Peace in Afghanistan?

May 22, 2019
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Is peace in Afghanistan finally on the horizon after 17 years of grinding and grueling war?  For those who have been involved with the oftentimes frustrating and extravagantly expensive U.S. effort in that country, it’s the question everyone is asking. 

The short answer, of course, is that none of us know for sure whether the Taliban is sincere in tossing their weapons aside in favor of peaceful politics.  The sixth round of peace talks earlier this month reportedly ended abruptly in response to a Taliban bomb attack at the front entrance of an international humanitarian charity in Kabul.

Nobody, however, said negotiating an end to a war that has lasted for nearly a generation would be without hiccups.  Up’s and downs were always likely, if not inevitable.  If striking a peace deal was easy, it would have occurred a long time ago.

Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad has been hard at work attempting to bring Afghans in the same room, knowing all too well that a peaceful and prosperous future for the country will be out of reach as long as the Taliban continue to refuse any direct contact with President Ashraf Ghani's administration.  As the talks' progress, Washington must maintain a consistent position—the U.S. will only sign onto an agreement if counterterrorism assurances are guaranteed, all Afghans are treated with the dignity they deserve, and the rule of law is paramount over the rule of the gun. 

The Taliban must also understand that a withdrawal of U.S. troops does not necessarily mean that the United States will arbitrarily remove itself entirely from Afghanistan's future.  Given the fact that Afghanistan's political stability is inexorably tied to its economy, Kabul will require a significant amount of foreign financial and security assistance for some time to come.  As intransigent as the Taliban may be about foreign influence in Afghanistan, it's not a foregone conclusion they would oppose international aid if the movement were brought into the political process.

Merely shoveling money into the Afghan government's coffers, however, could end up being counterproductive.  Afghanistan remains one of the most corrupt countries in the world, with many Afghan officials associated with the narcotics trade and soliciting bribes in exchange for favors.  Sending large checks to Kabul would simply be akin to throwing money down the toilet—nor would it improve the Afghan government’s ability to transition into an independent, sovereign, and self-sustaining country. 

Any foreign development aid must be accompanied with robust international monitoring over how the dollars are spent and whether the spending is producing results in line with concrete, achievable benchmarks. 

As a former 35-year career National Guard senior leader who served in leadership, aviation, strategic planning, and political-military positions during my Active and National Guard career – including a stint as the Deputy Director and advisor to the Combatant Commander for Strategy, Policy, and Planning for NORAD and U.S. Northcom — one of my best commands was as a Training Brigade Commander responsible for preparing National Guard for deployment to Iraq in the early 2000’s.  During my staff and unit training efforts, I witnessed how beneficial the National Guard’s civilian skills were in the fight.  I have seen U.S. commanders share their skills as police officers to local constabularies; first sergeants teach their foreign partners valuable lessons at schools in their area of operations; operational officers who were fire chiefs back home assist locals in setting up their own fire departments; and farmers instructing families on how to plant new crops. This dual role of National Guard troops is too often overlooked.

No amount of money will make a difference if Afghans don’t possess the skills to put the aid to good use.  This is where the State Partnership Program (SPP) comes in.

Run by the National Guard Bureau, the SPP is a jointly run Defense Department program tasked with transferring skills to foreign militaries around the world.  The objective is straightforward—build the capacity necessary for the partner to effectively serve their communities.  With the concurrence of the State Department, the SPP has proven to be a highly impactful program for both the United States and the partner country.  And at $17.8 million in FY2016, the SPP is far more cost-effective in instilling these skills within Afghanistan than continuing to request $45 billion a year from Congress for a U.S. military presence that loses more popular support by the day.

The National Guard has considerable experience in developing these relationships through 77 State Partnerships in Europe, Africa, Mideast, South America, and the Far East over the past 25 years.  Whether it includes collaboration with officers from the Kingdom of Jordan on leadership training; sharing knowledge with African countries on emergency medicine; or disaster relief planning with the Philippines, these programs allow all participants to enhance situational awareness and refine their preparations for numerous contingencies.

To assist in removing boots on the ground from Afghanistan, we will need the skills of troops and leaders trained in the SPP to carry them off the battlefield.

At the same time, Washington continues working on the peace track. The U.S. should fully utilize the success of the SPP and expand the program specifically to the Afghan context.  In the event peace is achieved, the United States should bring its allies fully on board to ensure the initiative is not exclusively American-owned, financed, and operated.  The more partners involved, the greater the chance of success and the more likely Afghan officials will treat the effort seriously.

We should be under no illusions that helping the Afghans help themselves will be quick and painless work.  But it is far less taxing on U.S. resources and public patience—both of which are in short supply after multiple troop deployments and years of endless war. 

It is clear the American people want to see an end to this drain on their pocketbooks and a return to higher readiness, to our military.  By bringing our National Guard and America’s diplomatic corps fully into the picture and taking advantage of their civilian skills at the local level, we can finally close out our active military role in Afghanistan.

Brigadier General Robert J. Felderman (USA, Ret.) was a former Deputy Director of Plans, Policy and Strategy at United States Northern Command and is a fellow at the American College of National Security Leaders.

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