New USIP volume identifies weaknesses of early approaches, Outlines a vision for success going forward


Ian Larsen
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Lauren Sucher
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 US policy toward Afghanistan will require a fundamental change in order to achieve long-term stability in that country, according to The Future of Afghanistan, a new U.S. Institute of Peace (USIP) collection of essays written by some of the world's top South Asia analysts.  "A focused, coherent, and long-term approach to Afghan and regional stability is necessary to get Afghanistan out of its vicious cycle of insecurity, insurgency, impunity, and corruption" says the Institute's J Alexander Thier, who edited the volume.

Any effort to establish stability through troop increases alone will ignore larger issues and lead to short-term improvements at best. While recent violence in Afghanistan must be brought under control, the U.S. and the international community must get back to the basics by placing critical focus on rule of law, economic empowerment and the regional context.

Afghanistan has been beset by unrealistic, short-term thinking, the contributors conclude in The Future of Afghanistan. To address this, the essays discuss key problems and prospects over a ten-year horizon. It is often said that Vietnam was ten one-year wars instead of one ten-year war. Simiarly in Afghanistan, "seven years of short-term thinking have gotten us to a place, where, out of desperation, we can only think of the short term" according to Thier.

The volume was released as part of USIP's January 8 Passing the Baton conference in Washington, D.C. 

The authors of The Future of Afghanistan say insecurity, whether due to insurgency, terrorism, regional meddling, or warlordism undermines the potential for progress on all other fronts in Afghanistan, and that success is impossible without competent Afghan security institutions. However, within the international coalition, the goal of establishing internal Afghan-focused security was subordinate to the goal of destroying the international terrorist networks there that were orchestrating a campaign of spectacular attacks. Yet stable Afghan governance and security forces are required to create a viable long-term alternative to the Taliban.  Efforts to create a capable and legitimate government, including the development of Afghan security forces, were underfunded and poorly orchestrated.

Of equal importance is the legitimacy of the Afghan government itself and its will and capacity to implement the rule of law. The report argues that U.S. expectations for Afghan democracy were dangerously overblown during the Bush administration, wrongly believing that "democracy would be the panacea to resolving the myriad challenges facing Afghanistan following such a protracted period of conflict."  In the long run democratic governance is key to stability, yet it takes considerable time and investment to create the scale and strength of institutions required to maintain constitutional democracy.

The future of Afghanistan also depends upon the ability of its national and local leaders to organize for a common, positive purpose.  The international community and the Afghan government must engage the capacity of the broader Afghan society, making them the engine of progress rather than unwilling subjects of rapid change. The new formula is one where the central government continues to ensure security and justice on the national level and uses its position to channel international assistance to promote the rule of law and development at the community level. Such an approach would bring together capacity from four places—local communities, civil society (such as NGOs), Afghan government, and international donors— where none alone would be sufficient.

Finally, The U.S. must work with Afghanistan's neighbors to create a regional environment conducive to Afghanistan's success. Regional competition continues to undermine Afghanistan's long-term prospects, whereas renewed regional cooperation could provide a significant security and economic boost in Afghanistan, Pakistan and the region as a whole.

What is needed now is a coherent strategy to bridge the gap between conflict and democracy, between burkas and women's equality, between tribal councils and a Supreme Court—the next decade must be about building those bridges. The first step is to realign joint priorities and expectations. The international community will be much better off with a right-sized, Afghan-appropriate vision that can actually be implemented than a grand international confection that continues to wilt under the glaring realities of the day, the authors say.

As indicated by several of the report's essays, the solution going forward is a melding of top-down and bottom-up approaches, creating a condominium of central government institutions addressing larger challenges beyond the capacities of communities while enabling local capacity to deal with other issues. Under such a framework, central government would be responsible for those issues requiring collective action, such as fighting insurgents, building primary roads, regulating media, and protecting basic rights. Community-based structures would be heavily engaged in local governance issues such as water management, agricultural development, and dispute resolution. Civil society and private enterprise would expand media, protection of basic rights, and revitalization of culture. Such an approach would increase citizen participation, develop civil society, improve the delivery of basic services at the local level, and enhance the legitimacy of both national and local institutions.

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