This afternoon, Ashraf Ghani, former Afghan finance minister and member of the Atlantic Council International Advisory Board and Strategic Advisors Group, unveiled his report “A Ten-Year Framework for Afghanistan: Executing the Obama Plan and Beyond.”

He argues that,

There are four major threats to securing Afghanistan’s future. First, Al Qaeda is a renewed force moving fluidly between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Second, an expanded, well resourced, and multifaceted insurgency presents a continual threat to Afghan and international actors. Third, a narcotics production, processing, and distribution network fuels corruption and violence and is becoming concentrated in the hands of a few nefarious individuals. And fourth, poor governance, underpinning all these problems, is now so entrenched that many organs of government are seen as the instruments of corruption, not of legitimacy and the rule of law.

He offers several steps and approaches for addressing these threats, which he summarizes:

  • Ensuring a level playing field for the presidential elections in August 2009 and supporting a process through which Afghans can truly engage in constructive debate about the country’s future.
  • Developing a coherent international strategy, using the COIN manual as a basis for military operations and a Marshall Plan approach to simplify the actions of the broader international community.
  • Preparing new national programs with implementation plans in place for immediate roll-out by the new Afghan administration.
  • Using the National Solidarity Program, a community-level development program, as a platform for rural enterprise and wealth generation.
  • Focusing on eight model provinces across the country, which provide a demonstration and multiplier effect for the rest of Afghanistan to underpin a slowly broadening area of good governance.

Those steps are fleshed out in considerable detail in the report itself.  It’s an ambitious plan that’s well supported in the counterinsurgency and state-building literature.  This isn’t surprising; Ghani is a Columbia-educated PhD anthropologist who has studied, taught, and written on these issues for more than three decades.

In the final question of the event Q&A, General Robert Magnus anticipated my major concern about the report and Ghani gave an incredibly persuasive answer.  

The plan’s success relies on the sustained commitment of the international community.  In example, “the success of the army allows for its expansion, provided there is a 15–20 year international financial commitment for meeting its expenses (14).” Magnus wondered how we would be able to convince the American public (to say nothing of the Europeans) to stay at it that long, especially given the ebbs and flows of the news cycle. 

Channeling John McCain, Ghani noted that American troops had been in South Korea for half a century and the public just considers that normal because it’s no longer in the news.  The key, then, is to stabilize the security situation and  establish early success and gain confidence on the development side.  Moreover, Ghani continued, it was the job of the Afghani people — especially the women — to do the convincing.   They needed to humanize the situation and demonstrate that their “lives are improving in fundamental ways.”  He believed that Americans would naturally be inspired by progress toward mutual goals and stay in as long as necessary if they believed it was paying off.

Similarly, on the military front, a ten-year framework, on top of the seven years the West has already invested, would put us at the seventeen years that is the starting point of the range of successful COIN operations in the past; the upper end is forty years.   Do the key NATO states have another ten years of high level interest in Afghanistan in them?  And is there any reason to think that Afghanistan is going to be viable at the end of that decade?

Ghani, a shrewd politician, understands this, as demonstrated, for example, by this: “Security experts agree that the best way to deny the use of Afghanistan’s territory for terrorist activities is to use international forces to train and mentor the Afghan institutions of law and order. This approach addresses sustainability through front-loading support in the short and medium terms to reduce and eventually eliminate the need for long-term international security forces in Afghanistan (15).”  [emphasis mine]  As for the Europeans, he echoed President Obama’s call for them to contribute financial and logistical support if they can not commit to more combat troops.

The emphasis on non-kinetic aspects of the situation is quite welcome.  While lip service has been given to that all along, Ghani argues that development is the main thing, not a side issue. Statements like this are provocative and encouraging:

Elevating the standards of seven universities could help them produce people who see their futures as tied to the success of global cooperation and dialogue with the West. One month of NATO’s current military expenditure could change the prospects of five generations of young Afghan men and women, creating agents of stability and prosperity for Afghanistan and the region (17).

Even with the global financial crisis, that’s something that can be sold in European capitals. Again, though, Ghani is calling for a decade-long commitment.  Can that be sustained?  Possibly — but likely only if there is steady, measurable progress to indicate that the money isn’t being wasted.

Ghani is an optimist and sees great hope for his country in the coming years.  As Council president and CEO Fred Kempe noted at the event’s close, that’s something that’s needed in a town with a cynical and short-term mindset.

James Joyner is managing editor of the Atlantic Council. 

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