When I was invited to go to Afghanistan a few weeks back, what came immediately to mind were scrambling images of a war-torn country that had seen many decades of war and foreign interference, the horrors of 9/11 and Bin Laden, the Taliban insurgents, the plight of women under Sharia law, and our own drawn out involvement there for the past 13 years. Just the same things that likely come to mind for all of us at a moment's notice.
Afghanistan was also inextricably linked in my mind with the war in Iraq, a war that I never supported in a country that seemed to be falling apart with sectarian battles despite everything that had transpired since Saddam Hussein's fall from power. Both wars have come at huge costs, both financial and human. I couldn't think of one without thinking of the other. A tangle of emotions followed.
But, at the same time, I was intrigued by the invitation to be part of a small Council on Foreign Relations group primarily charged with visiting military and political figures. I was cognizant that my knowledge of this country was limited to U.S. news coverage, films, and a few articles, and that going there to see firsthand what was happening today was a unique opportunity to formulate my own opinions. It suddenly seemed all too easy to criticize and expound on the war from a distance, from my own safe cocoon. And while the trip would be brief, the glimpse of what it might be like to be on the ground in this country was worth the risk so that I might be better informed. It was that simple.
Afghanistan had just held its first round of new presidential elections with what was considered considerable success. Would that recent election mean anything ultimately? Would I be able to see with my own eyes if the U.S. and its NATO partners had ultimately helped the Afghans reach a different paradigm? The U.S. had spent billions of dollars there in our fight on terror and against extremism, and was there anything to show for it? I just couldn't imagine what it was like to be in a country that has had constant fighting, whether in the form of occupation or insurgency. What did that do to its people, to its spirit? Are those same people who have only known war able to finally move forward? Did they want to? Do they care about initiatives on "democratization," "sustainable development," "a tolerant civil society"? Did the villagers who make up a large percent of Afghans want a centralized government with priorities that could be mutually contradictory? Why is Iran able today to pay Afghans to go fight in Syria? My mind was filled with questions as I headed to Kabul and a base in Kandahar as a guest of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF).
Afghanistan has had the misfortune to sit at an important geostratic location. It is situated next to Iran and Pakistan, touches India and China, and rests just south of Russia. This mountainous land-locked country has seen, since 1947, the U.S. and the Soviet Union trying to spread their influence, a chess game that neither side ever managed to win. That led in 1979 to a bloody war between the U.S.-backed mujahideen forces and the Soviet-backed Afghan government (over a million Afghans lost their lives), followed by a 1990s civil war, the rise and fall of the Taliban, and since 2001 the current war that has ISAF forces attempting to help the Afghanistan government rebuild and fight the Taliban-led insurgency. Today it is home to a population estimated at close to 32 million, mostly made up of Pashtuns, Tajiks, Hazaras and Uzbeks.
The two potential new presidential candidates are now in a run off that is scheduled to take place June 14. They are both currently building alliances. The frontrunner, Dr. Abdullah, who is both a Pashtun and a Tajik, has the support of Zalmai Rassoul and Gul Agha Sherzai, both influential Pashtuns who lost their bids in the first round. Dr. Abdullah is both a long-standing Afghan politician, having been Minister of Foreign Affairs from 2001 to 2005, and a doctor of medicine. Running against him is Dr. Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai, an ethnic Pashtun, who at one time worked at the World Bank, as well as for the UN, and then as Chancellor of Kabul University, as well as Finance Minister from 2002 to 2004. He has the backing of Ahmad Zia Massoud, an influential Tajik leader and former VP. Both leading candidates seem to be a welcome change from President Karzai and both claim that they will sign the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) if elected. But will either men have the opportunity to change the current playing field? Will voter turn out be different this next round now that the Taliban "season" (crazy way of describing renewal of fighting) is underway, a function of weather, and will Pakistan's consistent desire of supporting the insurgents to further instability continue?
That was the backdrop of events I walked into. And here was the surprise: The conversation at every level was both hopeful and fearful. I expected the later and never considered the former.
The Coalition's military leadership felt that they were seeing a frail evolution, but an evolution nonetheless, in the political world and an emergence of a new political consensus since the start of 2014. They were hopeful there would be a successful political transition with the vote. They were relatively bullish on Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) being able to handle most security issues and saw them taking on more accountability and responsibilities, with a growing sense of ownership for their country's future. That was the hopeful side of things.
Paradoxically, there was a real fear that the U.S. and its partners would not leave behind sufficient support financially, militarily and logistically to sustain that sense of renewal that was so fragile. Without the support of the international community, Afghanistan could rapidly suffer setbacks with the intensification of insecurity and threats. They pointed to what happened in Iraq where there was a rapid collapse post U.S. withdrawal. The Afghan citizens we spoke to -- as well as military personnel -- believed the same would happen in Afghanistan. They needed to be given enough time, they insisted, so that a transition to growth, sustainability and financial independence could take root. President Obama recently announced that he would leave 9,800 U.S. troops there at the end of 2014 with that number decreasing in 2015 and 2016. Will that give them a chance to stand on their own as they try to develop their basic economy? They are starting from almost nothing. That is strikingly clear when you are on the ground.
The irony of this trip for me was I thought I was going there to answer some questions. And, I did to a certain extent but the real result of this trip for me was to fully understand that there are nothing but questions and insecurity and fragile hints of hope to be found in Afghanistan.
How do you answer the key question of what chance does a country known for its corruption, its feudal system, and its geopolitical location stand in making its way into the future?
In fact, our Western habit of planning for the future is totally incomprehensible to people who don't know if they will still be alive the next day. Will that change with a new president? Security and a basic decent government can go a long way to how people view whether Afghanistan is moving in the right direction. There are nothing but more questions. Will the Taliban be a factor in that or not? Can new laws get drafted and a culture of impunity change? With corruption endemic, law and accountability need the political will and the new president might have the best opportunity in many years to start down a new path. So many unanswered questions and those don't even hint at the bigger issues of educating the population and creating jobs for the younger generation in a nation with a per capita GDP of $1,100. The country is rich in natural resources (copper, lithium, oil and gas and more) so there are ways to meet these challenges.
Is there a way forward that gives Afghanistan a chance? It is impossible to know for any of us looking in from the outside. I came away with more questions than I left the U.S. with but I did find one certainty: we take our freedoms here for granted. And so many of our decisions having to do with Afghanistan were made under pressure from constituents who want the focus of our treasure -- both in military and in dollars -- to be domestically focused.
But I now see more clearly that we have spent billions of dollars and lost so many lives in the battle against Al Qaeda and the Taliban all to leave the country with the most fragile of hopes -- that they can survive to move forward as a whole society that affords a future for its children.
No one wants our efforts to have been in vain, not our citizens nor those in this faraway land.
If we take the time to listen to those on the ground we can perhaps understand all better that this is going to take time and that there is indeed hope to be found.