A cautious hope for the future of Afghanistan

Introduced at the Brookings Institution as a great champion of democracy and a critical figure in peacefully steering his nation through its first presidential transition, Chief Executive Officer of Afghanistan Abdullah Abdullah spoke both to the hard work already completed as well as to the incredible challenges that still lie ahead. Describing the need for Afghanistan’s leaders to “seize the moment,” he insisted on internal, domestic reforms that would lay the groundwork for regional prosperity.

Speaking two days after President Obama announced that the United States would keep nearly 10,000 troops in Afghanistan through 2015—twice as many as previously promised—Dr. Abdullah thanked America for the sacrifices it has made in his country and voiced his hopes for a strengthened U.S.-Afghanistan partnership. He acknowledged that the resurgent and transformed friendship between the two countries has catalyzed discussions beyond security, to include political rights, education, health, and economic growth.

Dr. Abdullah praised Afghanistan’s leaders for forming a unity government with President Ashraf Ghani after a contentious election and for concluding a Bilateral Security Agreement with the United States, both of which fundamentally protected the safety and interests of the Afghan people. These actions also set the stage for rebuilding mutual trust with partner nations, promoting regional stability, and assuring future self-reliance.

Most importantly, Dr. Abdullah praised the work of American, NATO, and more recently Afghan National Security Forces, who will ultimately keep Afghanistan from returning to oppressive Taliban rule. He invoked the millions of people thriving and prospering across Afghanistan—particularly women and children—who benefit from protections and services that would be unavailable if not for their efforts. Society as a whole is benefitting from increased education, rule of law, and respect for human rights and the Constitution.

But daunting challenges remain ahead, he explained. Overall, Dr. Abdullah admitted that the unity government has not performed particularly well and will continue to pursue increased competency and efficiency. Efforts to connect with neighboring countries need to move forward unimpeded: Pakistan, India, and China are critical security and economic partners. The government will still seek contacts with the Taliban to jump-start peace negotiations. And despite ongoing Taliban and other terrorist attacks, Afghanistan aspires to train and equip professional national security forces who can thwart future threats.

Following Dr. Abdullah’s prepared remarks, Bruce Riedel, senior fellow and director of The Brookings Intelligence Project, asked specifically about the worrisome security environment that persists in Afghanistan and the security forces’ ability to confront them. In response, Dr. Abdullah stressed the need to support Afghans with enablers—air support, evacuation, transport, intelligence and reconnaissance—but speed the transition of these capabilities to local forces. He praised the flexibility afforded by President Obama’s recent troop decision and the need to remain adaptable in the future, alluding to the possibility that American troops could remain beyond 2016.

They also addressed the potential for changed relations with the Taliban and their oft-cited sponsor Pakistan. Surprisingly, Dr. Abdullah referenced the need to include women in negotiations with the Taliban. Although this would be a hard pill for the Taliban to swallow, Dr. Abdullah reiterated that reconciliation will take hard compromises on both sides, but Afghanistan will not reverse the hard won rights its citizens have earned. Dr. Abdullah also noted how Taliban attacks on Pakistani government, military, and civilian targets have stirred intermittent military reaction and that Washington is playing a role in smoothing over policy differences. While further cooperation is welcomed, he suggested that it is not necessarily in the cards given sustained investment from India for infrastructure and especially friendly relations with Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Maintaining a positive tone throughout the session, Dr. Abdullah delivered an upbeat assessment of Afghanistan’s future security, economy, and society. He readily acknowledged current failures and future challenges but wholeheartedly welcomed the enduring U.S.-Afghan partnership as an essential component of success. Recognizing that sacrifices in blood and treasure must continue to be made in Afghanistan, Dr. Abdullah described a strategy for reconciliation and prosperity: regional interdependence, robust security arrangements, and self-sufficiency. In a region much maligned for its complex ills, Dr. Abdullah holds out hope for peace, and his countrymen’s determination to see those hopes fulfilled should not be underestimated.