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Giving Kabul the Keys

Author: Greg Bruno
July 20, 2010


Afghan control of Afghan affairs has long sat atop President Hamid Karzai's wish list. In 2007 he argued what his country needed most was the "Afghanization of the whole exercise" (DPA) -- for domestic affairs like security to become an Afghan responsibility. Karzai is now repeating his message, and this time, his audience is receptive (AP). But there are questions about whether Afghanistan is up to the challenge and whether the international community—led by the United States—is ready to let go of the reins.

International donors have endorsed a plan to transfer security responsibilities to Afghan forces by the end of 2014 (FT), with partial transfer later this year. A draft communiqué released by more than forty international ministers and leaders provides a definitive schedule for a potential drawdown of international forces. The move is intended to ease growing weariness in European capitals (NYT) over a war that by most accounts is going poorly.

Whether Afghanistan will be successfully self-policing by 2014 is an open question. While Afghan forces have improved in recent months, they remain highly dependent on NATO troops (PDF) for training, guidance, and support. Retention remains difficult, and a dearth of capable leaders has slowed progress, according to the most recent Pentagon assessment (PDF). Roughly a quarter of all Afghan National Army units were capable of planning and conducting their own missions as of March 2010, the Pentagon notes. Even these modest numbers have been challenged. Arnold Fields, the special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction, says the system used to measure Afghan security force capabilities has overstated their readiness. And Afghan units are plagued by "logistics problems, personnel attrition, infrastructure deficiencies, corruption, drug abuse, and illiteracy," Fields says.

The more pressing challenge to eventual Afghan control may be governance. The vast majority of Afghanistan's $11 billion budget is derived from international assistance (CSMonitor) (the United States alone has spent over $51 billion since 2001), and Afghanistan will remain dependent on foreign cash for years. Corruption is rampant, violence remains high, and Afghans' trust in its government is faltering. Efforts to usher in democratic reforms are no more positive. A July 2010 assessment of preparations for next month's Afghan parliamentary elections finds a lack of transparency along with security challenges are threatening to produce a repeat of last year's flawed presidential balloting.

President Barack Obama has made clear the U.S. objective in Afghanistan is to "deny al-Qaeda a safe haven" while ensuring the Taliban is unable to return to prominence in the country (a goal the group continues to trumpet). Led by the United States, NATO forces are putting pressure on Taliban militants in Kandahar, working with Pakistan to improve security and economic opportunities for its neighbor (The National), and pondering negotiations with low-level Taliban fighters.

CFR's Stephen Biddle and other scholars question whether Afghanistan needs a "strong, centralized, Western-style government in Kabul" (Foreign Affairs) for the United States to achieve its goals. CFR President Richard N. Haass argues the potential gains are no longer worth the risks: "It is time to scale down our ambitions there," Haass writes in Newsweek. But the Obama administration has determined that stability is achievable and will require a capable Afghan partner. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said in Kabul, "Much more work remains" (BBC). The Afghan government agrees, and for now, is looking to put its own stamp on its future (RFE/RL).

Additional Analysis

A new survey by the International Council on Security and Development finds that Afghans' mistrust in the international community is deepening.

Watch Senate testimony on Afghan governance and the U.S. civilian reconstruction strategy.

A quarter of all Afghan households paid bribes in 2009—to police officers, local officials, and the Taliban—according to this recent survey (PDF).

In an editorial, Lebanon's Daily Star warns that U.S. development aid efforts have long been plagued by "broken promises and spectacular waste."

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