Remarks to the Atlantic Council

Richard Olson
Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan 
Atlantic Council
Washington, DC
June 21, 2016

We are on the eve of the NATO Warsaw Summit, where NATO allies and partners will reaffirm their financial commitments to support the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces for 2018 through 2020 and sustain our Resolute Support Mission to train, advise and assist the Afghan Security forces beyond 2016.

In October, the European Union will host the Brussels Conference on Afghanistan that will allow the international donor community to emphasize continued support for the Afghan people with pledges of further development assistance, also through 2020.

These two conferences will make clear that the international community remains deeply committed to Afghanistan’s success. Moreover, the actions we take in support of Afghanistan’s security forces and development will strengthen our pursuit of reconciliation.

Warsaw and Brussels will reaffirm the international community’s shared goal to promote the development of a secure, democratic, and increasingly prosperous Afghan state with strong institutions that fulfill the public’s expectations and respond to challenges and crises. We can think of this as operation “Resolute Commitment.”

Such “resolute commitment” to Afghanistan’s development is fundamental to our objective of ensuring that groups like Da’esh and al-Qa’ida will never again find the adherents or the support necessary to gain or maintain terrorist safe havens.

As a first order of business, Afghanistan needs security to allow its institutions to flourish and consolidate the massive gains the country has made over the past decade.

NATO’s continuing mission is to develop and refine the capabilities of the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces to provide the security the Afghan people demand. Since Afghan forces are drawing strength from our engagement and lessons from our experience, we have a responsibility to continue this role and not withdraw our support too early. Moreover, the international community imperils its own safety and security if we allow Afghanistan to move down the same path of instability and insecurity that led to the conditions al-Qa’ida exploited before 9/11.

Development of the Afghan Security Forces

For many years, we provided the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces the space and resources they needed to form and develop, while International forces took primary responsibility for Afghanistan’s security through the International Security Assistance Force.

At that time we fought side by side. International forces and Afghan forces went into battle together, enjoying shared successes and suffering tragic losses together. Afghanistan’s security forces now provide for the country’s security. Assumption of the lead was part of a transition process, and this transition is continuing along the right path. Although public attention may be on lost checkpoints, and Afghan casualties, we would do well to remind ourselves where the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces started.

A decade ago, Afghanistan’s “security forces” consisted of a few thousand fighters belonging to a patchwork of militias. In many cases, their loyalties lay with local warlords.

Today, the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces have an authorized force level of 352,000 soldiers and police that fall under the control of civilian-led institutions loyal to the state. The leaders of the Afghan security forces are approved by the Afghan Parliament.

The days of the militias are not yet fully behind us, but the Afghan government continues to encourage them to integrate into the uniformed services. They become less relevant with every passing year.

These new, and constantly developing, Afghan security institutions have demonstrated that they are apolitical.

Consider the 2014 national elections. During the months of political uncertainty that followed the elections, the Afghan forces remained on the sidelines, declining to ally with any faction. Afghan forces provided security, giving political actors the time and space to reach a political solution.

NATO’s Continuing Role

The ability of the Afghan forces to assume full responsibility for the country’s security – and their improving performance on the battlefield today – represents the culmination of years of capacity building, of working every day with Afghan soldiers and police in the field.

As we began to transition from NATO’s International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in 2014, we knew that Afghanistan’s security institutions lacked the experience to manage a large and sophisticated fighting force. Afghan soldiers could fight, but they lacked the backup -- systems and processes to sustain the fight.

At the NATO Wales Summit in 2014, leaders announced the Resolute Support Mission, a non-combat mission to train, advise, and assist Afghan forces at the headquarters and regional corps levels. Resolute Support would address the need for greater organizational sophistication. It would focus on developing capabilities including operational planning; budget development, planning, and execution; force generation and management; and logistical sustainment among other sectors.

Since January 1, 2015, Resolute Support advisors – men and women, soldiers and civilians from many different nations – have been working every day with their Afghan counterparts, including the Defense and Interior Ministers themselves and their senior officers. The cooperation has jump-started effective processes for managing the complexities of large bureaucracies.

The progress has been substantial. In 2015, for the first time, the Ministries of Defense and Interior produced their own programs of requirements and budgets. They prioritized and made difficult trade-offs in recognition that international assistance will not continue indefinitely. “Nice to have” thinking is being replaced by a focus on what is essential to the mission.

Both ministries are also improving their human resource management systems. They have introduced biometric ID cards, transitioned from paper-based recordkeeping to electronic systems with more robust checks and balances, and implemented electronic funds transfer to pay salaries.

As a result, so called “ghost soldiers” are gradually being excised from the system. Police are getting paid on time and, increasingly, in the correct amount. Simply put, there are fewer opportunities for corrupt practices.

