An Afghan National Policeman waits for vehicles while U.S. Marines discuss a local man stopped during an operation in Garmsir District, Afghanistan, March 21, 2012.

An Afghan National Policeman waits for vehicles while U.S. Marines discuss a local man stopped during an operation in Garmsir District, Afghanistan, March 21, 2012. U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Reece Lodder

Kabul's Needs Extend Far Beyond More US Troops in Afghanistan

All sides in Kabul seem to have agreed that stability in the short-term outweighs the lasting effects of numerous ministerial and governorship vacancies.

Yesterday’s announcement of a new timeline for U.S. troop withdrawal will see the full 9,800 U.S. contingent remain in Afghanistan through at least the end of 2015. This marks an important, positive step in building Afghan stability as it acknowledges that while the combat mission may have ended, much work remains to be done. Equally important is the pledge to request Congress’ continued funding of the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF), maintaining a goal of 352,000 soldiers and policemen through 2017 and costing roughly $4 billion dollars. Continuing U.S. support will be required as Afghanistan seeks to develop and diversify its infrastructure and economy, secure international aid, and enhance regional integration necessary to prevent disintegration along ethnic lines and an amplified civil war. All of these steps are necessary to keep Afghanistan safe, free, and secure.

Afghanistan faces a critical year as the ANSF attempts to hold territory and the National Unity Government (NUG) attempts to govern with reduced U.S. and international combat forces and civilian support. While a reconciliation process in which Afghan government officials meet face to face with Taliban leaders is required for long-term peace and stability in Afghanistan, a successful effort to head off this year’s Taliban offensive is unlikely. The Taliban view themselves as having the upper-hand, and are unlikely to enter into talks with the government before an attempt to defeat the ANSF after the U.S. withdrawal.

The NUG, a deal brokered last fall by Secretary Kerry in which presidential rivals Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah agreed to share power as president and chief executive officer respectively, has so far held. However, it remains under considerable stress. The unorthodox—and unconstitutional, under current Afghan law—arrangement has resulted in a certain degree of government paralysis, most visible in the lengthy negotiations over cabinet and provincial governorship appointments. After pledging to submit cabinet nominations within forty-five days of the NUG’s formation, it took 105 days for the two camps to reach an agreement on a list of nominees, only to have half of them rejected by parliament. After another lengthy delay, President Ghani announced a new list of sixteen nominees this past Saturday before departing for the United States; these individuals still need to be confirmed before a full cabinet is formed.

With ministerial positions and governorships unfilled, or filled by temporary appointees lacking real authority, the distribution of services and other basic government functions have ground to a halt. In the medium-to-long term, it remains to be seen what will become of the new executive branch structure. Ghani has pledged to call a loya jirga (a formal assembly by which a head of state is chosen or a dispute settled) within two years in order to amend the constitution and formally create the CEO position—whether the NUG can last that long another matter. For now, all sides seem to have reached a consensus that stability in the short-term in order to address critical security challenges outweighs any long-term, detrimental impact for the young democracy.

On the security front, the ANSF faces mounting pressure across the country as the Taliban work to regain control over territory following the end of formal International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) combat operations this past December. 2014 was the deadliest year in the past six, with 5,400 soldiers and policemen killed as of mid-December 2014 and 3,700 civilian deaths (along with nearly 7,000 injured). The Taliban capitalized on uncertainty following the lengthy election audit last spring and summer, ramping up both attacks symbolic targets in and around Kabul and government positions across the country. Taliban fighters also launched large, coordinated ground assaults in more remote districts, including in areas in the north and northwest—outside their stronghold in the south—where they had little to no presence prior to the invasion in 2001.

While continued direct U.S. financial assistance is critical for the Afghan government to function, it will be increasingly difficult to justify billions of dollars in aid to institutions that have a habit of losing it.

