Syracuse University Maxwell School Orange Central Lecture

“Afghanistan, Violent Islamic Extremism, and America”

September 16, 2016

Ambassador James B. Cunningham, ’74 BA (PSc/Psych)

Americans and the whole of what one might call “the civilized world,” are in a uniquely complicated time and historical space.  Change is rapid and the pace of change is accelerating in ways that we find hard to imagine and even harder to respond to.  Threats to our security, traditional and new, are proliferating even as we have imagined that the 21st century should be one of peace and prosperity.  The United States is uniquely powerful and influential around the world – notwithstanding all the problems Americans face internally and externally.  But we are not doing a very good job of understanding the challenges we face – nor of having the kind of serious public discussion about how to respond, that will be necessary to deal with them effectively and over time.

Almost all of these challenges require American leadership and commitment if they are to be addressed in meaningful fashion.  That is the genuine core of our power and influence around the world, and of the ability of our government to protect the security of the American people and to advance their interests.  Whether we like it or not, the United States remains the partner of choice for most countries in the world, and there will be better outcomes for our country and people when the United States is engaged. 

The threats to our security today are multiple, often new and increasingly asymmetrical – that is, relatively unsophisticated acts or a few actors can do great damage.  There are now prospects for new state to state confrontation as well.  Neither we nor our partners are well prepared to deal with them in a coherent, sustained fashion. 

Among these threats, we are challenged to defend ourselves from the extreme Islamist terrorism that threatens our citizens, values and way of life, while helping to develop and implement a long term strategy for draining the life from the distorted ideology that animates ISIS, al-Qaeda, and others.  An assertive Russia is challenging the post-Cold War framework and relationships – which I am proud to say I helped create – that had been intended to achieve at long last a whole European space of freedom and stability.  Violence and conflict in the Middle East and beyond have led to traumatic human suffering and pose both immediate and long term threats, including from a tidal wave of migration.  Europe is struggling to deal with new challenges to its unity, identity and capabilities, a struggle which engages core American interests as well.  In Asia, the rise of China and risk posed by a nuclear North Korea present new and difficult questions. The list goes on.   

Some observers have called this era a time of turbulence in the international arena without precedent.  But whether or not this is a unique period, the world as we know it today is certainly extraordinarily difficult and complex.  As we have seen in the debate over globalization, forces at work in the world affect our lives in ways hard to foresee or analyze.  Our next president, and the American people and our many international partners have a complicated security agenda to address.  Of these issues, one of the most vexing and difficult is the threat from violent Islamic extremism and the terrorism it engenders.  This is not a threat from Islam itself, but from a distorted ideology that, it is important to recall, is rejected by the vast majority of Muslims around the world.  Most of its victims have been people of the Islamic faith, not Americans or others in what we might call the “civilized world”, the world of values to which most people, including Muslims, around the globe aspire.  This ideology is so dangerous precisely because it disdains those values, and its violence strikes at them and the everyday lives of its targets.  While this ideology is not an existential threat to America, it is an existential threat to our way of life.  As we have seen, it is deadly, durable, adaptable, and it exploits weakness and division.  It will, unfortunately, be a threat to us for some time to come. 

It is terribly important to keep today’s challenges of terrorism in context, and to remind ourselves of the generational effort that is required to counter them.  Last Sunday was the 15th anniversary of 9/11.  I was the acting U.S. Representative to the UN that day, and saw first-hand the havoc of the tragedy in New York.  When I assembled my staff the next day, I predicted that what had happened would change the world in fundamental ways, and that the work of protecting the American people and American interests had just been pushed into a new, unknowable realm.  The response to the ideology that launched the attacks on 9/11 is still unfolding, and the ideology itself is evolving and appearing in different forms, in multiple venues that now reach from Asia to Africa.

Collectively, we and the international community as a whole still lack sufficient understanding of this threat, and how it relates to multiple conflicts, whether state against state or between competing ideologies and religions.  But we are learning enough to be able to see that this ideology cannot be “defeated” as such.  We will defeat ISIS, I have no doubt about that.  But ISIS is not the fundamental problem, horrific as it is.  It is a particular expression of the ideology that animates it, Al Qaeda and others around the world.  The task before the world community is to contain and defeat that ideology.

The good news is there is widespread understanding of, and agreement on, that proposition in capitals around the world.  We have many partners in the battle against terror, even in places where American relationships are troubled.  The bad news is, the effort has not been effective enough and we collectively can and must do better, including by engaging our publics frankly on the nature of the threat, what is needed to address it, and what is at risk if we don’t.     

We do know how difficult it is to defeat an ideology and to drain it of relevance.  One cannot conquer an ideology by military means, nor are there short term solutions, no silver bullet.  Americans like to solve problems, preferably in the short term, and to move on.  We don’t like long term commitments and even less so, long term conflict.  That is perfectly understandable.  But after 15 years, it should be clear that approach won’t work here.  We cannot “solve” Afghanistan, or Syria, or attacks on US, French or Turkish citizens and move on.  Defeating violent Islamic extremism will require time, determination, and very importantly, coalitions and Islamic partners.  This is not a struggle that the United States can win by itself.  And in the end, because the enemy is exploiting a twisted version of religion, the solution must be found in the Islamic world itself.

This war will not be won by military means, although that will remain a vital instrument.  We require a sustained, multilateral and multifaceted strategy aimed at the ideology itself.  

