KABUL – As Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel arrives in Afghanistan to take a look at America’s longest war, he will hear U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan James Cunningham’s unvarnished assessment: “I think we’re doing pretty well.”
“We have big challenges to meet, with security and economic development and governance,” Cunningham said in an interview ahead of Hagel's visit. “But the good news is we're making progress and the Afghans are making progress."
In typical diplomatic fashion, Cunningham spoke carefully about some of those “big challenges.” He conceded that explosions of violence, especially so-called “green on green attacks” (incidents where Afghans attack Afghans working with NATO forces) and “green on blue attacks” (when Afghan security forces attack their U.S. or NATO counterparts) continue unabated.
Just last week, in a two-day period, three suicide attacks killed 30 local and Afghan customs police. And one local police commander said that in the past two weeks his unit had foiled two more suicide attacks and that he had arrested 76 of his own men for a range of serious violations.
But Cunningham emphasized that in many parts of the country, people go about their daily lives without the threat of violence hanging over them every minute. "The vast majority of Afghans are not impacted by security,” Cunningham insisted. “There are many more people dying from violence in Mexico, in Central America, in Congo and any number of places you could name."
But the lifelong Foreign Service diplomat conceded that no wars are ever resolved without a political solution – and in this war that means negotiating with the Taliban. So far, although self-described representatives of Taliban leadership have set up an office in Doha, Qatar, there's been no suggestion that after 11 years of war they are ready to negotiate.
Chuck Hagel arrived in Afghanistan for his first trip abroad as U.S. defense secretary. On the flight over he told the press that he was traveling there to better understand "where we are in Afghanistan."
"I can't pass judgment on what the prospects [for negotiations] are," Cunningham said. "That's really up to the Taliban and they have decisions to make about what their view of their role in the future of Afghanistan is going to be."
"One of those options is to engage in a peace process with the Afghan government. Another option is to continue what they've been doing…using violence and terrorism to try to reassert themselves. And our intent with the Afghans is to make it clear to them that that's not going to work.”
And what will his response be if Hagel asks the questions many war-weary Americans are asking: Are we done yet? Did we get what we wanted? Is the result one we can live with? Will it end in civil war after all that's been sacrificed?
"We're not going to be able to write 'closed' to this," Cunningham said. “And say, 'OK, we're done in Afghanistan.' Those books can't be closed; they can be diminished…they can be better controlled."
He mentioned variables that can't be predicted. The impact of the upcoming presidential election in a post-Karzai period, the stranglehold on the already-weak economy imposed by epic corruption, the still thriving drug trade that supplies nearly half the world's opiates, or the sputtering progress toward full equality for women under law and custom.
His bottom line, though, and one he will communicate to the new defense secretary: America's role as initiator and a continuing major stakeholder in this 11-year enterprise was both justified, and worth it.
"I would say what we've done here is worth it," Cunningham said. "Because I firmly believe the United States and our partners around the world are more secure and safer because of what we've done here.”
"But we also can't afford to say, 'Sorry, we're finished, and we're out.'"