While the ANSF has succeeded in driving militants out of several districts, the absence of coalition support—and in particular, air support—severely hinders its ability to hold retaken territory. As the 2015 spring fighting season approaches (a period of heightened attacks that runs roughly April to September), the Taliban are poised to seriously challenge the capability of the ANSF to hold and defend a growing number of contested areas around the country. This enables the insurgency to solidify control, reestablish shadow government institutions, and launch more frequent, larger attacks as they continue challenging the government in Kabul.

Since February, a steady stream of rumors and reporting indicated that formal peace negotiations between the NUG and Taliban leadership were set to start in March. Both the U.S. government and official Taliban spokesmen have denied any such talks are set to take place, but media reports indicate at least some contact between Afghan government representatives with the Taliban political office in Qatar, and President Ghani seems dedicated to the effort. Any talks that do take place are unlikely to head off this year’s Taliban offensive, as there is little incentive for the Taliban to negotiate with a government they view as illegitimate; Taliban fighters are also riding high on their perceived defeat of the international coalition.

(Related: Obama Halts Afghanistan Drawdown And His Critics Still Pounce)

The viability of a comprehensive peace deal is also jeopardized by increasing indication of fractures within the Taliban movement. Recent fears of ISIS activity, while certainly concerning, are probably overstated, more likely representing disillusionment from former Afghan and Pakistani Taliban militants rather than a serious expansion of ISIS into the region. However, this will make negotiating a reconciliation that brings a real peace significantly more difficult if large enough factions of fighters no longer take orders from Taliban emir Mullah Omar and the Quetta Shura.

On the regional front, President Ghani has made a concentrated effort to shore up continued financial assistance from the international community, as well as political support for a reconciliation process. His numerous trips abroad, including this week’s to Washington, have also sought to repair diplomatic damage wrought by former Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

Pakistan appears to be helping in this effort, part of a recent uptick in relations between the two historically contentious neighbors. Following a visit by President Ghani last fall, a series of high-level meetings between both civilian and military officials has taken place in Islamabad and Kabul as security services increase cooperation against both the Afghan Taliban and Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan militants, and the two countries have pledged to take steps to increase trade. China looks to be playing an increasing role, with Taliban representatives reportedly having visited Beijing last fall, sparking speculation that Bejing-brokered peace negotiations could take place there. Beijing has pledged $327 million in aid through 2017. For now, China’s involvement is a welcome development, as their interests (denying militants safe haven and protecting investments) align with U.S. goals. Enhancing regional ties is essential as President Ghani tries to address critical infrastructure and energy needs to grow an Afghan economy heavily dependent on U.S. aid.

Part of this effort to grow the economy—and perhaps the most important—has been President Ghani’s pledge to tackle corruption. Patronage networks are deeply embedded in all aspects of Afghan society, and little progress has been made in tamping down graft outside of an acknowledgement the problem exists. For example, earlier this month the U.S. Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction highlighted that last year nearly half of customs revenues (which account for roughly one-third of Afghanistan’s domestic revenue) were stolen.

(Related: After Karzai, An Unexpected ‘Thank You For Your Service’ From Afghanistan)

The U.S. and international drawdown as previously planned would have threatened this effort to stamp out corruption, as fewer international observers would have remained in-country to oversee the distribution of funds and build clean institutions. U.S. funding pays for ANSF and other government employees; and while continued direct U.S. financial assistance is critical for the Afghan government to function, it will be increasingly difficult to justify billions of dollars in aid to institutions that have a habit of losing it. The United States’ continuing commitment to Afghanistan represents a positive development for a nation too often shaken by disunity and violence—but much work remains. Having 9,800 troops remain in country in a train,advise, and assist capacity—a fraction of the 100,000 U.S. troops at the peak of the Afghan surge—represents a reasonable continued investment that can have a real impact in securing Afghanistan’s development and stability while protecting U.S. national interests.

(Afghan President Ashraf Ghani will be addressing the Council on Foreign Relations on Thursday, March 26 at 12p.m. ET. You will be able to watch his remarks live here.)

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