This paper is part of an MEI scholar series, titled "Obama's Legacy in the Middle East: Passing the Baton in 2017." Click here to view the full project, or navigate using the table of contents to the right.

The legacy of the Obama administration may be difficult to forecast anywhere in the Greater Middle East, but nowhere does it remain more uncertain than in Afghanistan. The president came into office promising to refocus on what had been widely seen as the neglected or forgotten war. An ill-advised war in Iraq was held accountable for diverting attention from confronting America’s number one enemy—global terrorism. By 2009 there was reason to conclude that without revising American strategy against the Taliban, American forces and their NATO allies were headed toward defeat. By the authorization of a troop surge, Afghanistan became Obama’s war, bound to weigh heavily in how posterity would judge his presidency. Afghanistan’s future now seems precarious following the already sharp drawdown of foreign military forces, together with the decision to have all American troops leave before 2017. There remain during the two years left in the Obama presidency further choices to be made that may determine how U.S. engagement in this country’s longest war is to be remembered.

Very early on in the Obama administration Afghanistan became a poster child for what some would call the Obama doctrine. It featured an effort to reset strained relations with those countries thought pivotal to securing U.S. interests, a reluctance to be drawn into open-ended military commitments, and a strong preference for working in concert with other nations while also being prepared to assume a leadership role. The doctrine, so directly applicable to Afghanistan, also included an expected serious buy-in by local forces, a willingness to negotiate with the enemy that did not sacrifice hard-won gains, and an investment in democracy promotion.

Current Situation – Three Transitions

Whether Afghanistan ultimately succeeds, albeit as a dependent state, is generally believed to be contingent on the outcome of three transitions currently in progress. A political transition took a giant step forward with the inauguration in late September of a new Afghan president following an agreement midwifed mainly by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry. It was preceded by many weeks of uncertainty about whether two candidates claiming victory in the June runoff election would succeed in reaching a compromise through power sharing. Failure to agree on a unity government could have led to Afghanistan’s breaking apart and the distinct possibility of rapid descent into an ethnically defined civil war. But instead Afghanistan saw a peaceful transfer of power from one elected government to another—a litmus test for any democratic system—for the first time in the country’s history.

The United States has reason to be relieved by the current government setup. After recent years of trying to deal with a difficult president in the person of Hamid Karzai, Washington can look forward to working with two men, Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah, both of whom are considered progressive, competent, and favorably inclined toward the United States. The boundaries between the office of the president and the newly created chief executive are yet to be worked out. Not all Ghani’s and Abdullah’s political allies are reconciled to a unity government. It is not inconceivable that differences, if not resolved, could precipitate an unraveling of the new Kabul government.

But if the political transition for which the Obama administration can take some credit offers at least promise, the two other transitions are more problematic. The security transition, the handing over of responsibility to the Afghans for their defense, was always going to be difficult. The United States has staked its Afghan policy on the capacity of the Afghan national army and police to step up as American and other international troops were drawing down. At best, the performance of the Afghan security forces has been mixed. They have taken enormous casualties and of late suffered setbacks in several provinces, due at least in part to the uncertainly created during the long period of squabbling over the presidency.

The Obama legacy in Afghanistan rests heavily on his questioned decisions to set a hard timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. forces. While rejecting the so-called zero option that would have left no American military personnel in the country, he committed to only a small residual force and has thus so far refused to link the pace of disengagement to conditions on the ground. With President Ghani now having signed a Bilateral Security Agreement, fewer than 9,800 U.S. trainers and advisors together with about 2,500 troops from other countries are to be in Afghanistan at the beginning of 2015—and half that number the following year. Still unclear is whether certain enablers such as close air support and intelligence assistance will be provided. However important the supporting forces, in the end it is likely to be the Afghans and not the United States and its NATO allies who will determine whether Obama’s decisions on the scope and pace of the U.S. withdrawal are wise or not.

The economic transition is facing hard going. It should come as no surprise that it would be a challenge for the Afghan economy to be able to adjust to the loss of financial benefits from the massive military presence of the United States and others over more than a dozen years. Although funds in the pipeline will ease the transition, spending by the United States is to decline by 50 percent in this fiscal year. An emergency provision of funds is needed just to pay monthly government salaries.  

The uncertainties surrounding the country’s political future and increased revelations of high-level corruption have contributed to the myriad of problems for the economy. After years of high GDP growth, unemployment is rising and public consumption is declining. There is also accelerating capital flight, massive revenue shortfalls, and dwindling foreign investment. An expanding illicit economy based on sharply rising poppy cultivation and endemic smuggling breeds corruption and corrodes governance.

Drivers and Dynamics – Responses to the Challenges

Afghanistan’s success in surmounting its transitional challenges will be influenced by four principal developments, in each of which the United States also has a stake.