This is a good start, but there remains room for improvement. We can find further efficiencies in leadership, logistics, contracting, and payroll management. NATO Foreign Ministers recognized our work was not done and agreed on May 20 to sustain the Resolute Support Mission beyond 2016. We expect this decision will be confirmed at Warsaw.

The United States will continue to play its part. We will maintain 9,800 troops in Afghanistan through most of this year and 5,500 by the start of 2017, located at a small number of bases, including at Kabul, Bagram, Jalalabad in the east, and Kandahar in the south.

The Cost of Sustainment

NATO troops, however, are not enough to fulfill our commitment to the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces. The Afghan government cannot sustain the cost of their security forces without continued international assistance. And this is investment in our own security that we must continue to make.

At Warsaw, Afghanistan is asking NATO allies and partners to renew their pledges of assistance at or near current levels for the 2018-2020 period. The United States will do its part in answering this call. We will provide in excess of three billion dollars per year through 2020, and we expect the United States will remain the largest single funder of the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces.

The renewal of international support for the Afghan security forces will send a strong and clear signal to the Afghan government, the Afghan people, the broader region, and the Taliban that the United States and our NATO Allies and partners remain firmly committed to our fundamental goal of a secure, democratic, increasingly prosperous Afghanistan.

At the same time, we remain clear-eyed that the cost of sustaining the Afghan security forces must decrease over time. Neither the United States nor our Allies and partners can continue indefinitely funding the Afghan security forces at or near current levels. It is unsustainable. We know it. The Afghans know it.

That is why U.S., NATO, and Afghan planners are committed to implementing cost reduction measures to gradually decrease annual ANDSF costs from the current level of approximately $5 billion without compromising the effectiveness of the force. Continued improvements to the operational effectiveness of soldiers and police are central to this effort.

Greater “Afghanization” of support functions performed by foreign contractors and foreign military personnel, especially in operations and maintenance, will also help reduce costs and improve the sustainability of the Afghan security forces.

Developing operational requirements in a resource-constrained environment will force the Afghan planners to prioritize; improvements in the human resource systems of the Afghan forces will contribute to cost savings by reducing “leakage.” With Resolute Support’s continued institutional capacity building, we will realize these goals.

Goals for Brussels

Of course, security alone will not fulfill our goals for Afghanistan. The investments we make at Warsaw will pay off when Afghanistan makes real progress on programs and reforms to build and strengthen its institutions. With strong governing institutions, civil society and the business community will find and forge opportunities to make Afghanistan more prosperous for all Afghans.

The Afghan government, under President Ghani’s leadership, is pursuing reforms that are strengthening the state. To showcase these reforms and to demonstrate strong donor support for further reforms, the EU will host a development conference in October in Brussels. We expect donors to renew their commitments of development support for the period of 2018 through 2020.

The United States will go to Brussels with a strong pledge that affirms our intent to request from Congress assistance to Afghanistan of approximately one billion dollars for 2018 through 2020. We are pressing other donors – both traditional and non-traditional donors – to join us in robust pledges, at or near current levels of support, to ensure Afghanistan’s continued development and progress towards self-sufficiency.

Heading into Brussels, we have cause for optimism that Afghanistan is on the right path. Consider the following:

• The Afghan government is making tangible progress on its Self-Reliance through Mutual Accountability Framework. The so-called SMAF indicators focus on countering corruption, improving the country’s fiscal situation, and improving the framework for credible elections. Already, the Afghans have achieved fifteen of the thirty-nine goals under the Framework. We expect the Afghan government to complete at least another twenty-one goals under the Framework by the end of the year.

• Revenue collection significantly improved in 2015, and the trajectory continues this year. Fiscal sustainability has improved thanks, in part, to the government’s use of automated customs systems that prevent corruption and resulted in record revenue collection last year.

• President Ghani is taking initiative to root out corruption and is leading by example. He has worked to recover Kabul Bank assets and is reopening criminal cases against those who stole this money from the Afghan people. He has removed corrupt judges and other public officials. We applaud his promises to establish the High Council for Governance, Rule of Law, and Anti-Corruption; and to establish an Anti-Corruption Justice Center, among other steps.

• Afghanistan is reestablishing itself as an integral member of a broader regional community, embracing trade and pursuing relationships with its neighbors. As well, Afghanistan has acceded to the World Trade Organization, a step that will boost regional trade and open new markets.

Setting Conditions for Reconciliation

Our actions in Warsaw and Brussels will show our solidarity with Afghanistan. They will also send a clear signal to the Taliban that we remain committed to a unified and democratic Afghanistan. It is also important to signal, as we are, that we remain committed to a negotiated settlement between the Afghan government and the Taliban that ends the conflict and brings reconciliation to the Afghan people.

