The South Asia Center and the Brent Scowcroft Center for International Security hosted a panel of experts to discuss the winding down of the war in Afghanistan, and what role, if any, should the United States play in shaping the future of Afghanistan.

The discussion focused on four key areas: the interests, missions, forces, and roles for the United States in Afghanistan during and after the drawdown. The panel consisted of David Sedney, former deputy assistant secretary of defense for Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Central Asia, US Department of Defense; Shuja Nawaz, director, South Asia Center, Atlantic Council; and Joshua Foust, freelance journalist. Barry Pavel, vice president and director of the Brent Scowcroft Center introduced the topic and moderated the discussion.

Overall, the panelists agreed that the United States’ principal interest in Afghanistan is to leave behind a politically stable and legitimate government in Kabul capable of assuring against a Taliban takeover or the emergence of a significant international terrorist threat. Between now and the end of 2014, the US aim should, therefore, be to help improve the political processes, strengthen government institutions, and focus on continuing to improve the capabilities of the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF). The need for domestic stability was largely folded into the larger interest of a successful Afghan government. There was some debate among the panelists on the forces needed as well as the success of the efforts to date.

All three emphasized the importance of improving the political systems and processes in Afghanistan, rather than continue the focus on the military capabilities. They primarily focused their discussion on next year’s presidential election in Afghanistan. Mr. Sedney and Mr. Nawaz both argued for a temporary surge of American troops and civilians around the time of the elections, to ensure that they actually take place, and that they are relatively free and fair. Mr. Foust agreed the success of the elections would be crucial to the future of Afghanistan, although he disagreed with the need for a troop surge, and argued instead for a greater funding to support the political system and establishment and growth of political parties.

The future role of the United States in Afghanistan, aside from encouraging successful elections, was the focus of much debate. Mr. Sedney advocated maintaining a strong commitment to Afghanistan, as he considered it vital to ensuring that the Taliban do not return as the ruling faction in Afghanistan, and for the United States’ credibility as a friend and partner in the region. Mr. Foust took the opposite position and argued for a minimal security role, while increasing the civilian roles and empowering those organizations in Afghanistan. Mr. Nawaz took a regional approach to Afghanistan, and suggested that the US role is less important to success in Afghanistan than that of regional countries, most importantly India, but also Iran, Pakistan, and the Central Asian republics. None of the panelists advocated the “zero option”, and noted that the US State Department and USAID will continue to operate in Afghanistan, although Mr. Foust argued that it should be realistically examined, as the “zero option” is a potential worst-case scenario. He cited the case of Iraq, where negotiations collapsed and the US left rapidly, leaving behind a chaotic situation. Mr. Nawaz suggested that the best and longest lasting solutions would emerge out of Afghanistan itself and cautioned against over involvement of near neighbors and distant friends of Afghanistan.