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Obama’s Afghan Partnership Puts Symbolism Over Substance

By the Editors
May 02, 2012 5:51 PM EDT

Perhaps the biggest surprise of President Barack Obama’s appearance in Kabul, Afghanistan, on Tuesday wasn’t the trip itself, but his use of the occasion to make a head-scratching speech and sign a strategic partnership accord that raises more questions than it answers.

“Over the last three years, the tide has turned,” the president said. “We broke the Taliban’s momentum.” This triumphant note jars against a Pentagon report released this week, which warned that “the insurgency remains a resilient and determined enemy and will likely attempt to regain lost ground and influence this spring and summer.”

Obama can be forgiven for wanting to put the best spin on the situation to Americans, but the Afghans present were probably not convinced about the tide’s turning. Civilian casualties have risen in the last year, and within hours of Obama’s departure, a suicide attack in Kabul killed at least seven. The most important audience might have been the U.S.’s allies in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, who needed to be assured of the White House’s intentions in Afghanistan before a NATO summit meeting this month in Chicago.

Which brings us to the ostensible reason for Obama’s trip, the agreement with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, a “legally binding executive agreement, which does not require it to be submitted to the Senate” for approval, according to White House spokesman Tommy Vietor. What it will require from Congress, however, is annual funding of an unspecified amount to support Afghan security forces after the withdrawal of U.S. combat troops in 2014 -- shaky ground on which to base an important national security priority. Congress is easily distracted, the Treasury will be stretched thin for years to come, and the U.S. annual contribution will run to the billions, not hundreds of millions, of dollars.

What that money will pay for is unclear -- the agreement has no specifics in terms of Afghan troop strength or the pace of the drawdown of U.S. troops. On the latter, we urge expediency: Almost all American combat troops should be brought home as quickly as commanders in the field say is practical and safe, probably sometime in 2013.

Paradoxically, Afghan security forces -- projected to reach 352,000 by the end of the year -- also need to be cut back. The current plan is overambitious and risks creating what security expert Anthony Cordesman calls a “hollow force” with inadequate financing and training. The Afghan defense minister, General Abdul Rahim Wardak, has suggested a more realistic 230,000 personnel. Money and training should be focused on the Afghan army rather than the police and other security organizations, which have proved ineffective and corrupt.

This scaling back means that the central government will still have little control over much of the southern and eastern part of the country. With the help of remaining U.S. advisers, it will have to perform a balancing act with local ethnic and tribal leaders, independent militias and insurgent groups to keep the country from collapsing. That’s hardly ideal, but far preferable to a never-ending U.S. military presence or seeing the Taliban return to Kabul. Afghanistan has never really had a strong central government, and attempting to build one has been one of the great errors of the last decade.

The partnership agreement’s expansive provisions on social and economic development are likewise vague and wishful. For starters, getting countries to follow through on their pledges of aid has always been a challenge. According to one assessment, only 43 percent of the $62 billion promised by donors to Afghanistan since 2002 has been disbursed. Rampant corruption has claimed a lot of that money, and the Afghan government’s commitment to fighting it has what the Pentagon describes as “minimal political support.”

In light of that dismal track record, we find it remarkable that the agreement reiterates a commitment to channel “at least 50 percent” of assistance -- one of the pact’s few specific numbers -- through the central government. We would argue instead for making more “on-budget” assistance conditional on progress against corruption, and in the meantime channeling as much aid as possible to those outside Kabul with a demonstrated track record of using such money effectively.

We recognize the symbolic importance of a strong U.S. commitment to Afghanistan’s future. The lack of detail in this “Enduring Strategic Partnership Agreement,” however, suggests that it will be anything but. As the clock ticks toward 2014, the Afghan people would be best served if the U.S. and its allies focused more on what works, instead of what just looks good.

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