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How To Address Afghanistan's Quagmire

Afghan troops during a military operation in the northern Faryab province in August.
Afghan troops during a military operation in the northern Faryab province in August.

Since 2001, the international community has invested billions of dollars in support of Afghanistan. Forty-nine countries joined the military coalition, led by the world's most powerful military, that of the United States. Several others provided aid and development.

Why then, after 14 years of spilling blood and treasure, is Afghanistan still mired in turmoil? Because its success is nobody's top priority.

In many ways, Afghanistan resembles a tragedy of the commons in South Asia and Central Asia. Each regional country, attempting to maximize its self-interest, undermines the best interests of the entire region. Unless this perverse logic changes, everyone will be worse off -- and Afghans most of all.

The tragedy of the commons is about exploitation of a common resource. Sadly, this is the way too many regional actors view Afghanistan. Some -- and Pakistan in particular -- fear a stable, hostile Afghanistan. They prefer it to be a client state to undermine their rivals. Since the latter is unlikely and the former is threatening, they maximize self-interest by fomenting instability through supporting warring factions and insurgents.

For international powers, Afghanistan is either a distraction from or a tool for larger interests. Some are attracted to the resource wealth and feed the kleptocracy to exploit it. Others view Afghanistan as a way to distract and undermine the United States and NATO.

The United States wanted to finish quickly in 2001 and leave. A lack of attention helped the war drag on. Recognizing the mistake, Americans surged in 2009, then tired quickly. Regional policy has been schizophrenic and ineffectual.

Last year, the United States brokered the Afghan national unity government deal. The new governance arrangement got the Afghan election crisis off the front pages of Western newspapers but created a government too divided to actually reform and govern. America is moving on: Unwilling to address problems of predatory kleptocracy, external sanctuary, and regional malign activity, it unwittingly incentivized all three.

For its part, much of the Afghan government and elite are more interested in self-enrichment than in the country's success. Elites bicker over decreasing spoils while the country moves dangerously close to the cliff. Even if the government could move policy for reform, parliament is too compromised by corruption to pass legislation. The government has never developed a strategy for the war; it is embroiled in a conflict it is not winning, but it cannot even confirm a defense minister. Political infighting and unmet demands for bribes have sunk each candidate. Elites satisfy themselves that it is all Pakistan's fault.

The Taliban might be the only party that places a top priority on winning, albeit not for the good of the country. It maintains the delusion that military victory is possible. The death of Mullah Mohammad Omar has created a major succession crisis. The main beneficiaries of continued conflict, aside from arms peddlers and various elites, are groups like Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL. By failing to grasp the possibilities of a peace process and the existential threat of civil war, the Taliban is sowing the seeds of its own destruction, too.

This is a classic prisoner's dilemma. Everyone recognizes the benefits of cooperation toward a peaceful outcome, and yet no one trusts the others enough to take any risk to bring it about. Each party, by maximizing self-interest, is destroying the country.

Catastrophe in Afghanistan or a repeat of its recent disastrous history, however, is not yet inevitable. Here's how it can be avoided:

1. Afghanistan should declare itself a neutral power, reinforced by a UN Security Council Resolution (UNSCR). Make it clear that Afghanistan is nobody's playground, and prevent suspicions that Afghanistan is playing double-games with all the regional rivalries.

2. The UNSCR should authorize, at Afghanistan's request, an international military force that will train the Afghan National Security Forces and support Afghanistan's neutrality. This may provide sufficient cover for the Obama administration to maintain current troop levels beyond 2016 while seeking other donors. This step is also likely to bring about acceptance by the Taliban that they are unlikely to secure future meaningful military gains.

3. Make continued investment in Afghanistan conditional upon political reform. The United States, as the biggest donor, is best-placed to do this. International indices like Transparency International, the World Bank, Foreign Policy, and others can serve as objective benchmarks. Afghan elites will have no one but themselves to blame if they cannot pass reform.

4. Support a peace process sponsored by a credible international actor. The wrong custodian is a poison pill. Avoid the seduction of a peace deal. In a low trust environment like this one, elite deals are highly destabilizing. Set conditions for a long-haul peace process that is likely to take a decade or more. Begin by the sides agreeing on broadly framed words, then reinforce with actions. A gradual, step-by-step approach is needed.

Christopher Kolenda is the president and CEO of Kolenda Strategic Leadership. He commanded paratroopers and then served as senior adviser to the Department of Defense senior leadership and to three Commanders of International Forces (ISAF) over four tours in Afghanistan. He is the author of Leadership: The Warrior’s Art and The Counterinsurgency Challenge. These views are the author's alone and do not represent those of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.