With NATO’s 2014 withdrawal date from Afghanistan looming, the question of what’s next for Afghanistan and where the United States fits in is more important than ever. In his first public event since returning from Kabul, Ambassador Ryan Crocker delivered an address at Carnegie on the challenges and opportunities ahead in Afghanistan. Carnegie’s Ashley J. Tellis moderated.

Towards Genuine National Security

  • The Surge’s Importance: According to Crocker, Afghanistan has witnessed a dramatic increase in security since the 2009 surge of international forces into the country. He emphasized that, as the United States and its International Security Assistance Force partners prepare for the 2014 withdrawal, they must take care to do so judiciously and strategically.

  • A Role for Afghans: The Afghan National Security Forces are on their way to becoming a relatively established and capable guarantor of domestic security, Crocker asserted. Their abilities have been tested and proven in some of the Afghan conflict’s most trying moments, including in quelling the violence that erupted following U.S. forces’ inadvertent burning of Islamic religious materials in early 2012. Crocker added that the 1992 collapse of the Afghan government demonstrates the crucial importance of maintaining pay for Afghan soldiers and police.

Afghanistan’s Political Outlook

  • The 2014 Elections: Groups and coalitions from across Afghanistan are already vying for victory in 2014, Crocker said. While coalitions and political parties will likely form around personalities and ethnic groups, not issue-based agendas, the emergences of these fundamental political institutions is encouraging as well, he added.

  • Karzai’s Future: Crocker applauded Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s commitment to a stable, democratic transition. He expressed doubt that Karzai—who Crocker said is committed to an Afghanistan whose interests are not sectarian or ethnic but national—will seek to stay in office through constitutional changes or other means. At the very least, Crocker argued that Karzai understands that trying to retain influence in post-2014 Afghanistan could be futile at best and dangerous at worst.

  • What Role for the Taliban? There needs to be a political settlement with the Taliban, argued Crocker, but it must be delicately calibrated. To secure its legitimacy, such a settlement needs to be negotiated primarily by Afghans themselves and cannot be a product of American or Pakistani influence. Washington and Islamabad can and should assist only at the Afghan government’s request, working trilaterally to build the infrastructure for negotiations, Crocker concluded.

Continued American Interests

  • Regional Stability: A return to the Afghanistan of the 1990s could have disastrous consequences for the region and for the United States, said Crocker. Especially if the Taliban were to regain control of the country, it could again become a haven for al-Qaeda and other terrorist organizations. Continued engagement with Kabul, Crocker argued, is a small price to pay for denying these militant groups a base of operations from which to plan new attacks. 

  • Keeping Promises: “There’s a new spirit out there” among ordinary Afghans, said Crocker. While intangible, the high hopes and lofty aspirations of today’s Afghans—especially among youth and women—may be the most auspicious sign of Afghanistan’s future potential. Crocker called on Washington not to abandon the significant promises it has made to the people of Afghanistan.