May 2, 2012
TSG IntelBrief: Success in Afghanistan Hinges on the Transfer of Political Power
• The withdrawal of the International Security Assistance Force will leave a power vacuum that the Afghan political actors and insurgents will try to capitalize upon.
• The struggle over the distribution of political power in Afghanistan in the form of presidential elections coincides with NATO combat troops’ withdrawal; the outcome of the untested transfer-of-power mechanism is going to shape America’s legacy in the country after a decade of involvement.
• The Obama administration has stayed largely at the sidelines of the Afghan political process, but the withdrawal of troops and the signing of the Strategic Partnership Agreement will shrink American leverage even if it decides to intervene, putting increased pressure on diplomats to produce a political settlement with the insurgency.
As of early May 2012, the United States and Afghanistan has signed the strategic partnership agreement that will govern the nature of their relationship for at least ten years following the planned 2014 withdrawal of American troops. Meanwhile, the U.S. is working fervently to plan for — and implement — a timely, safe, and logistically viable drawdown that will strategically triage forces as their numbers dwindle while, at the same time, both actively mentoring Afghan troops and doing everything possible to prevent the increasing number of friendly-fire deaths suffered by NATO troops at the hands of Afghan military and police personnel. As previously reported, these attacks by Afghan soldiers and policemen have the potential to undermine NATO's counterterrorism strategy in Afghanistan in the post-2014 era.
The withdrawal represents a considerably daunting task, but no matter how well the U.S. ultimately manages it, a critical and enduring aspect of the legacy of the U.S. and NATO intervention in Afghanistan unavoidably hinges on how well, and for how long, the Afghans fulfill their role. While this clearly involves the much-needed transformation of the Afghan National Security Forces into a capable, self-sustaining, and nationally recognized entity, of far greater importance will be the success of the political transition.
Managing the Transfer of Power
The Afghan presidential elections will coincide with the 2014 withdrawal, which leaves a questionable and unproven transfer-of-power mechanism in Afghanistan to cope with an increasingly brazen insurgency that will predictably feel emboldened as the last NATO combat troops leave the country.
In anticipation of the impending scenario, Afghans are considering a number of potential strategies for preventing this confluence of sub-optimal factors. One that has received a great deal of interest — both positive and negative — is the idea of postponing the elections until after 2014. While this may seem like a practical option on the surface, the political consequences are substantial. A postponement of the election would effectively lengthen President Karzai's term, which would contravene the constitution and the electoral laws, undermine trust in the system, and further degrade the image of a government that is already widely unpopular.
Holding the election a year early is another option, but this would involve considerable logistical challenges for the Independent Electoral Commission and also require amending electoral laws to allow for the date change to occur. It also would require President Karzai to step down a year early, which he may find difficult — and undesirable — in the absence of a trusted successor (which, by most accounts, he hasn't yet found).
Identifying a successor to President Karzai that would be acceptable to all sides remains a crucial, yet thus far exceedingly problematic endeavor. The next president must not only be a competent manager of the sea change occurring in the country, but also someone viewed as a "safe bet" for all parties concerned – from the Southern Pashtuns to the Northern Tajiks, Hazaras and Uzbeks. This individual must also be able to gain the confidence of insurgent factions as well as Afghanistan's neighbors (with Pakistan arguably being the most important of these).
As of now, a candidate with this stature does not exist; as a result, all the major political actors view the succession as an opportunity to consolidate or gain more power, especially in the wake of the immense vacuum America will leave behind. This has created a situation where the most powerful political actors are focused almost exclusively on securing their own future while largely ignoring what is necessary to stage a national coming-together to navigate the rocky transition ahead.
Narrowing Options for the U.S.
For the U.S. the array of policy options that might secure its legacy are, at best, limited and quickly narrowing. If the Obama administration's hands-off approach to the 2009 presidential elections in Afghanistan is an indication, the U.S. may not intervene – at least not overtly – in the Afghan political process. This would also be consistent with the American eagerness to allow Afghans to sort things out themselves, especially after the transition.
Even if the U.S. chooses to act more aggressively, American influence is diminishing with the withdrawal of each soldier. The other main American political and diplomatic instrument, the Strategic Partnership Agreement, will have already been ratified by 2014. Nonetheless, the US will still have leverage in the form of military and economic aid to Afghanistan, but that would be a tough card to play when America's strategic aim is to ensure the survival of the Afghan government vis-à-vis the insurgency. All of this places renewed urgency on American diplomats, who are diligently trying to negotiate a political settlement with the Taliban before the withdrawal.
Although there are other tools – political pressure from the U.S. embassy in Kabul, for example – that have been fairly effective in the past, there is no guarantee of their continued efficacy as an uncertain, and perhaps very different Afghanistan emerges after the 2014 withdrawal.
• Afghans will continue to debate the best path forward for the elections; a solution, however, must emerge within the next few months if presidential elections are to be a possible option in 2013.
• The inherent difficulty of sustaining military gains while withdrawing is complicated by the transfer of political power in Afghanistan; America will find itself facing the challenge of devising creative ways to ensure its legacy in Afghanistan as its ability to influence events there wanes.
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