This has been our objective for nearly a decade, and we continue to believe that it offers the only real resolution to the protracted violence in Afghanistan.

The Afghan government has reached the same conclusion. Yet, despite repeated invitations by the Afghan government for talks without preconditions, the Taliban have rejected all offers, including doing so publicly on two occasions.

As I near the end of my remarks, allow me to address an issue that is at the forefront of many minds. The Taliban’s repeated refusal to join talks with the Afghan government contributed to the U.S. decision to take action against Mullah Mansur on May 21. Some commentators have speculated that this strike represented a shift in U.S. strategy or a weakening of our commitment to a peace process. It has not.

President Obama made clear in his public statements that the removal of Mullah Mansur and the expanded U.S. authorities do not represent a strategic shift in our approach to Afghanistan. The United States is not resuming day-to-day combat operations in Afghanistan. The Afghan National Defense and Security Forces have full responsibility, as they should, for providing security in their country.

Nonetheless, this strike should make clear to all parties in the region that the United States is fully prepared to protect its interests.

Mullah Mansur was an obstacle to peace, posed a continued threat to U.S. persons through his support for operations against U.S. forces, and was perpetuating a war without end.

Even though the United States has ceased combat operations against the Taliban, we will continue to protect our people and our interests.

We will also continue to encourage an Afghan-led, Afghan-owned peace process in which the Afghan government and the Afghan Taliban can bring this conflict to an end. Persistent coordination and cooperation between Afghanistan and Pakistan is also a crucial aspect of long-term regional stability. The United States remains committed to serving as a constructive conduit in advancing these efforts.

The United States, along with the diplomatic grouping calling for negotiations – that is, the Quadrilateral Coordination Group comprising Afghanistan, Pakistan, China, and the United States – remains fully committed to a peace process. Let me be clear: the QCG has made explicit that there are no preconditions to talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban. When we speak of reconciliation, for the United States this can encompass a wide range of Afghan-led solutions.

We firmly believe the conflict in Afghanistan will not end through a military solution. The future of Afghanistan will be decided through discussion, negotiation, and reconciliation.

While the chances of reconciliation may at times seem remote, it is important to remember there are points of consensus between all the parties. Surveys show Afghans overwhelmingly want to see peace and stability perpetuated through reconciliation. Moreover, all parties to this conflict share a belief in the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Afghanistan.

Similarly, there is a shared recognition of the Islamic nature of Afghan society, and a deep desire for an end to regional proxy warfare. There is space for the Afghan Taliban to integrate in Afghanistan’s pluralistic society, with the Afghan constitution providing protections for all Afghans – regardless of their ideology.

The substantial challenge before us is to build on these points of consensus to generate a viable peace process. The US Government, the Afghan Government and People, and the international community support such a process.

The Taliban’s leadership, with its refusal to come to the negotiation table, has apparently reached a different conclusion. Perhaps they believe victory through violence is achievable. Perhaps they remain unconvinced of the sincerity of the invitation to negotiate.

On the first point, let me say that the Taliban are mistaken if they think they can wait for us to withdraw our support, believing that Afghan forces will become vulnerable to defeat as the international community disengages. This is why commitments at Warsaw, including funding through 2020, are so important.

Let me also address the question of the sincerity of our persistent call for negotiations. If the Taliban are serious about their stated goal of the withdrawal of foreign forces, then as President Obama has publicly said, it should be clear to the Taliban and all who oppose Afghanistan’s progress that the only real way to achieve the full drawdown of U.S. and foreign troops from Afghanistan is to join a meaningful a lasting political settlement with the Afghan government.

Closing Remarks

In closing, let me underscore that the investments in security and development that the international community has made are yielding dividends, and Afghanistan has changed in profound ways. It is not the same country it was fifteen years ago.

With momentous achievements in education, health, the economy, infrastructure, women’s rights, and the most dynamic media landscape in the region, Afghanistan has made unparalleled developmental gains. Its armed forces, too, are stronger and more capable than ever.

The broad international coalition of friends of Afghanistan, in cooperation with committed Afghan partners, has ensured continued engagement. We all the share the same goals for Afghanistan’s development and for broader security and stability throughout the region.

Finally, let me reiterate a point that U.S. policymakers have made for many years: Afghanistan’s security is our security. This is true not just for the United States, but for our Allies and Partners and more broadly. We all have a stake in Afghanistan’s continued security and development. These are the necessary conditions for a successful peace process and a stable Afghanistan.

Thank you for your attention today.

Let me also thank our gracious hosts at the Atlantic Council. It has been an honor to discuss with you today our goals for Afghanistan.