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Afghanistan Needs A National Strategy To Succeed

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani speaks in Jalalabad on April 23.
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani speaks in Jalalabad on April 23.

After nearly seven months in office, Afghanistan's national unity government finally has a full cabinet after parliament recently approved 16 new ministers put forward by President Ashraf Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah.

However, after months of speculation and hype surrounding possible peace talks with insurgents, the Afghan Taliban announced a new spring offensive and has vowed to target "foreign occupiers, especially their permanent military bases" and "officials of the stooge regime." So far this year, reports of talks with the Taliban remain unfounded, as the war grows in intensity and lethality.

The government's performance has so far disappointed many of its voters: The economy remains on shaky ground; efforts to battle corruption and dismantle the kleptocracy have begun, but major political reform is urgently needed; violence against women remains high.

Afghanistan ranks at the top of dependent countries. Donor flight after international troops depart at the end of 2016 could bankrupt the government and possibly doom the country to another civil war.

The emergence of the Islamic State (IS) in Afghanistan is bloody and vicious. It reportedly claimed responsibility for a bombing in the eastern Afghan city of Jalalabad that killed 33 civilians and wounded 125. The extent of IS's presence is uncertain, and Afghans officials disagree over the threat it poses.

While the Afghan Taliban seems to have distanced itself from Al-Qaeda, the emergence of a new terrorist threat would be devastating for Afghans and highly damaging to the government. The leader of IS branded reclusive Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar a "fool and illiterate warlord." IS might provide a common enemy to the Afghan government and the Afghan Taliban.

Hopes for progress in Afghan-Pakistan relations after Ghani's November visit have given way to cynicism and charges of appeasement. Afghanistan and Iran have pledged cooperation against the rise of IS, but Kabul will be walking a tightrope on its relations with Tehran and its main rival, Saudi Arabia. Kabul has successfully juggled relations with Tehran and Washington.

Ghani and Abdullah can increase the likelihood of success by taking one simple but critical step. They need to direct their administration to develop a credible and compelling national strategy.

The truth is the Afghan government has never had a strategy to win the war after the Taliban's fall in 2001. This sad state of affairs is partly the fault of former President Hamid Karzai, who couldn't bring himself to believe his own people were fighting his government, and partly the fault of U.S. President Barack Obama's administration, which never insisted on a common strategy as a prerequisite for scaling up and sustaining Washington's assistance.

To the extent a common approach exists, it has mainly centered on the military. The Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF), with the help of International Security Assistance Forces (ISAF), have a military campaign plan.

In the absence of a national strategy to direct it and other elements of national power toward a successful outcome, however, the ANSF are simply fighting in the hope of winning. This sorry state of affairs must change.

Developing a national strategy would help the fractious government develop a common, realistic appreciation of the key threats and obstacles. This is the first and most important step. Ownership at the highest levels of government will dramatically increase the probability of positive results.

It will also convey to a highly skeptical international community that investment in Afghanistan is a manageable, prudent risk rather than an uncertain, expensive gamble.

Such a strategy should integrate five pillars. The most important effort is political reform and governance, which would help contain and eventually reduce the Taliban threat. Second, many of the ANSF's operations are driven by the narrow interests of powerful Afghan figures. A clear national strategy will enable the ANSF to operate more effectively.

Given that the likelihood of a decisive military victory for either side is very low, jump-starting a dignified, transparent and responsible peace process will be very difficult, but necessary. Gradual efforts such as the one in Northern Ireland have the best prospects for success. Notions of elite deals behind closed doors are poison pills that prolong rather than end conflict.

Regional diplomacy that limits malignant interference in Afghanistan will be critical for stability. In recent years, Afghan leaders have rightly projected their homeland as a hub for regional trade and economic cooperation. They need help from their neighbors and global powers to make this a reality and inevitably create a win-win situation for all states involved in Afghanistan's recent turmoil.

Finally, greater economic self-reliance will reduce dependency on the international community while unleashing the creative genius of the Afghan people. A credible economic plan allows the Afghan nation rather than a few power-brokers to benefit from reported mineral wealth of over $1 trillion and significant customs revenue potential. A successful peace process will lower the massive cost of more than $4 billion per year for the ANSF. Addressing kleptocracy and corruption could reduce capital flight and save Afghans billions of dollars a year.

Ghani and Abdullah can use a national strategy as a basis for holding their officials accountable for results and extending international support. The potential strength of the unity government can be realized if diversity and a significant common purpose become mutually reinforcing. Assessing the state of war and developing a strategy to bring it to a favorable and durable conclusion may bring out the best in Kabul and give people a vision they can rally behind.

Ghani, when urging Obama in March to reconsider his withdrawal timeline, rightly noted the need for the Afghan government to show credible progress. This strategy can provide a very important part of that argument and should be sufficient for U.S. and coalition partners to keep an open mind.

Christopher Kolenda, a former U.S. Army colonel, commanded paratroopers in eastern Afghanistan. He was senior adviser to the Defense Department leadership and to three commanders of International Forces (ISAF) over four tours in Afghanistan. He now leads the Kolenda Strategic Leadership company in London and is the senior military fellow at King’s College. These views are the author's alone and do not represent those of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.