October 17, 2011
“If one reads nothing but the headlines, it is easy to be pessimistic about Afghanistan,” Ambassador Richard Olson ’81, P’14, told an Institute audience earlier this month.
“The challenges we face are real: in the security arena, in economic transition, and in reconciliation,” said Olson, who has been the coordinating director for development and economic affairs at the US Embassy in Kabul since June 2011. “But at the same time, there has been a substantial improvement in the lives of Afghans over the past decade.”
Olson spoke at the Institute exactly one week after the 10th anniversary of US military engagement in Afghanistan. In his lecture, “The United States and Afghanistan: Ten Years On from 9/11,” Olson discussed the combined achievements of Americans and Afghan in the region.
“What have we, Afghans and Americans, accomplished in the last ten years?” he asked the audience.
“On the military side, we have significantly weakened Al-Qaeda’s core leadership, removing not just Osama bin Laden, but also other key leaders of the terrorist organization,” Olson said. “We have reversed the Taliban’s momentum and denied Afghanistan as a safe haven for terrorist organizations.”
He added that Afghan security forces are “increasingly taking the lead on Afghan security operations” and that the “goal is for Afghan forces to assume lead responsibility throughout the country by the end of 2014.”
But Olson said a transfer to Afghan security leadership “does not mean the end of international engagement.”
“We know the cost of walking away from Afghanistan,” he said.
Quoting former US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, Olson said, “One of the lessons that I think we have is that if we abandon these countries, once we are in there and engaged, there is a very real possibility that we pay a higher price in the end.”
Olson pointed to the “lost decade” of the 1990s, when the US was disengaged from Afghanistan, saying during that time the area’s opium production skyrocketed and the region was ruled by Al-Qaeda.
He said the US response to 9/11 was “not just military, but also political and diplomatic,” adding, “We and other members of the international community reengaged with the Afghan political process.”
“The US has provided more economic assistance to Afghanistan than to any other country,” Olson said, adding, “After ten years and more than $21 billion dollars in assistance, we have achieved some real successes.”
Olson said the achievements have “been significant,” saying more Afghan citizens received direct government services, including education, health care, power, and water in the last decade than “any time in recent memory.”
He catalogued such achievements, saying US involvement in the region has contributed to a 22 percent drop in infant deaths and a 52 percent increase in access to basic health services. Olson said 7 million children in Afghanistan are now in primary and secondary school, compared to 1 million children under the Taliban.
Olson discussed developments in infrastructure and telecommunications, saying economic growth in Afghanistan has averaged 10 percent since 2002.
As Olson concluded his talk, he said: “In times of economic challenges at home, and newer opportunities and challenges abroad, it is tempting to think that we have not accomplished much in Afghanistan, and to succumb to the urge to cut our losses.”
But Olson said such thinking is “analytically wrong” because “we have some substantial successes to point to.”
“The object lesson for the United States for the past 30 years of Afghan history is that our disengagement has led to disaster,” Olson said. “We ignore the lesson at our peril.”
By Watson Institute Student Rapporteur Lauren Fedor ‘12