We arrived in Kabul in the summer of 2011 to assume the leadership of the American Embassy. The U.S. military surge had been completed and was beginning to reverse from its peak of some 100,000 troops. The U.S. civilian surge had peaked, with more than 1,200 American diplomats, civil servants and contractors throughout the country, working under difficult and dangerous conditions, to help the Afghan people rebuild their country.
We were tasked, along with our incredible military partners, to implement a strategy that would transition responsibility for security to Afghan hands — where it belongs — to create an international structure of military and development support based on U.S. leadership, to negotiate and implement a Strategic Partnership with Afghanistan, to help Afghans build the capacity to provide a better and more promising life, and to help Afghans achieve the first democratic political transition from one president to another in Afghanistan’s history. All of this while denying the terrorist Taliban insurgency, who enjoy safe haven in Pakistan, the ability to recoup its losses in Afghanistan and to threaten the government itself. Four years later, that strategy is bearing fruit and many of those goals have been achieved in whole or in part.
But there have also been serious setbacks and disappointments, and many challenges remain.
The U.S. active combat role has ended (indeed, it virtually ended two years ago), and the Afghan security forces are fighting against a determined enemy. Yes, they will continue to improve, but they need sustained U.S. and partner support. Meanwhile, President Ashraf Ghani’s national unity government, with Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah, is implementing its international and domestic agenda despite the predictable, extreme difficulty of making the needed political cooperation a reality. The new government is seeking stronger international ties, including with Pakistan, and it appears that it may have succeeded in opening new possibilities for a serious discussion with the Taliban about peace. Importantly, Ghani and Abdullah have made clear the commitment of Afghanistan to the U.S. relationship, including in combating terror and violent extremism.
None of this should suggest that we are underestimating the difficulties Afghanistan and its government are facing; they are daunting. The implications of discord among the Taliban after Mullah Omar’s death remain to be seen. And the barbaric bombings of recent days in Kabul, murdering mostly innocent civilians, are a stark reminder of Taliban brutality. But progress continues to be made, and the Afghan people have a unique, truly historic opportunity to seize this time and to build their future. And the reality is that they have not had, and will not have, a better one.
There is also an opportunity for the United States, one we must not miss after years of commitment and the sacrifice of our young men and women in pursuit of American security. An Afghanistan that is securing its own future and is an Islamic partner in defeating terror will increase the prospects for regional stability and contribute to international security — our security. This critical period will determine whether Afghanistan is a positive factor, or a dangerously negative one, in the struggle against terror that brought us to Afghanistan in the first place and which will engage us for years to come.
The United States has invested too much and has too much at stake to turn away now. Afghan failure would be disastrous for Afghanistan, dangerous for its neighbors, and a threat to the United States and much of the rest of the world.
Yet for Afghanistan to succeed, two things are needed: American strategic patience and support where it is needed, and continued and accelerated performance by the Afghan government on the ambitious reform agenda laid out by President Ghani during his visit to the United States together with Abdullah last March.
When we lead in Afghanistan, our international partners will follow. We believe it will be necessary, given security realities on the ground and the need for a continued U.S. counterterrorism mission in Afghanistan, to maintain U.S. military forces longer than currently planned. This is even clearer in light of recent events. Further reductions from today’s levels must be based on conditions and missions, rather than the calendar if the U.S. is not to run the very real risk of undercutting our own security by premature withdrawal of capabilities which are still needed for Afghan stability.
We trust the American people and government will have the foresight to view our engagement in Afghanistan as part and parcel of our global and enduring effort to combat terrorism and extremism, a fight we must win if America is to be safe.
James B. Cunningham is a senior fellow and the Khalilzad Chair at the Atlantic Council. Ryan C. Crocker is dean of the Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University. Both served as U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan. The views expressed are their own.