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REPORT: Elevating Diplomatic Components Of The Afghanistan Transition

By Colin Cookman

The United States, NATO allies, and dozens of partner countries will convene in Chicago this weekend to plan for the transition of greater security responsibility in Afghanistan to the Afghan government, as well as the future of the alliance’s capabilities, partnerships and priorities beyond the Afghan conflict.

As my colleagues Caroline Wadhams, Brian Katulis and I argue in a new Center for American Progress report released today, the U.S. and NATO commitment to transition is the right path for U.S. interests, but the agenda at Chicago appears to overlook issues of Afghan political reform and reconciliation that will be crucial for Afghanistan’s long-term stability.

Current transition plans center on the training and rapid expansion of Afghan police and military forces, as well as irregular militia groups. But these forces remain dependent on external funding, and a strategy that hinges on their cohesion and capability to continue battling insurgent rivals carries real risks — particularly as insider attacks threaten the ability of U.S. and NATO trainers to partner effectively with these units going forward.

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Further, Afghanistan will undergo its first major transition of power in 2014, as President Hamid Karzai steps down from the position he has held since the earliest days of the post-Taliban interim government. The highly centralized formal Afghan presidential system offers few other institutional positions in which a broader coalition of political interests can easily share power, increasing the risk of instability that was seen in the wake of past fraud-ridden elections in 2009 and 2010 if action is not taken to broaden participation and ensure the independence and credibility of electoral authorities.

And while reconciliation efforts with the Taliban appear to be currently stalled, a process of negotiated settlement with a broad range of Afghan factions will ultimately be necessary for the country’s future stability. The participation of neighboring Pakistan at the Chicago summit is a welcome opportunity to renew these discussions at the regional level, but suspicions remain on all sides. Through both international forums and direct diplomacy, the U.S. and the Afghan government will need to engage in confidence-building measures that can kick-start this process and show that negotiations can deliver a better outcome than continued conflict.

As the Afghan government’s primary sponsor, the U.S. and other international allies have a responsibility to hold it accountable for its pledges of political reforms and reconciliation outreach efforts, and to ensure that the security commitments the U.S. makes in Chicago and through the newly-signed strategic partnership agreement are not a one-way street. A transition to greater Afghan responsibility is a necessary step for the normalization of the country’s internal politics, relations with external partners, and the eventual end of a now decade-long war, but much more work needs to be done to prioritize these political and diplomatic steps, at Chicago and beyond.