David W. Barno and Andrew Exum of the Center for a New American Security recently compiled a report entitled Responsible Transition: Securing U.S. Interests in Afghanistan Beyond 2011. The report makes note of important dates in Afghanistan’s future: July 2011 and January 2014. Barno and Exum suggest that it is too early to determine the effectiveness of the current counterinsurgency strategy, including the most recent surge; however, by summer of 2011 we should have a clear understanding of its successes and shortcomings. In addition, at this time the U.S. and NATO should have “a clearer picture of the choices being made by both the Afghan and Pakistani governments, which will prove central to the strategy’s long-term success or failure.” July 2011 also marks the start of the transition period between U.S. and Afghan security forces. Both NATO and Karzai have pointed to 2014 as the year when Afghans should take over all security measures throughout the nation.

In their report, the authors put forth a set of recommendations which they believe will assist the “Responsible Transition” from U.S. forces to Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF). These are summarized as follows:

• The United States and its allies should commit to a long-term presence in Afghanistan to safeguard vital U.S. interests beyond 2011 and signal to allies and rivals a continued U.S. investment in the region.

• The United States should focus its residual forces on efforts to defeat al Qaeda throughout the region while supporting a shift to the ANSF leading the continued fight against the Taliban by 2014. Residual U.S. and allied forces will ultimately consist mainly of special operations forces.

• The United States and its allies should begin a phased transition, starting in July 2011, from a large-scale mission employing in excess of 140,000 troops to a more sustainable presence of 25,000-35,000 troops. This enduring U.S. military presence will be sized to both support and enable sustained ANSF combat against the Taliban and maintain relentless U.S. pressure on al Qaeda.

• The United States should support a successful NATO transition in Afghanistan that enables U.S. allies to return the majority of their forces to Europe and Canada while sustaining a limited contribution of Special Operations Forces (SOF) and trainers to Afghanistan.

• The United States and its allies should shift their direct investment in the government in Afghanistan away from Kabul and toward local governance.

• The United States should use greater political, military and economic leverage over its allies in Pakistan to drive more aggressive action against violent extremist organizations in the region.

Since taking office, President Obama and his national security team have decided to move away from a long-term counterinsurgency campaign in favor of strategy which would transition security to the ANSF as soon as possible. Barno and Exum’s report confronts the best way to deal with this transition for both NATO and ANSF forces. Before doing so, however, they take the time to distinguish between “vital” and “important” U.S. interests in Afghanistan. “Vital” interests are considered to be al Qaeda-inspired terrorism and nuclear proliferation into terrorist hands due to their direct threat to U.S. citizens. To confront these threats, it will be important to prevent al Qaeda and associated movements (AQAM) from returning to safe havens in Afghanistan while supporting a strong Pakistani state capable of protecting its nuclear arsenal. “Important” interests are listed as promoting regional stability, countering narcotics trade, and protecting human rights due to the fact that they do not directly threaten U.S. security.

The forthcoming transitional period beginning in July 2011 will be important to monitor, as people throughout Afghanistan are asking themselves how they can be best positioned for what comes next. Should the U.S. disengage prior to the completion of an adequate transition, China and India may begin to intervene competitively in the nation’s affairs. As the authors reveal, “In that circumstance, the prospects for Afghanistan devolving into a civil war between the proxies of outside powers are real, with consequences that could destabilize and threaten the security and prosperity of the entire region.” However, it is also noted that these powers have the demonstrated capability of providing investment in Afghanistan. Both China and India are currently pursuing development projects throughout the nation, which will result in much-needed economic growth.

Barno and Exum recommend that the U.S. continue to engage in counterterror operations and security assistance programs while the Afghan government assumes the overarching responsibility for its national defense. The U.S. can do this by making available airpower and technology while advising the ANSF and providing special forces to target al Qaeda operatives. The authors also argue for a new political strategy, one which focuses on a limited central government with greater power granted to the provinces and districts. It is noted that Afghanistan has been governed effectively in the past with a decentralized system; however, the U.S. has attempted to forge a strong centralized system throughout the nation since 2001. This endeavor has produced disappointing results; therefore, it is suggested that the U.S. embark on a “bottom-up” approach to governance, favoring investment and development at the local level over the Kabul-centric model. As Barno and Exum explain, “Today Afghanistan’s constitution gives the president the power to appoint provincial and district (i.e., ‘state’ and ‘county’) governors from Kabul. This arrangement has led to friction wherein local leaders and populations often have no say in and little identification with their ‘official’ government representation and leadership. Not surprising, in many cases this has created tensions that have further distanced the people from the central government, with Kabul-appointed ‘outsiders’ serving in key local leadership roles but often lacking legitimacy in the eyes of the governed.”

These are only a few of the many important observations made by Barno and Exum in their report, Responsible Transition: Securing U.S. Interests in Afghanistan Beyond 2011. I highly recommend downloading and reviewing the full CNAS document here.