This is the larger context in which one must view our long engagement in Afghanistan, where I spent the last three and half years of my diplomatic career.  It is no surprise that polls show that the majority of Americans doubt whether continued commitment to Afghanistan is worthwhile.  Observers have taken to calling Afghanistan “America’s longest war”, often with the implication that it should somehow end.  But as we have seen in Iraq, much depends on how the exit of US forces is managed.  Premature withdrawal there led to almost disastrous consequences.  In Afghanistan, we planned, quite correctly, to transfer security responsibility to the Afghans and to shift the US military role to a train, advise and assist mission, and a counter terrorism mission.  That has been accomplished, even if the continued support of the US and our partners, albeit at much reduced levels, is essential to the prospects for Afghan success. 

Fatigue over Afghanistan is more than understandable, but is not the basis for good policy that protects our interests in a place where we have sacrificed much and have much at stake.  We and our many international partners in Afghanistan, including NATO, the UN and the EU, have established a great coalition precisely because of the shared conviction that Afghanistan remains a vital interest.  Our goal from the outset has been to prevent, and to help the Afghans themselves prevent, Afghanistan from again becoming a platform for those who threaten us and to make it an element for stability in an important region. 

Despite all the challenges and difficulties, we have had considerable success and, with continued U.S. and international support, we have a strategy that can enable the Afghans to prevail.     The United States and its partners, and most particularly our publics, must recognize that the threat to our security that emanates from Afghanistan is one element of the long term threat that much of the world faces from violence rooted in Islamic extremism. In Afghanistan, we have a willing Islamic partner that wants to contribute to security.  Its leaders understand the threat from violent Islamic extremism.  Afghanistan must remain a key part of the network of counterterrorism partnerships that the world requires and which needs to be strengthened. 

There is substantial bipartisan agreement among an array of former leaders of both Republican and Democratic administrations, members of the US Congress, and policy experts, on the case for sustained US commitment to Afghanistan and an enduring US-Afghan partnership. I hope that agreement such support will extend to the next administration as well.  If it does not, I am fairly confident that our next President will have an Afghanistan crisis on his or her desk soon after entering the Oval Office.

President Obama’s October 2015  decision not to complete the withdrawal of US forces by the end of 2016 as planned provided for the first time clarity that there will be a significant US military role in Afghanistan into the next administration, without time limit. His decision this year to leave further reductions to his successor was a further vital indicator of US commitment to Afghanistan’s security and success, and was supported by our coalition partners, who maintained their own commitments.  The political task now is to leverage that clarity to provide Afghans confidence that they can succeed, and to demonstrate to the Taliban that they cannot. This will in turn promote peace and stability in the region. It must be clear that there will not be space in Afghanistan for al Qaeda and ISIS to flourish, nor place for the Taliban absent a political settlement.   As Obama stated, “the only real way to achieve the full drawdown of US and foreign troops from Afghanistan is through a lasting political settlement.” 

US and international military support for the coming years was reaffirmed at the NATO Summit in Warsaw this summer, and there will be a complementary affirmation by the international community of extended development assistance in several weeks.  But this support has not been, and will not be, unconditional.  While it has struggled, the Afghan government needs to produce a steady pace of achievements in security, reform, governance and economic advancement.  There is progress, albeit slow.  The challenges Afghanistan faces would be daunting even for a country at peace that is used to coalition politics. Nevertheless, Afghanistan’s political class should understand that they need to act in the interest of their country and must not squander the support on offer.  

Afghanistan is one of the poorest countries in the world.  The Afghan people have suffered from decades of terrible conflict.  But notwithstanding all the negative press, Afghanistan is not a failed state.  Considerable progress has been made since the ouster of the Taliban.  The security situation is very difficult, after the withdrawal by the US and its coalition partners of some 125,000 of the world’s best soldiers over the past five years.  But Afghan security forces are in the lead, fighting and dying for their country and for the most part holding their own as they become steadily more capable.  Life expectancy has increased by at least 10 years; infant mortality has been cut at least in half.  More than eight million children and young adults are in school, many in higher education and crucially, more than a third of them are women.  As the attack of the American University of Afghanistan reminds us, education of the exceedingly young population is critical to the future of Afghanistan. While it is a terribly difficult road, important progress has been made in recognizing womens’ rights.  There is a free and dynamic media environment, with TV, radio and newspapers and the internet.  Afghanistan’s political class and the government of President Ghani are struggling, as expected after a hotly disputed election.  But the fact that millions of Afghan men and women voted in two rounds of presidential elections in 2014, despite Taliban threats against them, was an impressive exercise in democracy.  More than 18 million cell phones link the country as never before in its history.  The cities still bustle and the majority of markets, schools and health clinics are open.

Let us not lose sight of Afghanistan as we did after the Soviets left.  Succumbing to fatigue will lead to failure of the better future Afghans are working for, deal a serious blow to the war on terror, and ultimately increase the danger to our own people as Afghan failure feeds the strength of the extremists.  Our efforts in Afghanistan are part and parcel of the efforts of the United States to help develop and implement a strategy to defend our people and values, while draining the life from the perverted version of Islam that animates Daesh, al Qaeda, the Taliban, and others.  Afghanistan is one part of the campaign since 9/11 to prevail over violent Islamic extremism.  That campaign must be sustained, akin to the sustained and ultimately successful efforts during the Cold War to defeat communism.  We can and should get smarter at it, and learn lessons from what has been achieved and lost thus far.  While the defeat of radical Islam can ultimately only come from within the Islamic world itself, US commitment and leadership will be critical. We don’t have great choices, but we should recognize where the wrong ones will lead. Afghanistan’s success is part of a larger struggle that the civilized world, including more than 1.5 billion peace-loving Muslims, must win.