make me laugh and make me think. The Afghan people’s surmounted traumas are legendary. A 50-year-old Afghan has lived under six forms of government or political authority: a monarchy, a socialist republic, a communist dictatorship, anarchy and civil war, a theocracy and a democracy.

I have served twice in Kabul, as political counselor (2009-2010) under a new U.S. Democratic administration and as deputy chief of mission (2017-2018) under a new U.S. Republican administration— and both defined their policy in large degree by rejecting the policy they just inherited.

Looking ahead to 2020, there is no doubt that both political parties will campaign to end our “war.” But U.S. government career officials and some outside experts who have focused on Afghanistan over the decades would argue that we need to maintain security support to fight an enduring terrorist threat and avoid predatory behavior by regional powers.

Afghans, for their part, use historical examples to bolster their unique blend of catastrophizing and optimism. What could break out, they caution us, is another civil war like the one they had in the 1990s, when Washington deserted Afghanistan after the Soviet withdrawal. That led to millions of refugees, hundreds of thousands killed, a flattened capital and, eventually, the Taliban takeover and the use of their territory by al-Qaida and the masterminds of 9/11.

This warning sounds like a weird suicide threat—holding a gun to the only victims in the conflict, themselves. That said, they are right to threaten and remind us, because we do stand to lose, as well. Our memory is famously poor, and Afghans do not assume we’ll remember or care about the consequences of another power vacuum in their country. The optimism kicks in when they imagine a future free of war, albeit with our continued support, at a minimal level that keeps the predatory neighbors at bay.

Identifying Our Interests

The United States must let history inform the present and avoid acting in a way we are likely to regret in the not-too-distant future. We have, sadly, seen this movie before, when a U.S. decision to “move on” from our support to the anti-Soviet fighters gathered momentum, with dire consequences. The film “Charlie Wilson’s War” ends pointedly with a congressional rejection of funding in the early 1990s to rebuild Afghan schools. The vacuum unfilled by a government led to the rise of the Taliban who offered order.

I do support the current decision to downsize our embassy, military presence and civilian assistance over time. But it would be contrary to our interests to cut off assistance to the Afghan security forces before there is a genuine peace and a path toward regional buy-in to Afghan stability. We have the responsibility to finish at least some of what we started, and to do that we need a clear analysis on which to base a way forward.

One way to get clarity is to consider our interests as if we were looking at the region for the first time. If we did so, we’d value the fact that we have the makings of an important and well-located strategic ally. With a sustainable peace, that ally would be able to take economic advantage of its mineral wealth, nearby energy resources and trade with important markets in the region.

There have been some very positive U.S. steps in the past two years, chief among them the appointment of a special representative who is highly and uniquely qualified, and whose “special” mandate is better defined than others have been in the past. He is on the job to catalyze a peace agreement, and unlike previous Special Representatives for Afghanistan and Pakistan (known as SRAP), he has focused on the intricate and interwoven negotiations with the Taliban and the government, and leaves other elements of U.S. policy to the South and Central Asian Affairs Bureau.

What Changes and What Stays the Same

In my two tours, there have been some constants from my Afghan hosts: tea at every meeting; manifold expressions of gratitude for what we have done, along with accusations that their enemies are corrupt; and those allusions to being deserted in the 1990s and the chaos that ensued.

Also constant in two tours, almost a decade apart: a newly minted U.S. strategy that combined, supposedly forever, the strands of what we wanted to achieve with what we thought was truly achievable, including a new framework for our civilian assistance and evolving military goals. The strategies—one called for a surge in civilian personnel and aid funding, and the other called for a refocusing from “nation-building” to counterterrorism— constituted only two of the multiple, contradictory, fully fledged strategies since 2002.

It would be contrary to our interests to cut off assistance to the Afghan security forces before there is a genuine peace and a path toward regional buy-in to Afghan stability.

The turnover of U.S. diplomats and military officials, and our short political attention span at home, stand in contrast to the long-term nature of the problems we try to solve. We have had a succession of sometimes mutually exclusive goals and approaches. One example is our love-hate relationship with fighting corruption, which we pursue vigorously— except, unfortunately, when we don’t (in the name of security).

An example of this inconsistency is our support for regional strongman Atta Noor, a former governor of Balkh province. If we care about corruption, he should be reined in from his activities, including dominance over border and customs revenues. But for stability’s sake, we keep him on our side to head off even more Russian influence in Afghanistan’s north.

We may be fighting a series of “one-year wars,” but the Afghans have been watching us closely for 17 years. And they have learned a great deal about our inability to stick with a goal.

Distorted Mirror, Distorted Policies

In addition to our inconsistency, our policies suffer from a Pygmalion complex. We wanted a miracle—to transform a country economically, politically and culturally and to end bitter rivalries that tore it apart two decades ago.

We paid for this miracle, or so we thought. Several thousand U.S. and allied troops have died, as well as many thousands of Afghan military personnel and civilians. And less profoundly, we put in exhausting amounts of effort: so many plans, proposals, grants, vision statements, exchanges, visits, cultural promotion, monitoring and evaluation reports, conferences, lessons-learned statements, technical assistance, environmental impact reports, engineering studies, community meetings, training, equipping, “key leader engagements” and, of course … cups of tea.

