THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING
John F. Kerry

Getting the transition right

US needs to determine what type of Afghanistan it will leave

An Afghan soldier stands guard outside of an airport after a gunfire incident in Kabul last week. An Afghan soldier stands guard outside of an airport after a gunfire incident in Kabul last week. (Associated Press)
By John F. Kerry
May 1, 2011

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IN TWO months, the Obama administration will announce critical choices about the next phase of its Afghanistan strategy: how to begin drawing down US forces so Afghans can assume greater responsibility for their own country. We know the transition will take time, and many believe it won’t be finished by 2014, the date President Hamid Karzai says he wants full control of his country.

Deciding the steps ahead ultimately is a decision only President Obama can make. But making the right recommendations — informed by a thorough debate — is our collective responsibility, and particularly the responsibility of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Forty years ago last month, I testified in front of the committee about a war that had to end. Today I chair that committee, and this week I’m launching another series of comprehensive hearings to examine a war the president has already decided will end. The goal is to study every question and ultimately articulate a policy of how that war should end in a way that makes America stronger.

The transfer of responsibility to the Afghans offers both hope and challenge. The hope is that we can help bring stability and security to Afghanistan and bring our men and women in uniform home safely. The challenge is that the transition can be thrown off course by increased violence from the insurgents and a lack of resolve from our partners in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and elsewhere.

Now it is not enough to simply lay out our goals — to dismantle and destroy Al Qaeda and avoid destabilizing Pakistan. We need to demonstrate what type of Afghanistan we plan to leave in our wake so that we may actually achieve these objectives. Do we need to build a democratic Afghanistan that can secure its borders and deliver services to its citizens? Or is it enough to create an Afghan state — undemocratic, corrupt, or otherwise — that will still deny sanctuary to extremist groups that could harm the United States and its allies?

The hearings will challenge any lingering assumption that the conflict will have a quick and decisive end. The truth is that there is no purely military victory possible in Afghanistan, despite the skill and sacrifice of our troops. What we face is a political resolution that could deteriorate into civil war unless we accept some basic truths and adjust our tactics accordingly.

First, despite our best efforts, the transition to Afghan security control faces many hurdles. The army is dominated by ethnic Tajiks and veterans of the Northern Alliance, with few officers from the Pashtuns, who are the country’s largest ethnic group and comprise the majority of the Taliban. Independent of coalition forces, it may be unable to operate effectively in Pashtun areas where few of its officers speak the local language or understand the tribal dynamics.

Corruption and inefficiency continue to plague the Afghan police despite some well-meaning reforms. Coalition plans to expand the Afghan National Security Forces to roughly 375,000 ignore questions of who will pay the $6 billion to $8 billion annually to sustain a force this size. And we need to be equally concerned about what happens if these armed troops and police go unpaid.

Second, reconciliation will not be a silver bullet — there may be no grand bargain to be had with Mullah Omar and certainly not with Al Qaeda. Groups like the Haqqani network, which is closely aligned with Al Qaeda, have shown little interest in a political deal. Still, some Taliban appear willing to negotiate, so we must send a strong message that the United States supports a political solution through reconciliation talks among the Afghans. It will be difficult, as it was in Iraq, but Afghans themselves must make the hard choices to bring stability to their country.

Finally, the sanctuaries in Pakistan continue to threaten our progress in Afghanistan. Deep-seated Pakistani suspicions of Indian aspirations in Afghanistan and strong anti-American sentiment have made it difficult for Pakistan’s leaders to take sufficient action against the Taliban and other groups that target the US and coalition forces. We must continue working with our allies in Pakistan to remove these sanctuaries to have a chance of success across the border.

In Afghanistan, the administration is negotiating a status-of-forces agreement with President Karzai that will determine the contours of our post-transition relationship. These negotiations should reflect realistic goals for the United States. This means fewer troops and a smaller footprint to help deny extremists sanctuaries. Fulfilling our hopes and alleviating our worst-case worries will require political engagement with Afghanistan and its neighbors on an acceptable end state. And it will require a sustainable civilian strategy that leaves behind an Afghan state that can function without indefinite donor resources.

Getting the transition right is an enormous challenge for the administration. Getting the transition debate right in Congress is a challenge for all of us.

Senator John F. Kerry of Massachusetts is chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee.