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Why Afghanistan Matters

Fifteen years after 9/11 refocused American foreign policy — and the career of James Cunningham — the former ambassador says the collapse of Afghanistan remains an unacceptable option.

By Renée Gearhart Levy

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James Cunningham, speaking in Maxwell Auditorium

James Cunningham was sitting at his desk at the United Nations on September 11, 2001, when the first plane hit the World Trade Center. Cunningham, then the interim U.S. representative to the U.N., was on a conference call with Washington, D.C., when his secretary came in and turned the television on.

When he saw the second plane hit, everything stopped. “I knew this was no accident,” he says. “This was an attack.”

Cunningham had the building evacuated, but when he assembled his staff the next day, he told them that the work of protecting the American people had just been pushed into a new, unknowable realm. “I believed the world had changed in fundamental ways that would impact how the United States and the rest of the civilized world would be doing business for quite some time to come,” he recalls.

Portrait of Diplomacy
James Cunningham ’74 BA (PSc/Psych) was on campus in September to receive SU’s George Arents Award, recognizing this career:

NATO: Cunningham spent five years at NATO, two as chief of staff to Secretary General Manfred Woerner, advising on nuclear disarmament in Europe, the reunification of Germany, and the impending dissolution of the Warsaw Pact and the Soviet Union.

United Nations: Cunningham spent seven years at the U.N., first as deputy political counselor (1990-92). He returned in 1999 as deputy to Ambassador Richard Holbrooke. Later, when the confirmation of Holbrooke’s successor was delayed, Cunningham was interim ambassador for nine months.

Ambassador Posts: Cunningham was general consul to Hong Kong and Macau (2005-08). He served as ambassador to Israel from 2008 until 2011. He then went to Afghanistan, first as deputy ambassador, then as ambassador (until 2014).

Awards: He received multiple awards from the State Department, plus the National Performance Review’s Hammer Award for Innovation in Management, the President’s Meritorious Service Award (twice), and prestigious awards from the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations, the Secretary of Defense, and the Afghan President.

The events of 9/11 would shift not only the focus of U.S. foreign policy, but Cunningham’s professional life. A career diplomat, Cunningham, a 1974 Maxwell graduate with a BA in political science and a dual Syracuse University degree in psychology, previously had been focused mostly on security affairs and U.S. policy toward Europe. The 9/11 attacks changed everything, at first coalescing nations around America’s grief, but eventually straining those relationships in reaction to increasingly divisive U.S. strategies.

“The U.N. experience was really formative in terms of the second part of my career,” says Cunningham. “It was a very difficult time. We were dealing with the Iraq war, new counterterrorism issues, and many countries were very angry with the United States.”

Today, despite U.S. military intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan, acts of terrorism worldwide by Islamic extremist groups have increased. It is against that backdrop that Cunningham would eventually serve as ambassador to Israel (2008-11) and Afghanistan (2012-14). In those posts, as at the U.N., he has benefited from a unique perspective on Middle East issues.

In September, Cunningham visited Maxwell to share his views on extremist Islamic terrorism and Middle East politics. (He was on campus, as well, to receive the George Arents Award, Syracuse University’s highest alumni honor, which recognizes distinguished career success.) During a lecture in Maxwell Auditorium — which, he said, he had not visited since a constitutional law course as an undergraduate — Cunningham asserted that ISIS-style terrorism is borne of a distorted ideology, rejected by the vast majority of Muslims around the world. He said that extremist Islamic ideology is an existential threat to the way of life for all citizens of the civilized world.

And while he understands American fatigue with Afghanistan, he believes our support is more important now than ever to stabilize the country and help combat ISIS.

“Afghan failure would be disastrous for Afghanistan, dangerous for its neighbors, and a threat to the United States and much of the rest of the world,” he says. “An Afghanistan that is securing its own future and is an Islamic partner in defeating terror will increase the prospects for regional stability and contribute to international security.”

When James Cunningham arrived in Kabul as deputy ambassador in summer 2011, the U.S. military surge had been completed and was beginning to reverse from its peak of some 100,000 troops. The diplomatic goal was to help transition responsibility for security to the Afghans, and to help achieve the country’s first democratic transition in its presidency — at the same time preventing Taliban resurgence. Cunningham took the helm as ambassador in 2012. In 2014, the Afghan government assumed responsibility for its own security.

It was an enormous political, security, and economic transition. Cunningham says doubt about enduring U.S./NATO involvement during 2014 and 2015 had a destabilizing effect. He believes the decision to delay the complete withdrawal of U.S. forces (originally planned for the end of this year) was the right one, reinforcing our commitment to Afghanistan’s security and success. “Clarity about our intent induces confidence in our partners and hesitation among our adversaries,” he says.

“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,” says Cunningham. “The task before the world community is to contain and defeat that ideology.”

While “one cannot conquer an ideology by military means,” Cunningham believes continued U.S. intervention in Afghanistan is necessary to stabilize the country and help in the fight to defeat ISIS, two goals he believes will happen with continuing coalition assistance.

Cunningham says the next administration should plan strategies for a long-term partnership that secures Afghanistan as a crucial pillar of America’s global anti-terror campaign and as a needed contributor to stability in the region.

While the country is still one of the poorest in the world and faces many challenges, he says there is a side to Afghanistan not seen in news reports, a country with towns and villages with markets, schools, and hospitals that are all largely functioning. Successes include increased life expectancy and decreased infant mortality, a free and dynamic media environment, and a much improved communications system with more than 18 million cellular phones in use. Most important, perhaps, more than eight million young people are enrolled in school, more than a third of them women, and millions of Afghans voted in two rounds of presidential elections in 2014, despite Taliban threats against them.

“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,” Cunningham told his Maxwell audience. “That campaign must be sustained. . . . We can and should get smarter at it, and learn lessons from what has been achieved and lost thus far.”

"Afghan failure would be disastrous for Afghanistan, dangerous for its neighbors, and a threat to the United States and much of the rest of the world."

Cunningham’s entry into the foreign service occurred almost by accident — a story he shared with students during a career workshop before the Maxwell Auditorium address.

As an undergraduate studying political science, he felt a call to public service and planned to pursue that through law school. But a Syracuse University semester abroad in Amsterdam instilled a love for travel and living overseas. Back on campus, he happened upon a flier for the Foreign Service exam. “I suddenly realized you could get paid to live and work overseas,” he recalls.

James Cunningham On . . .
The Berlin Wall. “We had to turn a page in history and, at the same time, convince Gorbachev and Soviet leadership that NATO was not a threat, even with Germany inside it. We were successful.”

AIDS. “I’m proud of helping to put AIDS on the U.N. agenda, to really list this salient issue in the international community at a time when many countries were in complete denial.”

Jihadist Terrorism. “We will defeat ISIS, I have no doubt about that. But ISIS is not the fundamental problem, horrific as it is. ISIS 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.”

Although he passed the exam, he was told he was too inexperienced and to come back in a couple years. He decided to take a break before going to law school and headed to Washington to work.  He was in the process of re-applying to law school when, out of the blue, he got a call from the State Department asking him to join a new class of foreign service officers.

After early tours in Stockholm, Washington, Rome, and the U.S. Mission to NATO, he was appointed chief of staff to NATO Secretary General Manfred Woerner, managing an international staff of 1,200 and serving as advisor on an array of post-USSR issues: nuclear disarmament in Europe, the reunification of Germany, and the impending dissolution of the Warsaw Pact.

It was an important transition, and Cunningham regards his contributions as among his most meaningful in the Foreign Service. “We were convinced that, once the wall came down, Germany had to be reunified and it had to remain within NATO. But that was not a foregone conclusion,” he recalls. “We put a lot of work into figuring out the American approach and then how to convince the Soviets to accept it, which they were initially strongly opposed to. That was real diplomacy.”

Between 1990 and 1999, Cunningham served in a succession of posts mostly focused on Europe. He served as deputy permanent representative to the United Nations, 1999-2004, including a nine-month stint as interim ambassador. “Every issue that’s on the international agenda is being addressed in one form or another,” says Cunningham, “with all the complexity and drudgery and sometimes acrimony that exists in the international arena. It was a tremendous experience.”

Cunningham served as general counsel to Hong Kong and Macau from 2005 to 2008, where for the first time in many years he wasn’t working in a crisis environment. That would be short-lived.

He had been ambassador to Israel for only a few months when fighting erupted in Gaza and negotiations began to create a durable ceasefire. He is credited with forging productive relationships with senior Israeli and Washington officials, adding significant value to one of the United States’ most sensitive and central bilateral relationships. Then came his three and a half years in Afghanistan, which remains one of his personal interests.

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In 2013, while he was U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, James Cunningham (left) attended a meeting of U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry (center) and Afghanistan’s then-president, Hamid Karzai, at the Presidential Pal-ace in Kabul.

Cunningham retired from government service in December 2014 with the rank of career minister. He then joined the Atlantic Council, a major Washington foreign policy think tank, where he developed a new initiative on Afghanistan, Islamist extremism, and regional stability. He is currently a non-resident senior fellow at the Council.

In Afghanistan, America has a willing Islamic partner that wants to contribute to security. “Its leaders understand the threat from violent Islamic extremism,” says Cunningham.  “Afghanistan must remain a key part of the network of counterterrorism partnerships.”

Cunningham says Americans often forget they are part of a coalition of 50 nations working to stabilize Afghanistan. “Probably the largest international coalition that’s ever been assembled is trying to create conditions for the Afghans to be successful in controlling their own country and their own future,” he says.

“The struggle with Islamic extremism is not one 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.”            

RENÉE GEARHART LEVY is a freelance writer, specializing in higher education, based in Fayetteville, N.Y.

This article appeared in the fall 2016 print edition of Maxwell Perspective; © 2016 Maxwell School of Syracuse University. To request a copy, e-mail dlcooke@maxwell.syr.edu.