Last Exit Kabul How To Get Out Without Forsaking Afghanistan's Stability

Fixing a concrete date to withdraw from Afghanistan is wrong-headed. An exit strategy should be coordinated within NATO and has to be linked to clear criteria. These include the training of security forces and the creation of stable governance structures, as well as strengthened regional cooperation and development coordination.

Afghans walk with their camels in front of German Bundeswehr army soldiers in Chahar Dara on the outskirts of Kunduz.

Afghans walk with their camels in front of German Bundeswehr army soldiers in Chahar Dara on the outskirts of Kunduz.

By Simon Koschut

Germany's rationale for the deployment of Bundeswehr troops to Afghanistan has changed significantly since the Bundestag's initial mandate in 2001: from the "solidarity with allies and the fight against terror" (former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder), to the "spreading of human rights, rule of law and democracy" (former Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer), to the "defense of German security interests in the Hindu Kush" (former Defense Minister Peter Struck), and finally the "stabilization of the country" (former Defense Minister Franz Josef Jung). Not one of these goals has been realized. In fact, the situation in Afghanistan -- and Pakistan -- is threatening to spiral out of control. The German population's support for the mission, only half-hearted from the start, appears now to be bottoming out.

The prospect of a pullout is now being openly considered on both sides of the Atlantic and within NATO. The German government should not wait for the debate to begin, but rather should actively initiate discussions on the withdrawal of German troops from Afghanistan.

Regardless of political rhetoric, there are essentially two key political objectives that determine the success of the mission in Afghanistan. Any strategy for Afghanistan must address these objectives, and provide the necessary resources in terms of funding and personnel.

First, Afghanistan must not become a failed state. Although a return to power of the Taliban is probable without the presence of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), it is by no means inevitable. It is equally uncertain whether the Taliban will renew its support for al-Qaida. Nevertheless, it must by all means be prevented that Afghanistan or Pakistan once again becomes a safe haven for international terrorists, that the current war economy and drug trafficking are bolstered, and that the erosion of current governance structures and human rights continues.

Second, collateral damages for NATO and the UN must be avoided. NATO has led the ISAF mission since 2003. The UN has headed the support action in Afghanistan since 2002. In this respect the mission in Afghanistan may closely affect the credibility and legitimacy of these international institutions. However, the fate of NATO and the UN does not hinge on this mission alone. A pull-out from Afghanistan does not necessarily spell political or military defeat. Nevertheless, a misguided or hasty withdrawal carries with it the danger of both organizations losing credibility and legitimacy.

Seven Criteria for Withdrawal

In this light, it is clear that an exit strategy for Afghanistan should focus less on a withdrawal date and much more on the meeting of specific criteria (benchmarks) for withdrawal, criteria that can be organized into seven distinct steps.

Afghanistan Ownership

The training of Afghan security forces has chief priority in order to cede complete control of the country to Afghan authorities as soon as possible. Public programs that have reliable local assistance forces secure frontier posts and checkpoints such as those in the Wardak Province (Afghan Public Protection Program) should also be swiftly expanded. In this context, Germany, along with the United States and the EU, must significantly increase its share of the training of security forces. In particular, the individual federal states -- responsible for police authorities -- should establish foreign service as a career-building opportunity by creating incentives for German police officers. To create a secure environment before withdrawal would initially require a short-term increase of Bundeswehr troops exceeding the current mandate (draw up to draw down). It is unclear where these additional troops will come from. In the future, the Bundeswehr should also contribute even more strongly to combating the Taliban in counterinsurgency operations.

Appoint a Coordinator

A cross-party consensus in Germany is required for ensuring stability and security in Afghanistan. Analogous to the current U.S. debate, a comprehensive reckoning of the mission in Afghanistan as well as an unsparing disclosure of the political and military course of action must also occur in Germany. A policy of muddling through between domestic and foreign pressures (opinion polls versus alliance partners) will in the medium-term lead to the collapse of the Bundeswehr mission. Consequently, the chancellery itself must be responsible for the appointment of a coordinator for Afghanistan, so that such decisions may no longer be subject to departmental egos and resource struggles. In order to avoid jeopardizing such a consensus, a concrete time line should temporarily be avoided.

In Together, Out Together

Critical to the successful completion of the mission in Afghanistan is that the ultimate decision to withdraw be made not by the individual nations participating in the conflict, but rather within NATO. Consultation and cooperation among alliance partners and the UN is essential to avoid weakening NATO. Only after a multilateral consensus should a concrete time line for withdrawal be set. The current process of developing a new strategic concept should be used to define NATO's role in future out-of-area operations.

Regional Ownership

The mission in Afghanistan requires an approach with a stronger regional focus, something President Obama called for in spring 2009. To this aim, the constructive involvement of Pakistan and Iran is being sought as well as the medium-term cooperation of Russia and China. Common interests like combating the Islamic terrorist networks and drug trafficking create the basis for such increased regional cooperation. This regional strategy may facilitate and accelerate the withdrawal of Western troops. Germany should assume an elevated role as an honest broker of such cooperation.

Carrots and Sticks

This applies particularly to the cooperation in the fight against drugs and corruption. By far the largest share of heroin produced in Afghanistan ends up on European markets, making this primarily a European problem. In addition to subsidizing local grain crops, the United States and the European Union should consider further opening their markets to Afghan agricultural products. To combat the local drug trade, the current focus on crop areas and farmers should be turned to the disruption of drug traffic routes and the drug barons. To combat corruption, development cooperation must be tied to clear incentives and sanctions embedded in a constant dialogue with the Afghanis. The development of an independent justice system must be accelerated while salary payments for the police and the army must also continue to be guaranteed by the international Law and Order Trust Fund. Parts of the national authorities in Kabul are themselves mired in corruption and the drug trade, thus constituting part of the problem. The prospect of withdrawal can be used as leverage to spur progress and reform within the Afghan government.

Remain Engaged

Civilian reconstruction efforts and cooperation on development policy must also continue after a Bundeswehr withdrawal. Afghanistan must not be left on its own after a withdrawal. Indeed, the complete disintegration of the already fragile federal governance structures is at stake and must be prevented. During reconstruction, focus should be placed even more strongly on small local projects that produce fast and visible results (quick impact). Whether, and how, sustainable civilian development aid can be guaranteed under deteriorating security conditions is, however, in no way certain.

Decentralize Governance

Democratically legitimate and stable governance structures must finally be established. The most recent Afghan presidential elections have only exacerbated this problem, raising the question as to whether presently centralized rule in Kabul under current president Hamid Karzai is suitable for the political, historical, and cultural realities in the region. In light of the country's size, the diversity of its ethnic population, its cultural history, and its artificially drawn borders as a former buffer zone between the spheres of influence of the former colonial powers Russia and Great Britain, it is no wonder that the current Afghan central government's power barely reaches beyond Kabul's city limits.

Consequently, it should earnestly be considered whether relations within Afghanistan would be better served by decentralized, largely autonomous cantons modeled after Switzerland or after Bosnia's 1993-proposed Vance-Owen Plan, with Kabul serving as a neutral federal district housing the seat of parliament, national government authorities, and the judiciary.

These criteria mark a starting point for the gradual withdrawal of Bundeswehr troops from Afghanistan. As integral building blocks for the Afghanistan Compact and the upcoming 2010 international Afghanistan conference, these benchmarks must be used to develop a phased exit plan containing, in addition to the cited priorities, explicit quantitative and qualitative criteria.

Simon Koschut teaches at the JFK Institute for North American Studies at Berlin's Free University.

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