Focused Engagement: A New Way Forward in Afghanistan - Center for a New American Security report by Christopher D. Kolenda
With the U.S. presence in Afghanistan nearing its 16th year, CNAS has released a report making concrete recommendations for how the Unite States can work toward a successful outcome while limiting the risks and costs of open-ended engagement or an abrupt withdrawal. The report, “Focused Engagement: A New Way Forward in Afghanistan,” is written by CNAS Adjunct Senior Fellow Christopher D. Kolenda, who served four tours of duty in Afghanistan as a commander and a senior advisor to three commanding generals.
The report’s recommendations include:
- Stabilizing the battlefield by improving U.S.-Afghan strategic alignment and stopping the troop withdrawal.
- Promoting Afghan sovereignty and reduce destabilizing regional competition by obtaining and supporting an Afghan commitment to regional neutrality. Penalize states that enable the Taliban, and reward peaceful outcomes.
- Advancing a long-term peace process to bring the war to a successful conclusion.
- Putting a senior official in Kabul in charge of managing and coordinating the full-range of U.S. efforts in Afghanistan.
The report’s recommendations section, “Way Forward: Focused Engagement,” can be found below:
The United States wins if international terrorist groups cannot use Afghan territory to launch large-scale terrorist attacks against the homeland and U.S. allies. To support America’s interests in Afghanistan and the region, this paper recommends a strategy of focused engagement. This approach increases the probability of a successful outcome while limiting the risks and costs of withdrawal or open-ended commitment.
To bring the war to a successful conclusion, the United States must focus on three objectives:
- Stabilize the battlefield by improving U.S.-Afghan strategic alignment, enforcing conditionality for political and security sector reform, and supporting an enduring commitment;
- Promote Afghan sovereignty and reduce destabilizing regional competition by obtaining and supporting an Afghan commitment to regional neutrality, penalizing states that enable the Taliban and other militant groups, and rewarding peaceful outcomes; and
- Advance a peace process to bring the war to a successful conclusion that protects U.S. interests and respects the service and sacrifices of the American and Afghan people.
To implement this new approach, the Trump administration needs to reverse the growth of White House micromanagement. President Trump should decentralize authority to a U.S. civil-military command in theater, while retaining NSC-level oversight.
The Trump administration must avoid a rush to failure. Given nearly 40 years of conflict in Afghanistan, a peace process may require more than a decade to produce a general cease-fire and a series of conflict-ending negotiations. Progress in governmental reform, regional diplomacy, and confidence-building measures should provide the evidence needed for America’s continued support.
Before moving forward, the Trump administration should ensure the Afghan government is sincere about bringing the war to a successful conclusion and respecting American support and sacrifices. This report offers some potential tests.
This approach cannot guarantee success, but it is more likely to protect American interests at acceptable cost than either withdrawal or open-ended and unconditional commitment. A tougher approach toward those taking advantage of U.S. support – or using it for malign activity – also can help America restore some lost credibility and self-respect.
This report is organized in two main parts. Part I offers an overview of the Afghanistan situation, posits three strategic options, and recommends a new way forward. Part II delves deeper into the state of play in Afghanistan and the region, explores the potential reactions to the new strategy, assesses the risks to success, and offers ways to address them.