As Washington hosts Afghanistan’s new leaders this week, policy specialists and government officials have urged the United States and its allies to agree on long-term financial and security support to stabilize Afghanistan. The reformist administration of President Ashraf Ghani and his coalition partner, Chief Executive Officer Abdullah Abdullah, creates a fresh opportunity for governments and international institutions to strengthen the Afghan state and curtail the country’s decades-long warfare, said U.S., European, and Afghan participants in a conference at the U.S. Institute of Peace.

20150316-State-Strengthening-Afghanistan-event.jpg
USIP Staff

In the face of growing violence by the Taliban insurgency, Ghani and Abdullah are working to pry open a window of opportunity to negotiate a peace deal. As they do, they must improve the speed and efficiency of their government’s decision-making, said numerous participants at the conference last week, hosted by USIP, Stanford University, and the British Royal Institute for International Affairs, also known as Chatham House. The Afghan government’s failure to name more than a third of its cabinet in its first six months dramatizes the problem, several participants said.

The U.S.-led counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency intervention of nearly 14 years has included projects that dramatically improved Afghans’ health, educational opportunities and connection to the wider world, noted former Assistant Secretary of State and Ambassador to Afghanistan James Dobbins.

But “the main criterion for [judging] success or failure in an intervention is whether or not you leave behind … a country that’s at peace with itself and its neighbors. In this, of course, we have so far failed” in Afghanistan, said Dobbins. (The conference was held under rules that prevent naming most speakers to encourage frank debate. Dobbins was one of five keynote speakers whose addresses were conducted on the record.)

A Reason for Failure: We Never Really Tried

Dobbins and former U.S. government Special Advisor on Afghanistan Barnett Rubin were among speakers who said a central reason for the U.S.-led intervention’s failure to stabilize the Afghan state has been that, for years,the mission was focused instead on counter-terrorism. .

In Bosnia, where a U.S.-led intervention produced a peaceful (if still politically difficult) settlement, a critical factor was that the operation provided significant peacekeeping forces to establish order and financial help to reboot governance. Measured per capita, the U.S.-led international commitment to Afghanistan included a force only 2 percent the size of that used in Bosnia, and only about 5 percent of the financial assistance, Dobbins said.

The foreign commitment of forces and funds began to rise only after Afghanistan’s governance had been ignored long enough to let the Taliban insurgency re-erupt by 2006. At that point, much higher levels of force and funding were needed just to prevent the Afghan government’s destruction.

“Really, the intervention in Afghanistan was not a state-building intervention,” said Rubin, a career Afghan policy scholar at New York University. “It was a counter-terrorism operation.”
Even though rebuilding the Afghan state was essential to long-term U.S. and international security, any U.S. action to help do that was authorized only when it served the single, shorter-term goal of destroying al-Qaeda, Rubin said. Supporting Afghanistan’s long-term stabilization “wasn’t what it [the U.S. presence] was about,” he said. “When there was a conflict between the counterterrorist agenda and anything else, the counterterrorist agenda won out.”

The British interventions of the 1800s in Afghanistan and the Soviet occupation of the 1980s included efforts to strengthen Afghanistan’s state structures. But after those foreign governments withdrew their forces and support for their allied Afghan governments, they saw those structures fail, in part by having overreached, said another career Afghan specialist, Boston University anthropologist Thomas Barfield, who heads the American Institute of Afghan Studies.

If “Kabul feels that it can run roughshod over the countryside, it risks political instability,” Barfield said. Still, “no insurgency has ever succeeded in toppling a government in Kabul that retains an international patron.”