The ability of the Afghan security forces to fend off if not roll back the insurgency is critical to the state’s survival. Should they badly falter, not only would the Taliban be in a position to overrun much of the country’s south and east but the army would in all likelihood splinter. Its trained, heavily armed troops can be expected to form militias led by powerful regional commanders. With increased violence across the country, most international development aid programs could be expected to end. In all probability, remaining U.S. military forces would beat a hasty departure from the country, and the entire U.S. mission in Afghanistan would understandably be labeled a failure. 

The success of the Afghan economy in weathering the transition hinges greatly on the willingness of the international financial community, but most of all the United States, to honor its pledges of military funding and development assistance. At least $7 billion in international aid yearly, most of it to support Afghan security forces, is required. There is growing evidence of donor fatigue that could accelerate should there be military or political setbacks in the coming months. American assistance programs in Afghanistan are regularly subject to criticism from U.S. government auditors uncovering widespread waste and corruption. Further sharp aid reductions by the U.S. Congress based on a loss of confidence in the Afghan cause could result in a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Afghan leaders’ failure to make their political arrangement work would doom possibilities of constructive legislation to address the country’s pressing problems and new government’s commitment to deal with corruption. Serious political disarray could lead to a government breakup and conceivably violence. The country might then de facto fracture along ethnic lines. Faced with these circumstances, the United States would be reluctant to intervene or become involved. Very soon the continued presence in the country of American military forces and aid workers would become unsustainable. Many in and outside Afghanistan would hold the American leadership responsible for having promoted a backroom deal for a unity government that was neither democratic nor workable.

Much also depends on the willingness of Afghanistan’s neighbors to play a constructive role in assisting the new government to stabilize politically and prosper economically. It requires that countries such as Pakistan, India, Iran, and Saudi Arabia desist from using Afghan proxies to advance their competing interests. The United States has actively backed regionally organized efforts to promote economic cooperation in hopes that it can relieve the aid burden on the United States and its donor partners. While there is evidence of a growing appreciation among neighboring states that a peaceful, prospering, and united Afghanistan benefits all, none of the regional countries is confident in Afghanistan’s future. All have hedging strategies that they will not be disadvantaged or threatened in the event that the Afghan state begins to disintegrate.

Despite all of the calculations, there are also several “black swans” that could alter the strategic landscape for the United States and others. Were Pakistan to become destabilized and radicalized over the next several years, the entire region could be massively impacted. Whereas another military takeover in Pakistan would probably lead to only marginal changes in Afghan policies, the transformation of Pakistan into a Shariah state would empower jihadi groups and profoundly affect the insurgency in Afghanistan. The possibility of global terrorist organizations expanding their territorial base in the region and the proximity of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal could force the United States to reassess its declining level of involvement.

The implications would be very different if the new Afghan government succeeded in achieving political reconciliation with the Taliban. Although not always in coordination with the Karzai regime, the United States joined other countries during 2011 and 2012 in exploring the possibility of peace talks. The Ghani-led government has renewed appeals to the Taliban leadership. Still, progress toward negotiations, much less an agreement, is highly unlikely any time soon, certainly so long as the Taliban feels it holds the momentum. But were an agreement to be reached in the next several years that resulted in the Taliban joining the political process, it would profoundly influence how the United States’ years of military and nonmilitary involvement in Afghanistan are evaluated. 

Other potential if not very probable game changers could include a major conflict erupting between Pakistan and India, particularly should it escalate to a nuclear exchange. In past wars, despite Afghanistan’s traditionally close ties to India, Kabul governments have refrained from trying to take advantage of Pakistan’s vulnerability. But with insurgencies occurring in Afghanistan and Pakistan, an Indo-Pakistani conflict could readily envelope Afghanistan. Even more consequential for American policy in Afghanistan and the region, though more improbable, would be an armed attack against Iran’s nuclear facilities by Israel and/or the United States. The critical backlash in Islamic states would certainly be felt in Afghan domestic opinion and could upend U.S. relations with both Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Obama’s Legacy

President Obama had hoped that his legacy in Afghanistan as in Iraq would be that he had ended American involvement. Events have conspired, however, to deny him and his administration that positive takeaway. Instead, the judgment of history may rest on whether there has been a responsible disengagement from those conflicts. In Afghanistan, history’s verdict will depend in the end on whether the Kabul regime is ultimately able to emerge as a viable state. That will be determined as much by what the Afghans do for themselves as by how many troops and dollars the United States and its allies provide. As important as standing up against the Taliban may be, the outcome hinges as much on an Afghan regime bringing better governance and delivering basic services to citizens. No doubt, if Afghanistan were to revert to the civil mayhem of the 1990s and if the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan should form direct links to ISIS in the Levant, it would leave a dark stain on the Obama administration. In any event, we are unlikely to know the full legacy of these last six years and the next two until well after Barack Obama has left office.

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