The murder last weekend in Afghanistan of the young American diplomat, Anne Smedinghoff, was a tragic reminder of all we have lost in the Afghan war. She died at 25 and, like her many courageous Foreign Service and military colleagues, had volunteered to help the Afghan people survive decades of fighting.
We’ve been in Afghanistan, our longest war, for 11½ years. We invaded in early October 2001, not even a month after the attacks of 9/11, to strike back at Osama bin Laden. We went in for the right reasons but never imagined we would stay this long.
So, how and when will this complex, bloody, and seemingly endless war come to a close? That was the question we asked Afghan and American officials, journalists, students, and professors at a recent Harvard University conference I helped to organize. Nearly all assembled acknowledged the simple truth that we can’t win the war on the battlefield. Instead, I concluded from the conference, we will have to make the transition in Afghanistan that we ultimately made in Vietnam — to seek an eventual ceasefire and negotiated solution between the Afghan government and the Taliban. It is how most wars end — at the negotiating table.
For all of its many problems, Afghanistan is actually a much healthier and productive country than when we invaded. Life expectancy has increased from 42 in 2001 to over 60 in 2013. In 2001, only 900,000 children were in school, almost all boys. Today, over nine million kids go to school. Nearly 40 percent are young girls. There are new roads, bridges, and dams, plus greatly expanded cell phone use. Afghan leaders dream of a new Silk Road of trade with neighbors in South and Central Asia.
All this may be at risk in the critical year 2014, however, when the bulk of US and NATO military forces depart, President Karzai is succeeded by a new leader, and billions in international assistance dries up. There are even more ominous questions for Afghans to ponder. Will the Taliban, weakened but not defeated by US forces, seek to overthrow the government and re-impose its barbaric beliefs? Will powerful Pakistan be a force for good or, as is more likely, division and bloodshed?
The United States will thus have some big decisions to make in the coming months. The Obama administration is considering a new strategy built around a vastly reduced US military presence after 2014 to contain Al Qaeda and train the Afghan army. This transition to a diplomatic strategy will emphasize economic aid and the start of negotiations between the Kabul government and the Taliban leadership. Washington would be well advised to seek greater political and financial support from Afghanistan’s powerful neighbors — Russia, China, India, and Iran.
If we left lock, stock, and barrel as we did in Iraq, the weak and corrupt Afghan government would very likely fold like a house of cards. But this new strategy at least gives ordinary Afghans a chance to move forward. And a continued American presence might be the only way to convince the Taliban that it can’t win a military victory and should turn to negotiations and compromise instead.
One of the most challenging decisions a president can face is how to find the road to peace after a difficult war. Americans are understandably weary from our many international burdens. Congressional leaders could very well rush to the exits and refuse to fund the new Obama strategy. But they might remember Colin Powell’s Pottery Barn rule of international politics — “If you break it, you own it.”
We’ve owned Afghanistan for over a decade and have a basic responsibility, moral as well as political, to stay involved as the majority of Afghans wish. If we leave, we’ll do so with the job half finished and cast the fate of the Afghan people to the winds. But if we stay in this more limited role, we will at least give them a chance to survive their nightmare of war. This will be a big choice and tell us a lot about how Americans see our role in the complex world we still lead.
Nicholas Burns is a professor of the practice of diplomacy and international politics at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. Follow him on Twitter @rnicholasburns.