Huffpost Politics
The Blog

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors

Dan Froomkin Headshot

Questions About Afghanistan, If Congress Cared Enough to Ask Them

Posted: Updated:
Print Article

Were they the least bit interested in exercising any oversight at all into the war that American soldiers are still fighting and dying in -- and that Chinese bond buyers are still providing the cash for -- members of Congress wouldn't have to go very far to find some excellent questions.

Congress's own think tank has come up with some doozies. Actually a lot of doozies. Thirty-nine by my count.

Just a few weeks ago, Army Col. Danny Davis, the active-service whistleblower who broke ranks to debunk official reports of progress in Afghanistan, wondered on NiemanWatchdog.org Why does Congress refuse to even ask the right questions about Afghanistan?

Now, a new Congressional Research Service report, Next Steps in the War in Afghanistan? Issues for Congress, (unearthed by the Federation of American Scientists) offers a cheat-sheet for any members who might be coming around to the idea of probing the administration's gameplan.

All of these questions are taken directly from the report, written by CRS international security expert Catherine Dale. First come the broad strategic questions:
  • What fundamental national security interests does the United States have in Afghanistan and the region?
  • What minimum conditions -- political, economic, security -- would need to pertain in Afghanistan in order for those U.S. interests to be protected?
  • How appropriate are current and projected future U.S. approaches, until and after 2014, for helping Afghans establish those conditions?
  • When and to what extent are Afghans likely to be able to sustain those conditions with relatively limited support from the international community?
  • Ultimately, how important is this overall effort -- given its likely timeline, risks, and costs -- compared to other U.S. government priorities?
Here are questions "that might help inform the debates about the next steps for U.S. troop levels":
  • How much must the level of insurgent threat in Afghanistan be reduced, to help ensure that Afghan forces can contend successfully with the residual challenge with minimal international assistance? To what extent is the participation of U.S. forces in combined operations now with Afghan partners still necessary to reduce that threat sufficiently?
  • What other purposes does a U.S. force presence need to serve, if any, toward meeting U.S. core goals -- for example, serving as a deterrent to those who would challenge Afghanistan's sovereignty, or providing leverage for U.S. efforts to help shape a broader political settlement process aimed at ending the war?
  • To what extent if any must the objectives of the combined campaign be scaled back given the constraints on the scope and duration of future U.S. troop presence?
  • How should differences be reconciled when Afghan and U.S. campaign priorities diverge?
  • How good do Afghan forces need to be, to contend effectively with a residual insurgent threat? What total ANSF endstrength, and what force mix, will that require over time? How much risk, and of what kinds, do incremental reductions in future ANSF endstrength introduce?
  • To what extent is a continued U.S. force presence after 2014 -- and with what force mix, and for how long -- necessary to help bolster ANSF ability?
  • To what extent if any does Afghan reliance on the ALP [Afghan Local Police] -- typically deeply rooted in local communities, but not trained to the level of regular forces, and regarded skeptically by regular security force leaders as lacking national-level loyalties -- contribute to or alternatively threaten Afghanistan's future stability?
Questions "about transition and change of mission":
  • Under an advisory construct, what is the proper division of labor over time between coalition units and advisory teams?
  • To what extent does an increased emphasis on developing ANSF counterparts come at the expense of continuing to reduce the threats insurgents pose to stability in Afghanistan? Or can increasingly capable ANSF backed up by coalition forces make roughly similar progress?
  • As the ANSF assume greater responsibilities, is it acceptable -- or even desirable, as a spur toward learning -- for them to "fail" in some ways?
  • How appropriate -- and clearly understood -- are U.S. and coalition standards for knowing when to step in?
  • What effects, exactly, might a post-2014 U.S. military presence in Afghanistan be designed to achieve?
Questions that "might help inform the debates about the next steps for Afghanistan's economy":
  • What kind of a system can the likely future Afghan economy -- barring exogenous shocks to the system -- realistically be expected to support?
  • What legal constructs and accountability mechanisms would have to be in place, and what other minimum conditions met, in order for Afghanistan to realize its maximum potential -- given its mineral resources and potential agricultural productivity -- as a fiscally self-sufficient state?
  • As the balance of U.S. support shifts from providing things -- a role that has given the U.S. government a prominent seat at the table -- to providing advice, will the U.S. government be able to maintain sufficient leverage -- for example, to encourage accountability and to help shape a political settlement process?
  • Given that most observers agree that it will take time for Afghans to develop the ability to generate, collect, and spend revenues, and that international assistance is likely to diminish significantly in the near-term, what are the risks to Afghan stability in the near-term? To what extent and in what ways might the international community help mitigate these risks?
