By Michael O’Hanlon, Special to CNN
Michael O’Hanlon is senior fellow at Brookings and author of The Wounded Giant: America’s Armed Forces in an Age of Austerity. The views expressed are his own.
A few weeks ago, Ryan Crocker visited Washington after completing his year-long tour as U.S. ambassador in Afghanistan, as well as a storied 38-year career in the Foreign Service during which he also served as ambassador to Iraq, Kuwait, Syria, Lebanon, and Pakistan. While Washington was caught up in everything from the Benghazi attacks to the presidential race to Congress’s brief visit to town before adjourning again to campaign, Crocker’s visit – and the subject of Afghanistan in particular – got relatively little notice.
That is regrettable. Crocker’s speech at the Carnegie Endowment on September 17, covered by CSPAN, and his public conversation with us at Brookings on September 18 were hugely informative and important. For those despondent about this war effort, they were moderately encouraging as well. There was, as usual, no naive optimism in Crocker’s remarks, no promise of an easy and quick win. Known affectionately if somewhat sardonically as “Mr. Sunshine,” a nickname first given him by President Bush, Crocker is famous for hard-hitting and extremely realistic assessments of the challenges facing America abroad. Those lucky enough to visit Iraq during the surge often remember a beaming Dave Petraeus standing beside a grim-faced Crocker, two very different personalities leading America’s greatest military turnaround since Inchon. So any hopeful words from Crocker merit particular attention.
And there were many, in fact. Crocker began by noting the enormous progress that Afghanistan has made since 2002, when Crocker did his first tour there as head of mission shortly after the overthrow of the Taliban. As he put it:
“You know, as we kind of gauge where we are in Afghanistan, we’ve got to do what we don’t do terribly well, which is take some perspective on it. I won’t take you back to Amanullah Khan and the 1920s, but I will take you back to my own experience, which was arriving in Afghanistan about 10 days after President Karzai got there from Bonn, the day after New Year’s 2002, and what it looked like then. And I’ve seen a lot of bad places, like Lebanon during the civil war – and this was worse. It was total, absolute, utter devastation. Driving in from Bagram, nothing but mud fields and destroyed houses. You dare not stray from what was left of the pavement of the road because of the minefields on both sides uncleared…No electricity, no water, no security forces, a completely dead economy, no nothing.
“So if the end of ’01/beginning of ’02 is your starting point, Afghanistan is looking beyond pretty good. If you were out there in May, you know, Kabul is a major South Asian metropolis: huge traffic snarls, commercial activity, sidewalks thronged, stores open, you know, 8 plus million kids in school, life expectancy vastly increased, close to 350,000 security forces in training or deployed. You know, the progress is extraordinary.”
Then there is the matter of those Afghan security forces. Hampered by illiteracy and corruption and ethnic tension, they are now also infamous in the United States for the insider attacks that have killed more than 50 NATO troops this year alone. Crocker hardly trivialized these problems. But he also provided vivid illustrations of how much those forces have grown and improved.
“The fact is in basically a period of just a little over three years, because we only really got serious, as you know, about sustained, large-scale training ’08/’09, well, what that has produced in a fairly short time is quite extraordinary. We have Afghan units leading in almost 50 percent of operations, and many of these are unpartnered. When we had the Koran incident out at Bagram, we went through a period of a couple of weeks in which we simply – “we,” the International Security Assistance Force – could not be in the field. We would just be gasoline on the fire. So Afghan forces had to deal with the protests on their own. They were not trained for it. They were not equipped for it, for riot control. They behaved very credibly and I think the surge bought the time for that training program to produce those kinds of results.”
Crocker also spoke of Afghanistan’s upcoming presidential race. While hardly predicting the imminent victory of an Afghan George Washington or Thomas Jefferson, he had some encouraging things to say on this subject too: “Politically, 2014 elections, everybody’s talking to everybody. Everybody is maneuvering. It kind of looks like American primaries. That’s not a bad thing...I think President Karzai is committed to leaving office in 2014, which obviously – and these are his own words – it’s essential for the legitimacy of the democratic process that in 2014 you have a president who is not named Karzai. He is thinking, again, very long term; he’s thinking of legacy. And I think, again, that has him focusing on not just an outcome, but a process that institutionally strengthens Afghanistan.”
Perhaps best of all was Crocker's assessment of Afghanistan’s people. Normally in Western debates, we emphasize how shallow this talent pool has become after 30 years of warfare as well as rampant corruption in Kabul today. Alas those harsh realities cannot be ignored. But consider again Crocker’s words:
“In terms of human talent, you know, I was surprised to find at least as great and very possibly greater depth and breadth of talent in Afghanistan than I did in Iraq. Some extremely capable ministers, very capable deputies underneath them, you know, wrestling with some of the most volatile and changeable politics you can imagine, more so than Iraq. You’ve met many of them in finance, in mining, in health, in education. I mean, these are people who, you know, could run just about anybody’s ministry.
“Then there’s that…new element. It’s the 20-somethings, the early 30-somethings; it’s the women, the immediate post-university generation and their younger brothers and sisters, and their older brothers and sisters to an extent. In other words, those who came of age in perhaps a volatile and dangerous, but, nonetheless, free and open Afghanistan with access to the Internet, with access to a plethora of television, radio stations, newspapers, and so forth, boy, they ain’t their daddies and mommies. And can be, as you’ve heard yourself, blistering on the subject of their daddies and mommies. They see a new Afghanistan. And I think one of our major obligations as an international community is to buy them the time to really make a difference in politics.”
Of course, to paraphrase Crocker from another time period, all of this is hard, and it’s hard every day. To underscore the difficulty of moving beyond the burdens of recent history, not only within Afghanistan but Pakistan as well, Crocker also quoted Faulkner – the past is never dead, in fact it’s not even past.” But for a country where America has invested so much, and still has such high stakes, Crocker’s restrained but still reassuring words should carry great weight in our future policy choices.