The U.S. focus on Afghanistan largely centers on withdrawing most forces by 2014 and reducing the cost of the war. These are important issues: By the end of fiscal year 2013, the United States will have spent $560 billion on the war, and current annual costs are more than $110 billion.

It is, however, far easier to talk about troop levels and budget cuts than to plan and conduct a real-world transition to Afghan responsibility for security and funding of Afghan operations and to deal with the strategic realities involved. The United States needs to come to grips with a range of extremely difficult issues, none of which involves good options.

First, Washington needs to reassess its strategic interests in Central and South Asia and whether these call for continuing a major commitment of aid to Afghanistan and Pakistan after a U.S. withdrawal. The answer may well be yes, but some argue that the best way to play the new great game in the region is to leave things to Russia, China, Turkey, Iran, India and the Central Asian countries.

This thinking holds that the United States has other strategic priorities and limited resources and that regional power will be forced to deal with situations. Strong arguments can be made for staying or for leaving; what’s important is that the United States decide on its grand strategy for the region and act on it, not simply focus on transition in Afghanistan.

Second, we need plans that recognize the key focus of the war is not Afghanistan but Pakistan. Afghan instability is a problem, but the strategic center of gravity is Pakistan, a nuclear-armed nation that acts as a sanctuary for al-Qaida, the Taliban and a range of local extremist movements. Reassuring rhetoric aside, U.S.-Pakistani relations continue to deteriorate, as does Pakistan’s internal stability at virtually every level. Some argue that staying in Afghanistan and providing aid to Pakistan will guard our interests and help provide stability. Others think that our role in Afghanistan simply breeds tension with Pakistan or that there is little we can really do and we should therefore leave. Once again, Washington needs to make clear decisions flowing from a grand strategy.

Third, we need to be far more honest about the difficulties in conducting a successful transition in Afghanistan and the role we will have to play after 2014, if we decide to stay. We are scoring significant victories against the Taliban in the south and in attacks on key Taliban and al-Qaida leaders and cadres. It is not clear, however, whether we are making sufficient gains that these threats cannot wait us out until after 2014 or whether the Afghan government can hold such areas and build up civil governance, the rule of law and a functioning economy.

As recent events underscore, insurgents are conducting bombings, assassinations and other operations that intimidate the Afghan people and help drive down U.S. and allied public support for the war. Furthermore, the Karzai government is far from effective and is politically unstable, and Afghanistan faces an election the year we leave. We may be winning tactically, but insurgents may be winning a battle of political attrition that will ultimately be strategically decisive.

The United States needs a far more honest debate over all these issues and over whether there is a credible chance of forcing the Taliban into any viable form of political settlement. Constant spin and good news from the U.S. government and criticism from the media are no substitutes for the kind of transparency that would give an assessment of real-world prospects for winning credibility.

If we do stay, it must be with the understanding that the Afghan government will need a decade of aid to deal with an economy that will suffer a massive depression if U.S. and other outside funding is suddenly reduced. Outside aid is some 14 times higher than the Kabul government’s revenue-generating capability, and U.S. and outside military expenditures are as much as 30 times higher.

If we are to stay in Afghanistan and have any hope of real victory, we need a transition plan, civil and military advisers, and aid programs to deal with these issues. Afghan forces may be ready to take up much of the security burden in 2014, but the nation cannot survive without very substantial U.S. aid beyond 2020.

The Afghan civil economy might become self-sustaining in a decade or more. No talk about mining and a “new Silk Road,” however, can have anything like the needed impact until 2025 to 2030.

Moreover, Afghanistan still needs help in developing adequate government capacity, creating a functioning legislature and dealing with serious political problems if there is to be a credible election in 2014 to replace Hamid Karzai. The requirements are likely to be a major U.S. military and civil advisory presence indefinitely and annual aid of $8 billion to $10 billion.

Anthony H. Cordesman holds the Burke chair in strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and was part of the civilian advisory team to U.S. Gen. Stanley McChrystal in 2009. His analyses on the Afghan war are online at csis.org/program/burke-chair-strategy.

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