The Only Way Forward in Afghanistan

Respecting Afghan sovereignty is the only way to leave the country better off than we found it.

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Tribal elders in Afghanistan are preparing to meet next week to discuss the Bilateral Security Agreement between the U.S. and Afghanistan, which governs details of the relationship between the countries after 2014. But news this week of Afghans protesting against the agreement and reports by the United Nations regarding record amounts of opium production show how unstable the country remains as it approaches U.S. troop withdrawal next year.

Next week is an important week in the war’s trajectory. The U.S. and Afghan government made sure that the deal's language didn’t go public too far ahead of the tribally-led Loya Jirga, because the Afghan press would’ve seized upon it, escalating the public protest against troop immunity. That the Jirga is now the decider on legal jurisdiction over U.S. troops post-2014 gives the impression that an independent decision on troop immunity was reached by Afghans. That is hardly the case.

[See a collection of political cartoons on Afghanistan.]

Afghan President Hamid Karzai engaged in smart political strategizing. By having the Jirga accept the deal – undoubtedly using his influence to bring enough tribal and political delegates that favor a deal with the U.S. – he doesn't run the political risk for himself or his brother's presidential campaign.

In fact, no Afghan presidential candidate, queuing for the April 2014 elections, can publically support the deal, nor do the Afghan people want immunity for foreign troops. They've seen too much indiscriminate night raiding and air striking of innocent civilians, burning of Qurans and peeing on dead Afghan bodies. This is a serious sovereignty decision and one that President Karzai cannot make individually.

Remember that most Afghans distrust the U.S. government in its capacity to hold American troops accountable, especially in the remote rural areas where the Jirgas are especially relied upon for dispute resolution. While the high profile cases may get accountability, most go without reprimand or justice, including the countless stories of abuse accompanying night raids, which Karzai has fought long and hard to ban.

Local populations are overwhelmingly against immunity for U.S. troops, from Iraq to the Philippines, and now to Afghanistan. These populations, understandably, want accountability within their court of law, as Americans would assuredly want if there were another country's troops stationed here in the U.S.

[See a collection of political cartoons on defense spending.]

Here's the real travesty, however, in any post-2014 security deal: It won't leave Afghans better off, no matter how many U.S. troops – at present, 10,000 troops are estimated – will stay or leave the country. Why? Because the U.S. has not prioritized improvements in the basic infrastructure and sustainable livelihoods of most Afghans.

The military agenda, not unlike in Iraq, has dominated U.S. presence and priorities. It's a shame really, because unless you get people employed, and ideally educated, there's little likelihood that stability will manifest in any sustainable fashion. Socio-economic and political security, in sum, have not surfaced to the top of our Afghanistan agenda these last dozen years. Political reconciliation, forget about it. Sustainable development, forget about it.

The most successful and scalable program that is rebuilding Afghanistan is an indigenous one: the Community Development Councils within the Ministry of Rural Rehabilitation and Development's National Solidarity Program. And it is antithetical to our reconstruction and stabilization approaches. The councils are managed by locals, operationalized by locals and funded in small block grants – the exact opposite of our foreign-run, contractor-operated, big block grants, which ultimately get saddled with corruption and credibility issues.

[Read the U.S. News Debate: 10 Years Later, Was the Iraq War Worth It?]

As America withdraws in 2014, will we have left Afghanistan better off in terms of infrastructure, transportation, markets, electricity, clean water and sanitation, mobility and opportunity? Small gains, perhaps, but nothing worth the hundreds of billions of dollars we've spent on this war in particular. The return on U.S. taxpayer investment is negligible. We'd fire investors for misspending far less.

We'd be wise to wake up to Afghanistan's realities and change course immediately. For too long, we've captained this war-mongering ship and it's about time we let the locals settle their own conflicts, taking cues from them and supporting where possible, not the other way around.

Going forward, unless the U.S. wants to leave another country on very bitter terms – as it did with Iraq, leaving a sour and vitriolic taste in the mouths of most Iraqis – we should respect Afghan sovereignty and judicial jurisprudence. That is the only way forward if the White House wants to leave this country better off than it found it. But at this rate, it'll be worse off, not better.

Michael Shank, Ph.D., is the Director of Foreign Policy at the Friends Committee on National Legislation and Adjunct Faculty at George Mason University's School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution.

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