From all this we wanted a beautiful reflection in the mirror. Instead we got ordinary, mixed results that might have been considered pretty impressive—if they were achieved somewhere else, with fewer illusions.

I would argue that whether our intervention “worked” or “failed” depends on one’s politics or confirmation bias. And how do you tell, really? No one agreed at the outset how we’d measure progress, and metrics changed constantly.

When I was at post in 2010, success was based on how much foreign assistance per month was “burned,” because that proved that the civilian effort was as serious as the military one. (That is a metric we now regret when faced with inspection reports showing how hastily designed some of our programs were, and how we should have watched our U.S. and local contractors more carefully.)

Are we there to promote women’s rights, or stop al-Qaida, or promote self-sufficiency, or change the culture of impunity? We can and did explain to visiting congressional delegations that progress had been far more good than bad, pointing to a huge jump in indicators for gross domestic product, life expectancy, education, maternal health, and access to electricity, TV and the rest of the world. We also acknowledged the other side: intractable poverty rates, violence and corruption.

What should our optimal presence be in the future, and how do we get there rationally, without creating opportunity costs or a chance for competitors to increase their influence?

A colleague once observed to me that we overidentified Afghan progress with our own self-worth. I sat in countless meetings with U.S. officials saying they were personally offended by failures of Afghan governance, whether or not it involved our funds. Our requirement for their military transformation has included well-meaning technological dependence that proves unworkable in practice (for example, aircraft that need higher-level maintenance than Afghans will be able to afford in the future).

Members of the Afghan political class—learning our ways better than we have been learning theirs—know that we want to hear pledges of reform; but they know equally well what the minimum will be to satisfy us.

Rightsizing Our Expectations, Presence and Timelines

We need an articulation of long-term U.S. goals for engagement in the country and the region, something equivalent to more consistent policies that have survived partisan changes over time, such as containment in Europe or trade promotion in Latin America. This requires putting Afghanistan in proper perspective, taking a deep breath and admitting that it will remain a problem beyond short-term fixes. That is not the same as giving up, which would be a massive strategic blunder and a disservice to those who have worked and sacrificed so much on all sides.

“Why are we still there?” is the wrong policy question. I would counter: “Why wouldn’t we be there?” We have embassies all over the world. We have a military presence in dozens of locations worldwide that we consider to have geostrategic importance.

The right policy question is this: “What should our optimal presence be in the future, and how do we get there rationally, without creating opportunity costs (such as having to return after withdrawing too precipitously) or a chance for competitors to increase their influence?”

Seeing this country for what it is, and is not, would generate a more rational policy debate. Afghanistan is a mid-sized, poor country with an increasingly better-educated and more urban population, many of whom have lived as refugees abroad and speak English. It is landlocked, but near massive energy reserves, and possesses mineral wealth and agricultural riches. It is socially conservative. And it is situated near countries we want to keep an eye on.

Congressional and U.S. public opinion appears to blow hot and cold, which may have much to do with how they hear the issues framed during a talk or in the media. And groups visiting the country see what they came to see.

What is currently at play are issues such as the size of our remaining forces; the mandate of those forces, which is also up to the Afghan government and NATO, with discussion in private with the Taliban; our payment for and enabling of the Afghan security forces, who are doing the bulk of the fighting; the size of the U.S. civilian assistance budget; and the size of our embassy.

The most vital of these is our support for the Afghan security forces, including both funding and training. We have to continue this support to meet the goals of the White House’s 2017 South Asia Strategy, our most current stated policy—to achieve through political settlement a stable Afghanistan that will be a viable partner for regional security.

We need to consider this assistance in terms of the ongoing and abiding U.S. interest in supporting pro-democratic forces and denying safe haven to terrorists in Afghanistan, with a commitment of resources that would decrease in scope over a medium-term horizon.

A disciplined and depoliticized agreement by both U.S. political parties on this goal is essential before the 2020 election cycle introduces even more rhetoric, the inevitable twisting of facts and further policy reversals. We have an obligation to get the next stage and end game right, even if we stumbled along the way.

Annie Pforzheimer, a recently retired career diplomat with the personal rank of Minister Counselor, was until March 2019 the acting deputy assistant secretary for Afghanistan. From 2017 to 2018, she was the deputy chief of mission in Kabul. Prior to that, she directed implementation of the Central America strategy at the National Security Council (2014-2015). She also led the Office of Andean Affairs in the Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs during Colombia’s peace process, and the Office for Peacekeeping, Sanctions and Counterterrorism in the Bureau of International Organizations. She was the director of the International Narcotics and Law Enforcement program in Mexico City, political counselor in El Salvador, and the human rights officer in Turkey and South Africa. Her first assignment was in Colombia. Ms. Pforzheimer received the State Department’s 2001 award for human rights reporting. The opinions and characterizations in this piece are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the U.S. government.