In remarks from Afghanistan’s Bagram Airbase last night, President Obama outlined in broad strokes the terms of a U.S.-Afghan strategic partnership agreement, which he signed earlier that day with his counterpart President Hamid Karzai. Reiterating that the United States’ goal “is not to build a country in America’s image or to eradicate every vestige of the Taliban,” but rather to “disrupt, dismantle, and defeat Al Qaeda,” Obama coupled his messages of “enduring partnership” to Afghanistan with an equal commitment to the continued transfer of security responsibility to Afghan forces and the associated withdrawal of U.S. combat forces at a “steady pace.”
This transition is necessary to better align our investments with the broader demands of U.S. military and financial interests both globally and domestically. While conservative critics of the drawdown often express worry about the risks of such a reduction, it will be critical to force Afghan political leaders to take greater responsibility for the fate of their country, a theme stressed by both Obama in his remarks and the strategic partnership language. Indeed, the risks of enabling Afghan dependency indefinitely have the potential to be far costlier for both the U.S. and the Afghans.
The partnership agreement, and Obama’s personal visit, is in part intended to underscore U.S. ongoing support for the Afghan government — albeit in a less direct form, under a more “normalized” bilateral relationship — and to shore up its position in contests with internal and regional rivals. Avoiding Afghan state collapse and regional instability should be a major concern for the U.S. and its partners as they manage the transition process. But the Afghan government — which is highly centralized under President Karzai’s executive leadership — has resisted sharing power with other actors within Afghanistan’s fragmented political landscape, forming a major driver of continued conflict. The support of a narrow and exclusive Afghan government is not an overriding U.S. interest to which we should commit indefinitely if the Afghan government is not willing to make commitments of its own, and as the largest donor for both the security services and the state, we cannot be uncritical in our support.
Exact details on plans for further reductions in U.S. force levels beyond this fall are unclear at this point, and despite affirmations of support the partnership agreement offers no specific figures for continuing military or nonmilitary aid, which is likely to be the focus of further negotiations at international conferences in Chicago and Tokyo later this summer. For Afghanistan to continue to enjoy a more limited but ongoing American backing under the strategic partnership, it must be held to the promises it has made in this agreement and in many previous international forums. A responsible U.S. political strategy that seeks to facilitate the “just and lasting peace” sought by President Obama requires linking our messages of support with a determined push for government reforms and inclusive settlement talks, in which all parties can seek a more sustainable political consensus than offered by the current system.