On February 16, 2010, the Brookings Doha Center hosted a policy discussion with Michael O’Hanlon, senior fellow and director of research in foreign policy studies at Brookings, and Hassina Sherjan, president of Aid Afghanistan for Education and authors of the 2010 Brookings book Toughing it Out in Afghanistan on both the future of Afghanistan and the United States’ military, political and economic commitment to Afghanistan. Also offering valuable commentary on the panel was Asad Durrani, former director general of the Pakistani Armed Forces. The three panelists argued for continued and significant U.S. engagement in Afghanistan, shedding light on the current situation on the ground and the challenges facing U.S. efforts in Afghanistan. The discussion encompassed a range of issues including social and economic development, the future of the Taliban, the U.S. troop surge, reconciliation, and a projected time frame for U.S. commitments in Afghanistan. The event, which was followed by a question and answer session, was moderated by Hady Amr, director of the Brookings Doha Center, and was attended by members of Qatar’s academic, business, diplomatic and media communities.
The discussion was undertaken in a question and answer format with the moderator directing questions to the speakers. In responding to a question on the current situation on the ground in Afghanistan, Sherjan referred to the major changes that the country has experienced since 2001 with the development of increasing numbers of banks, airlines, roads, and media outlets. She cited rule of law, lack of judicial reform, and an artificial economy as key challenges to progress.
In responding to a question on why the United States should remain involved in Afghanistan, O’Hanlon mentioned humanitarian interests, which are significant, as well as more critical strategic concerns such as the danger posed by extremist groups in nearby nuclear Pakistan. Furthermore, O’Hanlon highlighted polling data indicating that Afghans are feeling more hopeful because “there’s been enough sense of recommitment from the international community.” He outlined the high stakes of the U.S. mission in Afghanistan and what failure would mean. First, if the Taliban were to regain power, Afghanistan would suffer great humanitarian devastation. Second, since the links between the Taliban and al Qaeda have become more frequent and common, al Qaeda would surely have sanctuary in a Taliban-controlled Afghanistan. He highlighted the most significant factor of the case for U.S. forces in Afghanistan: its volatile nuclear neighbor—Pakistan. O’Hanlon stressed that, for the United States, winning this war necessarily entails a strong presence on the ground and having Afghans as primary sources of information.
General Durrani offered some comments on the surge which will have deployed 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan by summer 2010. He said that although many criticize the declaration of a surge followed by a 2011 troop draw-down, in his view “a surge is an inevitable part of leaving.” In supporting the United States’ prerogative to intensify diplomatic, economic, and military relations with Afghanistan, General Durrani echoed O’Hanlon’s concern that it is certainly not in the interest of the United States to give the impression that it has lost the war and heading home defeated.
Both O’Hanlon and Sherjan were skeptical about the outcome of a “reconciliation” process in Afghanistan; by “reconciliation” they were referring to the process by which current insurgents in Afghanistan are brought to the negotiating table. O’Hanlon held that the current Taliban’s terms for reconciliation were not acceptable to Afghan President Hamid Karzai, and the Afghan people. O’Hanlon was more optimistic about the prospects of “reintegration”; by “reintegration” he was referring to the process by which key persons from within the Afghan resistance are identified and incentivized to join government. Sherjan added that the reconciliation process is a waste of time, energy, and resources for Afghans and the international community “when we should be focusing on development.” She asserted that defeating the Taliban is only a part of the agenda and “developing the economy is the main part of counterinsurgency.”
The speakers also commented on the time frame of the U.S. commitment to Afghanistan. O’Hanlon discussed President Obama’s announcement that the troop drawdown would commence in July 2011, and added that intensive efforts in Afghanistan would likely continue for the next three to five years. Sherjan stated that she believes that the United States will be committed to Afghanistan for at least twenty years. General Durrani said that the “drawdown will depend on how the situation is managed.” O’Hanlon also remarked on the state of civilian casualties in Afghanistan saying that, although numbers have gone down, there are far too many casualties with more civilians killed by Taliban firepower than that of NATO.
Following the panel’s remarks, a question and answer period covered a range of topics from educational development in Afghanistan, the Taliban, the process of reintegration, and the role of regional partners, including Pakistan. One audience member inquired about the level of politicization or American interference in Afghan educational curriculums. Sherjan explained that Afghan schools are using curriculums designed by the Afghan Ministry of Education and not the United States. On the question of whether the Taliban’s success has been a result of capturing the minds of the Afghan people, O’Hanlon responded by attributing the group’s success to intimidation, drugs, and financial motivations and not winning the war of ideas. Another audience member asked about whether the United States and the international community should negotiate with the members of the Taliban vis-à-vis a reconciliation or reintegration program. O’Hanlon replied by saying that financial incentives for insurgents are not meant to be reward for being in the Taliban. Rather, such programs would seek ways of giving wavering individuals a reason to support the government. On the role of regional partners, Sherjan affirmed the interdependence of Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, and Iran and believes that success in Afghanistan is not an option without a stable Pakistan.