Another Step Toward Transition in Afghanistan

May 2, 2012

Last night, President Obama addressed the nation from Bagram Air Field in Afghanistan. On the anniversary of the raid that killed Osama bin Laden, and on the heels of the signing of a Strategic Partnership Agreement with the Afghans, the president fleshed out his plan to end the war responsibly. While the U.S. remains committed to putting Afghans in charge of their own country, America will not abandon Afghanistan. Partnership between the two countries must prioritize addressing the political and economic questions that will ultimately determine whether Afghanistan can become a stable state that does not export terrorism.

On anniversary of the raid that killed Osama bin Laden, President Obama laid out a plan to end the war responsibly. President Obama noted in his speech last night, “Last year, we removed 10,000 U.S. troops from Afghanistan. Another 23,000 will leave by the end of the summer. After that, reductions will continue at a steady pace, with more of our troops coming home. And as our coalition agreed, by the end of 2014 the Afghans will be fully responsible for the security of their country… [W]e will work with the Afghans to determine what support they need to accomplish two narrow security missions beyond 2014: counter-terrorism and continued training. But we will not build permanent bases in this country, nor will we be patrolling its cities and mountains. That will be the job of the Afghan people.”

Michael Hirsh of the National Journal writes, “Obama does appear to be at least in reach of completing the task that the horrors of 9/11 set in motion so long ago. He has withdrawn from Iraq, is planning to do so in Afghanistan, while at the same time knocking off or capturing the worst culprits responsible for 9/11.” [Barack Obama, 5/1/12. Michael Hirsh, 5/1/12]

The president “remains committed to turning this over to the Afghans without abandoning them.” As Mark Jacobson of the German Marshall Fund told Politico’s Morning Defense, “I think President Obama demonstrated that he remains committed to turning this over to the Afghans without abandoning them.”

Brian Katulis, senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, explained to PBS NewsHour the political and policy implications of such an agreement: “[T]his is a very important agreement in sending a message, reassuring the Afghans of enduring support at a time of transition… they were trying to get this agreement before the NATO summit in about two weeks in Chicago. And I actually think, yes, the symbolism is very important. It closes a chapter in a sense. But I think what was driving this was policy, not politics, because the details of what is the enduring commitment not only from the U.S., but from our NATO allies, will come in discussions at Chicago and then follow- up conferences in Japan. But I think having this agreement makes those discussions much more constructive and productive both in Chicago and Japan.” [Mark Jacobson via Morning Defense, 5/2/12. Brian Katulis via PBS, 5/1/12]

Long-term success in Afghanistan relies as much on political and economic progress as military progress.

A political transition after Karzai. Katulis notes, “I think the key question, though, is, how do we help him [Karzai] execute a political transition? We talk about transition largely as a security dynamic and what our military does, but equally important are, what are the political institutions and the economic institutions that are being built? President Karzai is going to have to step down someday. And I think what this agreement [the Strategic Partnership Agreement] does is elevates those issues of political and economic sustainability.” [Brian Katulis via PBS, 5/1/12]

Building a sustainable economy. Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies explains, “[A]id money will be a critical issue. No one knows just how close the Afghan economy, forces, and systems of governance will come to collapse as the United States, ISAF countries, and aid donors cut their flow of money. It is clear, however, that almost all of Afghanistan’s supposed real economic growth—outside its native drug industry—has come from outside spending.” [Anthony Cordesman, 5/1/12]

Training Afghan national security forces. NSN Senior Adviser Maj. Gen. (ret) Paul Eaton explains the political component of training Afghan security forces: “We create soldiers by developing them physically, imparting military related technical training and by developing what the British call ‘the moral component.’ The first two are relatively easy. The last can be a real challenge where external forces like ethnicity, religion, and tribal or clan tensions override the soldier’s faith in national institutions — his national constitution and government infrastructure and chain of command. Historical Afghan resistance to and distrust for centralized government are factors bearing on the problem of Afghan National Security Forces effectiveness. If the soldier does not feel he is a legitimate actor acting on behalf of a legitimate government, he will be less effective and less dependable.” [Paul Eaton via NSN, 5/2/12]

What We’re Reading

Amid reports of threats to his family’s safety, blind Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng left the U.S. diplomatic compound for treatment at a medical facility in Beijing.

Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi was sworn in as a lawmaker for the first time, a milestone in the nation’s recent transition from military rule.

The World Food Program has assumed a greater presence in Syria in response to devastatingly high levels of hunger.

Tzipi Livni, who recently lost the leadership of Israel’s Kadima Party, resigned from the Israeli Parliament.

Egyptian health officials estimate that at least nine protesters have been killed and 45 injured in an attack on protesters who gathered outside Egypt’s ministry of defense.

A suicide bomber killed three Somali lawmakers at a hotel where legislators were visiting for a meeting.

Islamist group Boko Haram rejoiced in the wake of a bombing of a Nigerian newspaper and threatened additional attacks on media outlets if they released reports that it deems offensive to Islam.

Pakistan remains on high alert as fears persist that armed groups will carry out attacks to avenge the killing of Osama bin Laden.

Venezuela faces uncertainty about the future as Hugo Chavez battles health problems with no clear successor in line.

Italy’s unemployment rate soared more than anticipated in March to its highest levels since 2000.

Commentary of the Day

Richard Clarke distinguishes reality from rhetoric in claims about the bin Laden raid and warns of the consequences of the potential return to power of the Bush national security team.

Andrew Exum writes that while a quick or decisive outcome is unlikely, the United States should closely monitor Syria’s weapons stores and work with Syria’s neighbors to ensure these weapons never leave the country.

Jon Alterman maintains that while Israel’s security system remains strong, its political structure is not nearly as robust.

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