America’s challenge in Afghanistan, Pakistan

IGNATIUS PROGRAM: Author Rory Stewart, Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Pakistani Ambassador Husain Haqqani take part in an Oct. 7 panel on Afghanistan/Pakistan, “America’s Challenge,” moderated by Adi Ignatius.

[Washington Window] A panel of experts gathered at Washington National Cathedral on Oct. 7 to discuss the political situation in Afghanistan and Pakistan and offer their thoughts on a way forward.

“These are vexing issues that defy easy solutions,” said Adi Ignatius, editor of the Harvard Business Review, who moderated the second Ignatius Forum in honor of his parents, Paul and Nancy, whose foundation provided the funding.

In a wide-ranging talk, Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), Pakistani Ambassador Husain Haqqani and author Rory Stewart shared their hopes and concerns for the region. “The U.S. and its allies have been in Afghanistan for exactly eight years,” Ignatius began. “What exactly are our objectives and how can we best achieve them?”

Haqqani suggested that the U.S. first ask itself what it wants to accomplish. “Everyone’s asking, ‘What should we do in Afghanistan?’ rather than ‘How the heck did we get here?'” he said, suggesting that Americans look back
at their own history with that country. “So now the Americans have a question to ask: ‘How do we bring stability to Afghanistan so that Afghanistan does not become a failed state?'”

The U.S., he said, should focus on supporting this country at the crossroads of Asia by helping it build a government that is functional with a military that can control most of the country.

But the problem is, he said, that Americans have a history of walking away.

“You walked away from Afghanistan and Pakistan in 1979 and the consequence was 9/11,” he said. “You walk away again and I really don’t know what the consequence will be.”

The U.S. needs to make a long-term commitment to helping the region deal with its social issues, which include, in Pakistan, a population that is 50 percent illiterate and therefore an ideal recruitment ground for extremists, he said.

Stewart, who wrote The Places In Between, which chronicles his walk across Afghanistan and is now engaged in charitable work in the country, added to Haqqani’s opening question.

“In addition to ‘What is it you want to do?'” he said, “There’s a prior question; ‘Can you do it?'”

“Twenty or 30 years investment in Afghanistan, if we were lucky, would bring Afghanistan roughly to the state of Pakistan,” he said. “And yet, of course, Pakistan is still not an entirely stable state.”

Afghanistan, he said, “is starting from a very low base.” Illiteracy stands at 40 percent, and “the Afghani police is effective in its own way but it is not what we would recognize as police.”

The U.S. should take a “dignified and honored” position of “passionate moderation:” working against terrorism and for women’s rights and striving for regional stability, he said. “But it will be a long process.”

“Our goal in Afghanistan should be to be moderate, to be light and to be long-term,’ he said, adding that “this is a difficult argument to make. Everyone is in favor of sending more troops or withdrawal.”

Kerry described both speakers as “on point” and praised President Barack Obama’s decision to “step back and take a look at the underlying assumptions.”

“I remember the consequences when you don’t do that,” he said, explaining that the U.S. has to ask itself the same questions in Afghanistan as it did in Vietnam.

“The truth is, we helped put Osama Bin Laden in Afghanistan,” he said. “We actually walked away from the Soviet presence and left nothing there. And the fact is that if 9/11 had been plotted in Sudan, we wouldn’t be in Afghanistan at all.

“We have an obligation as policymakers who are sending young men and women into harm’s way to ask a lot of questions,” he said. “Why is it important for America to be there and do what we’re doing today?”
Training and enforcing governance and keeping Al-Qaeda out of Afghanistan are “a legitimate set of goals if done properly,” he said. “But you’ve got to calculate. Every 1,000 troops is $1 billion.”

“I think our obligation is to state the truth on both sides of the ledger,” he said: “You can’t just walk away from this,” but providing the 500,000-plus troops recommended by Gen. David H. Petraeus, head of U.S. Central
Command, is not realistic either.”Every single one of us knows we’re not going to do that.”

Still, he noted, progress is being made in Afghanistan. The number of children attending school has burgeoned, with girls making up more than half the school population, and 85 percent of the population has basic healthcare.

Asked what the Afghani people want most, Stewart said it was security – to live without fear of car-jackings and go to court without having to pay a bribe.

Asked what America’s “moral obligation” was, Kerry replied that it was “to not put [Afghanis] in harm’s way for a rationale we can’t back up.” The work is important and the stakes are high, Haqqani added: “What kind of relationship do you want with 1 billion Muslims in the world?”

“America’s challenge in Afghanistan, Pakistan” first appeared in Washington Window, Vol. 78, No. 8, Nov/Dec 2009