  • While recent commitments from the U.S. Government and NATO extend the timeline of "commitment" out to 2024, how realistic is that longer timeline for Afghans to build a largely self-sustaining economy? What minimum conditions would that require, and what is it possible to achieve by the end of the period of transformation in 2024?
  • Professions of commitment notwithstanding, how much assistance are members of the international community likely to provide to Afghanistan through 2024, given the significant financial pressures and competing demands that they are likely to face?
  • In a very practical sense, to what extent will the significant reduction in the U.S. troop presence over time affect the ability of U.S. Government civilians to support Afghan development efforts in a still-somewhat-unsettled security environment? What useful lessons might be drawn from the somewhat analogous so-called "transition" in Iraq, including the validity of the planning assumptions applied in that case?
  • To what extent does the proposed dramatic reduction in ANSF total endstrength -- designed in part to significantly reduce pressure on the future Afghan budget -- introduce additional risk? To what extent will a smaller total force be able to protect Afghan interests, and U.S. interests in the region? How can Afghanistan best mitigate the risks, financial and otherwise, of demobilizing thousands of young men with well-developed weapons skills but few other economic prospects?
Questions that "might help inform the debates about the next steps in Afghan governance":
  • What kind of durable stability can be achieved in a system based in part on self-interested powerbrokers largely unconstrained by accountability mechanisms? How might such an arrangement be expected to affect U.S. interests, if at all, in the longer-run?
  • How do Afghans envisage "accountability" and the mechanisms necessary to make it work? What might the U.S. government do to support their vision?
  • What forms of leverage, to encourage greater accountability, might the U.S. Government theoretically still be able to exercise, between now and 2014, and after 2014?
  • To what extent do alternative voices in Afghanistan -- including civil society, the private sector, the media, and traditional local authority structures -- have the potential to provide a system of checks and balances by which the Afghan people can hold government accountable? To what extent are any such accountability measures likely to be able to exert influence to shape the 2014 presidential elections, or a reconciliation process designed to bring the war to an end?
Questions about safe havens in Pakistan:
  • What results can realistically be expected in the near- to medium-term from U.S. and Afghan mil-to-mil engagement with Pakistani forces?
  • To what extent might alternative approaches, such as U.S. drone strikes, be relied on to reduce the threat from Afghan insurgent safe havens inside Pakistan? How do the effects of a de-capitation drone strike compare to those of clearing and holding operations? What other risks if any do such strikes introduce?
  • To what extent does current U.S. strategic thinking assume that a political settlement of the war in Afghanistan -- a "deal" -- would result in the permanent closure of safe havens? If circumstances in Pakistan do not change, what would prevent some current or future insurgent leaders from making use of the same safe havens?
  • To what extent does the persistence of safe havens in Pakistan increase the requirements for Afghan resilience? What forms would that resilience have to take, to ensure that Afghan -- and U.S. -- interests are protected? What risks might any additional requirements pose to other aspects of the campaign, by reducing available resources?
And finally questions about how it all ends:
  • How well do the major components of the effort -- the campaign on the ground, and political settlement efforts including a reconciliation process, as well as economic and regional approaches -- fit together and inform each other, in a single roadmap, against a timeline? What assumptions does that roadmap make? What risks does it allow?
  • As part of that comprehensive roadmap, what roles should the U.S. government play? What roles are more appropriately played by other actors, first of all Afghans, and also including other members of the international community?
  • What are the respective roles of the campaign on the ground, and of political settlement efforts, in bringing the war in Afghanistan to a close? Does the campaign create conditions that may produce a political settlement? Does a wellcrafted reconciliation bring the campaign on the ground to a close? Is either, or are both, essential?
  • How inclusive must a settlement process be in order to help ensure the durability of any agreement achieved, and to counter-balance natural hedging behavior under the patronage of various power-brokers in the face of deep uncertainty about the future and decades of grim experience in the past? How important is the active participation in a national settlement process -- not just the post facto buy-in -- of key groups such as civil society, the media, and the private sector, as well as traditional authority structures? How if at all should the U.S. Government help foster such inclusiveness?
  • To what extent if any does persistent corruption pose a challenge to the campaign on the ground or to an effective settlement process? What if the Afghan people do not view any of their apparent political choices as viable?
  • Given the full panoply of U.S. national security interests and broader concerns, what should be the relative priority of Afghanistan, between now and 2014, and after 2014, for the U.S. government?
Pretty good questions, huh? And how horrifying is it that we don't already have the answers?

Cross-posted from NiemanWatchdog.org, where Froomkin is deputy editor.