Afghanistan 2014: Symbolic End Date As Strategic Signpost


By Lydia Walker

For Afghanistan, a long-term solution needs a short-term operational strategy for sustenance. Recently, at Lisbon, NATO insisted and the US conceded to a new date to exit from Afghanistan – 2014. These fluctuating end dates loom over an ever-receding horizon. Once we come within sight, the date gets pushed back. The dates also function as strategic signposts. They mark the parameters of an acceptable strategy and place limits on the scope of operations. 2014 sounds good: Not too near to seem impractical, not too far to be unrealistic. 2014 provides some space for an exit strategy to emerge, but also limits an open-ended commitment – something to which all the NATO partners and the Afghan government are allergic.

At a European Union Commission-sponsored event held by the Jawaharlal Nehru University on 23 November 2010, a range of panelists discussed long-term solutions for Afghanistan. They focused on regional partnerships and economic development. They looked at the role that India and the EU have played (and can continue to play) in facilitating these partnerships and accelerating development. Most of their ideas were premised on the need for a regional security framework that would involve Afghanistan’s neighbours. This framework would be supplemented by continued development support by the NATO partner states. Many of the panelists articulated a persuasive and compelling vision for regional security coupled with development aid as a viable, long-term strategy for solving the Afghan geo-political conundrum.

The regional partnership solution derives from the premise that the area’s “stakeholders” need to be given the space to “step up” and take responsibility for their own security. These stakeholders are Afghanistan and its neighbouring nations whose safety and security are most directly under threat from a violent, unstable Afghanistan, who share a common history and have more first-hand knowledge of the region’s particular challenges. Traditionally, these nations have had great difficulty identifying common interests and forging cooperative solutions. This begs the question: What is the force that could generate the commitment required from the prospective regional partners? This strategy must articulate the incentives that would persuade regional nations to join the partnership in good faith. Mere financial support from the NATO member states is not enough: First, this support would promote the sense that NATO member states are only “outsourcing” their own security concerns to others. Second, it would not address the issue of how to maintain domestic support within NATO member states for this continued financial support, especially if these resources lie outside NATO/ISAF control.

Therefore, a short-term strategy for a long-term regional solution in Afghanistan also needs to address a second concern: What will convince the people in NATO member states that their treasure (and in some cases their blood to facilitate the continued use of that treasure) should continue to be spent in Afghanistan? A long-term strategy of transmission – as recommended by the Afghan Minister of Foreign Affairs – from one set of authorities to another over time is not enough. If a stable Afghanistan is necessary for international security, then the short-term strategy would be to convince the parties involved that Afghanistan is still “worth it.” Yet what this short-term strategy might look like and how it might be used was not on this event’s agenda, nor is it part of other public discussions on the future of Afghanistan. Also conspicuous by its absence, is a public discussion of whether the efforts necessary for a reasonably stable Afghanistan may no longer be “worth it” for NATO partners. And also its corollary: What would an exit strategy for Afghanistan look like if long-term commitment is lacking by the NATO partners? This lack of commitment might preclude the possibility of a stable Afghanistan; but it might create the space and the incentives for a regional security framework to be put in place.

It is fair to put the onus of “selling” strategy on to those who make the strategy. Successful policy involves matching means to ends. Therefore, an important element of crafting workable solutions is to provide the means – support, commitment, funding, even enthusiasm – for their implementation. A major long-range solution needs to take into account how it would generate support for its execution.

End dates and bench marks are usual tactics for politicians to promise their constituents that their tax dollars and lives will not always be necessary in foreign wars. This language of leaving – whether it is 2011 or 2014 – is designed to reassure, to ameliorate and to placate growing resentment in the NATO member states as well as in Afghanistan itself. Yet this language of leaving is not enough to provide political cover for a long-term Afghanistan exit strategy.

Lydia Walker, Research Intern, IPCS, may be reached at [email protected]


IPCS (Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies) conducts independent research on conventional and non-conventional security issues in the region and shares its findings with policy makers and the public. It provides a forum for discussion with the strategic community on strategic issues and strives to explore alternatives. Moreover, it works towards building capacity among young scholars for greater refinement of their analyses of South Asian security.

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