Plan Now for July 2011

The comments from Afghanistan's President Karzai last Thursday attacking the West for its role in the 2009 presidential election continues a long line of mixed messages and actions over the past year that leave both the Afghan government and the US administration struggling to create a partnership that works. The harder we push, the more President Karzai resents us. The softer we are, the more he carries out an agenda that can be at odds with US desires for a Western-style democracy in Afghanistan.

With this frustrating dance creating not only tension, but little on-the-ground results in Afghanistan, it is now time for the US to begin focusing like a laser on the July 2011 date President Obama set for beginning "the transfer of our forces out of Afghanistan."

While the US can ill-afford to abandon Afghanistan, reducing the US and NATO footprint, while building up Afghan capacity, will leave Afghanistan in a place where it can begin to stand on its own, enhance its sovereignty, and leave Afghans in the driver's seat while protecting US interests in the region.

Furthermore, during an election year in the US where health care, education, job loss, and our crumbling infrastructure are sure to be dominant issues, the continued drain on US resources in Afghanistan seems not only misguided, but could carry potential long-term damage to our own domestic needs. The US is currently spending approximately $100 billion annually in Afghanistan.

The best way to begin the 14-month transition to July 2011 is, first, to provide greater budgetary support to the Afghan government. While this may set off alarm bells for those worried about corruption and Afghan capacity, the reality is that this is an inexpensive option that may catalyze progress in Afghanistan and - if it doesn't - is still less costly than funding the private contractors on whom we currently rely.

The US could provide $2 billion in budgetary assistance to the Afghan government in 2010-2011, which would exponentially increase the government's ability to provide health care, education, and agriculture services to the Afghan people - and would constitute less than 2% of the overall US expenditure in the country.

Most importantly, this core budgetary assistance would build enormous good will with the Afghan people, if it is spent well. If not, President Karzai and his government will be held accountable.

Second, the footprint of the international community is too large in Afghanistan - draining too much national talent and lessening the space for Afghan entrepreneurship and creativity.

There are currently more than 40 countries providing military assistance to Afghanistan, more than 200 international non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and hundreds of private contractors from Western democracies that carry out development and humanitarian assistance projects - few of which are coordinated. Some of the billions of dollars spent on these efforts could be transferred to the Afghan Finance Ministry, which is respected by the World Bank and the United States, and the Ministry could dole out the funds to the most effective Afghan ministries and projects - of which there some.

Third, President Karzai's legacy will be based on building a peaceful and stable Afghanistan - which requires not only security - but development. While much has been written about his efforts to bring peace through negotiations with the Taliban, there has been little attention paid to the infrastructure, energy, and agricultural needs in Afghanistan since he was re-elected last year. If we are going to push him, we should push him for progress on this front.

With President Karzai openly questioning the presence of foreign entities in Afghanistan last week, it is time to acknowledge that President Obama was correct in his West Point speech last December when he declared that "Afghans will have to take responsibility for their security, and ... America has no interest in fighting an endless war in Afghanistan."

Adhering to the July 2011 drawdown of US troops, while strengthening the Afghan government, will not only save American lives and dollars, but it will place firmly in President Karzai's lap the responsibility for developing Afghanistan, and providing the Afghan citizenry the kinds of services and security they have long deserved.

Jordan Dey is an independent consultant who advised the United Nations in Afghanistan in 2009. He is a former State Department and UN senior official.