Better-than-expected performance by Afghan security forces, a rare alignment of interests for the U.S. and Pakistan, and a vigorous build-up to presidential elections in Afghanistan provide a narrow window of opportunity this year to ensure the country doesn’t collapse once international troops leave, according to experts in a public discussion recently at USIP.

Pictured from left to right: Scott Smith Steve Coll, Amb. Omar Samad, Moeed Yusuf
Pictured from left to right: Scott Smith Steve Coll, Amb. Omar Samad, Moeed Yusuf

Among the threats to those prospects is the repeated talk in Washington of a “zero option” that would leave no U.S. troops behind as the NATO-led coalition withdraws forces by the end of this year. That idea has been floated repeatedly as the administration of President Barack Obama becomes increasingly frustrated with Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s criticism and refusal to sign a new Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA).

“We’re searching for a transition that would place Afghanistan in a sustainable and legitimate position in the international system,” said Steve Coll, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and Bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001. Coll lamented the historic “pattern of convulsive failure” in both Kabul and abroad. “One thing that the United States should not do is to suggest that it is impatient about the BSA or that a `zero option’ is something that [President Obama] would embrace … It’s really about signaling this sense of commitment and a broader perspective.”

Coll joined USIP program directors Scott Smith and Moeed Yusuf as well as Omar Samad of the New America Foundation to discuss the future of the Central Asian nation in an event to mark the publication of Getting It Right in Afghanistan. Smith, Yusuf and Colin Cookman, a research contractor for USIP, edited the volume of 12 articles written by experts between 2005 and 2013 on topics including the sources of conflict, regional dynamics and the potential for a political settlement. The aim is to capture lessons from the more than a decade of conflict that might contribute to future peace processes.

The vacuum of information about Afghanistan when the U.S. invaded and even in the years since has severely hampered foreign policy decision-making in the world’s capitals, Smith, the director of USIP’s Afghanistan and Central Asia programs, told the Institute audience. The volume contains a selection of more than 100 publications USIP produced during the eight-year period on Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Smith recalled being surprised in 2003, when he accompanied the United Nations envoy to Afghanistan, Ambassador Lakhdar Brahimi, to Washington for talks with then-Secretary of State Colin Powell. In a preliminary meeting, the State Department’s then-head of policy planning asked Brahimi, “`What are we doing wrong in Afghanistan?’” Smith said. It was unusual, Smith said, for the U.S. government to pay such deference to a U.N. envoy on a matter of such import to America’s national security.

Despite the experience of tens of thousands of Americans and other foreigners in the interim, “It’s easy to wonder whether we have any superior grasp on the situation than we did in our state of ignorance 10 or 12 years ago.”

Samad, a former USIP senior Afghan expert in residence who now serves as senior Central Asia fellow at the New America Foundation, recently returned from Kabul and said he’s never seen the political class there as tense or confused about Afghanistan’s prospects.

“What they really are concerned about is a backslide” and a collapse of the stability they have experience in the past 12 years, Samad said.

The scheduled presidential election in April could bring in new actors, renewed legitimacy, a chance to resume talks with the Taliban and “much more political space” than under the current uncertainty over whether or not Karzai will sign the security agreement, Smith said.

Coll, a staff writer at The New Yorker and dean of the Columbia Journalism School, said there’s a possibility as the formal election campaign gets underway in the coming months that candidates will reach some kind of compact to avoid a second-round vote and proceed with the urgent business of forming a new government.

In the wider neighborhood, Pakistan may set aside its role as spoiler this year, said Yusuf, the director of South Asia programs at USIP. In the past, Pakistan has repeatedly disappointed American officials who thought they could rely on leaders in Islamabad and the military headquarters in nearby Rawalpindi to fight militants as aggressively on their side of the border as the U.S. and its NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) allies and partners have been doing in Afghanistan.

“The U.S., Pakistan and everybody else has woken up to the reality that time is running out,” Yusuf said. “The fact is that the No. 1 problem for Pakistan, the U.S. and everybody else right now is the unwanted prospect of Afghanistan sliding back into chaos or repression.”

U.S. officials could take a number of steps to capitalize on the convergence of interests with Pakistan, Yusuf said. The U.S. could try to persuade Pakistan to influence the Afghan Taliban, who are ethnically Pashtun, to not thwart a smooth election on the premise that violence just plays into the hands of candidates from other ethnic groups.

A dialogue and possibly even joint projects between Pakistan and its traditional rival India on development within Afghanistan could ease concerns in Islamabad that officials in New Delhi aim to surround them by gaining a foothold in Afghanistan. The U.S. and the international community also should keep Pakistan and India in the loop on talks over the security agreement, Yusuf said.

And finally, the U.S. should focus this year on improving relations with Pakistan by broadening ties beyond discussions about counterterrorism and the South Asian nation’s nuclear weapons.

That Afghanistan’s coming elections play such a pivotal role in the country’s future stability is daunting for those who remember the chaos following allegations of fraud that followed balloting in 2009 and 2010, Smith said.

“In the past, these elections have had as much possibility for breakdown as they have had for reconciliation,” he said. It’s unlikely the international community will want to or be able to intervene to calm the waters this time.

“We find ourselves basically now hoping that these independent Afghan electoral institutions will do the job they were created to do -- and in the past have not always necessarily done so well,” Smith said.

Viola Gienger is a senior writer at USIP.

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