As the US begins a security transition in Afghanistan, it has focused the vast majority of its strategy, efforts and resources on building Afghan security forces and weakening insurgents through military pressure. Yet the broader Afghan state is in crisis.
Afghans we met with during a recent trip to Kabul warned that their country's fragile democratic institutions were crumbling. If the current political trajectory continues, Afghan security forces may have no state left to defend.
A range of Afghans — government officials, opposition figures and members of civil society — argued that the US must perform a tricky balancing act to strengthen the state. The Obama administration should heal its rift with Afghan President Hamid Karzai but without providing unconditional financial and political support, which weakens Afghan state institutions and contributes to a culture of impunity.
Relying exclusively on Karzai or pushing to marginalise him would be calamitous for Afghanistan's stability. Navigating this minefield demands deft diplomacy — one that uses transparency, conditions and incentives to help Afghanistan create a political system that is lasting, includes the current opposition and leaves the door open for a settlement with elements of the Taliban.
Key shifts in US policy are required. First, it requires the US to be crystal clear about its objectives in Afghanistan, supported by a political track that is synchronised with the military strategy between now and 2014 — and beyond.
Conspiracy theories abound even at the most senior levels of the Afghan government that the US wants to use Afghanistan indefinitely as a base to project power in Asia and the Middle East as part of a new ‘Great Game'.
Many Afghans view America's stated counter-terrorism objectives as secondary to this larger interest. This perception is partially due to Afghanistan's fertile ground for conspiracy theories; it is also a result of mixed messages emanating from US policymakers, particularly in Congress but also in the Obama administration.
The new team, led by Ambassador Ryan Crocker and General John Allen, must reduce these wrong perceptions and create a civil-military road map that better integrates US political, economy and military strategies. This plan needs to work backward from 2014, when a transition occurs under the Afghan constitution from Karzai to an elected successor, as well as from allied forces to the Afghan government.
Second, despite its public aversion to nation-building, the US government must support Afghanistan's institutions and democratic forces, including the media, parliament, Supreme Court, Independent Election Commission and even the political opposition.
Although these bodies remain weak, they channel more Afghan voices into the political system, creating increased accountability. Karzai has said that he will step down in 2014, and the US must work with him and Afghanistan's parliament to reform the electoral system to enable political party formation and to support the emergence of Afghan leaders who can assume national leadership positions after him.
Third, the US must more effectively use its leverage to encourage political and economic reforms. The strategic partnership agreement under negotiation offers an opportunity to clarify US and Afghan objectives and to provide minimum conditions for ongoing US support. The US should establish within that agreement specific reforms required by the Afghans in return for continued assistance to the Afghan government and its National Security Forces.
Fourth, the US needs to commit to facilitating an Afghan political settlement. The ambivalence in the US approach on this issue is creating confusion in the region and within the Afghan leadership and is increasing tensions between the Afghan and US governments.
The US should support the appointment of an international mediator, accept an office in a third country for discussions to take place with Taliban insurgents, and calibrate its military approach to support an eventual settlement. It must push for an open and transparent process, which includes the domestic opposition and civil society, so that their fears are addressed.
And the one view that seems to unite the entire Afghan political spectrum is that the US needs a comprehensive regional diplomatic strategy that stops Pakistan from playing a spoiler role.
President Barack Obama took the right step in announcing the start of the transition in Afghanistan. After nearly 10 years, American troops need to begin coming home, and Afghan security forces need to take the lead. But as this security transition occurs the US needs to accelerate its efforts to help Afghanistan strengthen its political institutions, power-sharing arrangements and economic foundations to make sure the country will be able stand on its own.
John Podesta is president of the Centre for American Progress; Brian Katulis and Caroline Wadhams are senior fellows in the centre's national security programme.