The only thing that might finally bring tangible success in Afghanistan after a decade of strategic and tactical ups and downs is a healthy dose of realism, senior and former U.S. officials insist.
The U.S. must finally "set priorities" because "we cannot do everything in Afghanistan," says Alex Thier, director of the Office of Afghanistan and Pakistan Affairs at the U.S. Agency for International Development. "The needs in Afghanistan are endless."
Washington has been at war in Afghanistan since late October 2001, spending over half a trillion dollars with 2,028 U.S. troops dead. Yet, it remains unclear whether the U.S. has achieved its strategic aims there. There are also questions about whether a functional and stable government will be able to keep the Taliban from returning to power when most U.S. and NATO troops leave in late 2014.
As senior leaders in the U.S. craft a policy that will guide the American departure, former U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Ronald Neumann has some advice for Washington: "We need realism in this town."
U.S. officials, during the nearly 11-year-old war, too often have overreacted and changed their war policies.
"We have been plagued in Afghanistan by the desire to charge off in different directions," Neumann said during a forum in Washington. "You need to stick with things."
Neumann put some of the blame on one-year military deployments, saying longer stays in theater would keep in place relationships with Afghan officials and institutional knowledge. On the latter point, Neumann says as U.S. troops rotate out of Afghanistan, "we grow institutionally stupid every year."
U.S. defense and foreign aid budgets are already shrinking--with further reductions possible in January. To further complicate matters, U.S. officials expect an uphill battle at conference in Tokyo later this month at which they will seek commitments from their allies on future aid levels for Afghanistan.
Thier and Neumann say the shrinking American military and foreign assistance budgets mean U.S. officials must arrive in Tokyo with, as Thier puts it, "a narrow, achievable set of priorities."
Some of those should include a plan to allow Afghanistan's private sector to fuel economic growth; better governance; and efforts to better prepare average Afghans to join the workforce.
Anything but that kind of plan in Tokyo, says Thier, "will disable the transition."
John T. Bennett covers national security and foreign policy for U.S. News & World Report. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter.
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