On June 22, President Obama announced his decision to withdraw 30,000 "surge" troops from Afghanistan by next summer, with reductions to continue until a planned handover of security to Afghan authorities in 2014. How ready is Afghanistan for such a transition, whether fast or slow? Are the pieces in place for long-term stability? Paul Diehl, the Henning Larsen Professor of political science, is the author of books on both war and peacekeeping, and directs the Correlates of War Project, the world's largest data collection effort on international conflict. Diehl (pronounced Deel) was interviewed by News Bureau social sciences editor Craig Chamberlain.
Where do you see progress in Afghanistan, in terms of its own stability and self-interest?
The U.S. government has most recently used a series of benchmarks to assess progress, including changes in the levels of violence, the stability of individual districts, the development of Afghan security forces, and the Afghan government's responsibility for key functions. Measured against the situation last year, there have been a number of incremental improvements on all dimensions. For example, violent incidents in Kandahar province have declined and the size of the Afghan national army has increased.
What gives you pause?
The major concern is the slow pace of progress despite the increase in U.S. troops and the significant development aid granted to the country. It is also not clear that improvements will necessarily continue in the future, suggesting that we might be approaching limits beyond which little progress is possible in the near future. Government corruption and poor quality local security forces remain sticking points.
You note that a variety of factors - among them the country's size, its rugged terrain, lack of infrastructure, poverty and tribalism - make Afghanistan a poor candidate for stability, much less democracy. What's the best you think we should hope for, assuming we don't want to stay indefinitely?
I think that U.S. and NATO goals have become much less ambitious. British Prime Minister (David) Cameron has said that we cannot expect "a perfect democracy" in Afghanistan. The next U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, Ryan Crocker, is even more circumspect, striving for "sustainable stability." That might be the best outcome, characterized by a relatively weak central government, some accommodation with the Talban in which it controls certain areas of the country, a less porous border with Pakistan, and more limited and sporadic violence.
It seems that recently begun negotiations with the Taliban are dedicated to achieving such an outcome.
The killing of Osama bin Laden, combined with growing federal deficit concerns and declining support from the public, has some in both parties arguing for a rapid exit. But based on past experience, including that in Iraq, what's a realistic timeline?
The key factors you note are essentially U.S. domestic political considerations and not reflective of the U.S. government's own benchmarks for success. If the former drive U.S. decisions with respect to troop withdrawal and Afghan policy in general, then the timeline will likely be determined by the electoral calendar and President Obama's approval ratings in 2012. One might expect that some significant decisions will be made in the coming months, but often deadlines on troop withdrawal and the like are set well into the future. Circumstances change and implementation of many provisions will likely be scheduled after the 2012 elections. Thus, it would be premature to accept that what is planned or promised in the near term will come to fruition.
Does history hold any lessons for how long such efforts can be maintained, especially by a democracy?
Scholarly studies indicate that 70 percent of attempts to impose democracies by external powers fail within two generations. Among those that do succeed, key ingredients are the willingness of the occupying power to sustain its troop presence and support. There is no simple answer to how long a state can maintain such support, and indeed, the length of commitment required varies by context. Yet even a sustained commitment is not enough, as imposed democracies best take root in societies that are ethnically homogeneous and are surrounded by other democratic states in their regional neighborhood. Neither of these conditions characterizes Afghanistan.