Lessons for Stabilizing Afghanistan Now

Lessons from the past 14 years can improve efforts now to strengthen a state structure that can govern Afghanistan effectively and bring peace, speakers in the conference said. Policy recommendations from the two days of debate included:

  • Commit to real help for the long term. International projects to help Afghanistan—notably its security, economy and government capacity— must be designed and funded for the long term, rather than a year or two at a time. This will create confidence among Afghans, and domestic and foreign investors.
  • Invest in civil society and education. The past 14 years has begun yielding a generation of Afghans better equipped to build an Afghanistan engaged with the 21st Century world. In the next decade, power in Afghanistan will shift from the aging generation of 1980s combatants to these younger Afghans. Continued investment in their education and skills will speed that change and, critically, sustain a greater role in it for Afghan women.
  • Support talks with the Taliban. If the Ghani-Abdullah government holds peace talks that are backed by significant segments of the population and are consistent with U.S. national interests, the United States should avoid undermining them.
  • Work with Iran and Pakistan. Any policy must work with all of Afghanistan’s neighbors, the most important of which are Iran and Pakistan. Policies should encourage China’s rising new interest in actively helping to stabilize Afghanistan.
  • Build U.S. constituencies for Afghanistan. The American public will support policies that clearly help create a moderate Afghanistan capable of avoiding a collapse into new chaos that could breed threats to the United States. Americans also will support sustaining the gains for Afghan women and girls. This basic support can be channeled politically by creating a bi-partisan Congressional Caucus for Afghanistan.
  • Promote accountability, but non-punitively. Current U.S. accountability systems for Afghan assistance and projects seem designed to punish poor performers rather than improve  institutions that deliver aid. This creates incentives within U.S. structures to exaggerate success and hide failures, and oversight of Afghan assistance should be reformed.

Related Publications

Afghan Peace Process Tests Women Activists

Afghan Peace Process Tests Women Activists

Tuesday, October 27, 2020

By: Belquis Ahmadi; Matthew Parkes

More than a month after Afghan peace talks formally began, the effort to end the war in Afghanistan is stalled, and no one faces higher stakes than Afghan women. The attempt at negotiations has snagged on preliminary issues, the Taliban have escalated their attacks, and all sides are watching the evolution of the U.S. military role in the country. Afghan women’s rights advocates say the moment, and the need for international support, is critical. U.S. officials have noted how U.S assistance can be vital in supporting women’s rights, a principle that can be advanced at a global donors’ conference next month.

Type: Analysis and Commentary

Gender; Peace Processes

Four Lessons for Security Sector Reform in Afghanistan

Four Lessons for Security Sector Reform in Afghanistan

Wednesday, October 21, 2020

By: Jason Criss Howk; Andrew Hyde; Annie Pforzheimer

As Afghan peace talks in Doha move forward, a vital component to the success of any peace deal will be how Afghanistan’s security sector can reform to sustain peace after more than 40 years of violence, and how the international community can best assist. This effort would benefit from recalling the lessons of another time when there was need for a comprehensive reconsideration of Afghanistan’s security sector: the two years immediately following the 2001 overthrow of the Taliban regime. Despite the many important changes, the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF) have undergone and a dramatically different context, key lessons from 2002-03 remain relevant to guide thinking ahead of and after a peace agreement.

Type: Analysis and Commentary

Justice, Security & Rule of Law

What do Afghans think about peace? Just ask their artists.

What do Afghans think about peace? Just ask their artists.

Tuesday, October 13, 2020

By: Johnny Walsh

Historic peace talks between the Taliban and Afghan government began in early September, opening a window for peace after four decades of conflict. Afghans, overwhelmingly weary of war and craving an end to violence, are watching closely. This urge for peace is the most important force motivating the talks, and Afghanistan’s burgeoning community of artists articulate it especially powerfully.

Type: Blog

Peace Processes

Afghanistan Donor Conference 2020: Pitfalls and Possibilities

Afghanistan Donor Conference 2020: Pitfalls and Possibilities

Wednesday, October 7, 2020

By: William Byrd

When Afghan officials and international donors meet next month to consider future aid commitments to Afghanistan, they will face a changed situation from their last gathering four years ago. Then, the focus was on tying financial assistance to government reform in the midst of ongoing war with the Taliban; peace was barely on the agenda. Now, peace talks between the Taliban and the government have begun, and a new Afghan administration is still taking shape with an agreement that resolved the disputed 2019 presidential election. Meanwhile, fighting and casualties remain at unsustainable levels and the country is reckoning with the COVID-19 pandemic and its consequences.

Type: Analysis and Commentary

Economics & Environment; Democracy & Governance

View All Publications