What a “Responsible Transition” in Afghanistan Should Look Like

By / 12.10.2010

The Center for New American Security (CNAS) just released a new report on the way forward in Afghanistan. As the report’s title indicates, “Responsible Transition” calls for the United States to hand over responsibility for security to the Afghans over the next few years. The plan involves leaving 25-35,000 U.S. troops behind to defeat Afghanistan, with the rest withdrawn by 2014. “Responsible Transition” also calls for America to put more pressure on Pakistan to crack down on extremists.

CNAS’s plan to scale down the U.S. presence in Afghanistan is a wise one, recognizing as it does that “all options are likely to be suboptimal” but a long-term nation-building project is particularly suboptimal. But it seems wishful thinking that more pressure on Pakistan coming from the Obama administration will do what nine years of pressure haven’t already: convince Pakistan to expel the Taliban and any other troublemakers from its territory. As long as Pakistan knows we need it more than it needs us, it can take U.S. money while doing little.

Moreover, as Michael Cohen points out, CNAS’s report entirely sidesteps the thorny issue of talking with the Taliban. This is a key issue, since the Taliban have deep roots in the Pashtun community. Any long-term peace is going to have to include elements of the Taliban, as the administration sometimes seems to realize.

A more realistic plan would be something along the lines of what the Afghanistan Study Group and the Center for American Progress have recommended. Encouraging political reconciliation must be at the forefront of U.S.’s strategy going forward, not simply an afterthought. Military operations will have to take a backseat to diplomacy and politics if long-term progress is going to be made. Deal-making will have to include bargains with the Taliban, unsavoury though that prospect is. There simply is no other way to bring a modicum of stability to the troubled region unless the Taliban are made a part of some power-sharing agreement.

It’s a positive sign that the gang at CNAS recognizes that a sizable U.S. footprint in Afghanistan is unsustainable. As the strongest boosters of large-scale counterinsurgency approaches, CNAS has an important role to play in forming a strategy that focuses primarily–and eventually, exclusively–on preventing terrorist attacks against the U.S. homeland. That should always be the top priority. When the Obama administration releases its Afghanistan review next week, let’s hope it agrees.