Successes and Challenges in Afghanistan and Pakistan

August 5, 2015

Dan Feldman
Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan
United States Institute of Peace
Washington, DC
August 5, 2015

Thanks Nancy. I’m delighted to be at USIP to give my valedictory address as the Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, or, as we term it, “SRAP.” I visited the region this past week to pay my farewell calls, and look forward to comparing notes here with Steve and Andrew given their own extremely recent travels, and appreciate their flexibility on the timing of this event. The relationship with USIP has been a special and even familial one, and a model for the way in which experts and policy makers can shape each other’s thinking in a collaborative manner. Thank you for that.

I started working on Afghanistan and Pakistan six years ago when Richard Holbrooke offered me a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity at the inception of the SRAP office to serve as his deputy, and ultimately became Special Representative myself a year ago. Now that I’m transitioning back to the private sector, I wanted to reflect on the successes that have been achieved while also acknowledging the many challenges that remain.

I was incredulous recently when in the midst of testifying to Congress, my deputy was asked derisively, “What has diplomacy actually achieved in Afghanistan?” That demonstrated for me the need to highlight the fragile but significant developments in the region that have been fostered and sustained due primarily to assiduous diplomatic efforts.

• It was diplomacy that facilitated and nurtured the Afghan effort to create a government of national unity;

• It was diplomacy that has put our bilateral relationship with Pakistan on firmer footing now than at any point in this Administration;

• It was diplomacy that opened an historic opportunity for Afghanistan and Pakistan to work together toward a common interest in peace;

• It was diplomacy that has supported Afghan determination to fundamentally change the role of women in society;

• It was diplomacy that secured the international political and financial support the Government and security forces of Afghanistan need;

• And it can only be through sustained diplomacy with the international community and especially the countries of the region that the opportunity for success in Afghanistan will be preserved.

These types of diplomatic openings don’t just spontaneously generate. I am extremely proud to have been a charter member of SRAP – this innovative and entrepreneurial team, created by the vision of Secretary Clinton and Ambassador Holbrooke, and sustained by Secretary Kerry’s own commitment to this office, this region, and to the power of diplomacy. Due to its achievements, I believe SRAP will serve as a whole-of-government prototype for how government can more nimbly respond to complex crises in the future. And every day, this dedicated team, many of whom are here today, has honored Richard Holbrooke’s memory by seeking to fulfill his definition of diplomacy — minimizing conflict, saving lives, and achieving results.


You all know the list of momentous achievements in Afghanistan: access to education, improving the role of women and girls, health and longevity, independent media, infrastructure, and GDP growth. Afghanistan is simply not the country it was when the Taliban ruled.

Political stability in Afghanistan is the lynchpin of Afghan security. Just one year ago, the prospects for stable leadership after the electoral impasse seemed remote, and the unpalatable options included an extension of President Karzai’s term and threats of a “parallel government.” After an Afghan request for his intervention, Secretary Kerry made two visits to Kabul last July and August, when he famously brokered the political compromise that resulted in the unity government. After achieving agreement on the parameters of that framework, I was left behind in Kabul to lead the mediation and hammer out, over six or seven weeks, a political agreement between now-President Ghani and now-CEO Abdullah to form a unity government, becoming the first democratic transition of power in Afghanistan’s history.

Coalition governments, even in the most mature democracies, grapple mightily with implementation, and Afghanistan is no different. But President Ghani’s government has made progress in a range of key areas over the past year, from appointments and anti-corruption initiatives to the recent establishment of the Special Electoral Reform Commission, which was especially fulfilling for me to meet with last week.

For this unity government to achieve its promises of reform, it must operate in a more inclusive manner. This includes empowering Ministries and provincial governors to assume much of the work, and engaging more comprehensively with the full range of Afghan stakeholders – the Parliament, civil society, opinion leaders, domestic media, and ultimately the Afghan people. Those who feel excluded from the government pave the way for spoilers to attract the disaffected and create unnecessary instability.

That is why I urge my colleagues in the Afghan government to seize this last, best opportunity to demonstrate that this government is both durable and functional, and can translate the rhetoric of policy vision into tangible policy implementation that will benefit the daily lives of all Afghans. And my message to those outside of government is – support the unity government and ensure it’s on the path to success. This is the legitimate government, reflective of the millions of votes cast, that the international community will continue to support. Afghans don’t deserve any alternative that weakens rather than strengthens the fabric of their society.

Political stability will optimize success in the ongoing efforts to address other related challenges. The economic climate must weather the shock of the drawdown of international resources. And the security challenges throughout the country are severe, as the Taliban has launched a violent onslaught, killing many civilians and inflicting significant casualties. We always anticipated this would be a difficult fighting season and pose a real challenge to the Afghan security forces, but they have held their own. While the Taliban has made temporary gains, the ANSF has retaken lost territory, and the Taliban have not seriously challenged any major urban center or provincial capital. The ANSF has proven it was ready for the lead security responsibility transferred to it from NATO last year, and we will continue to support the ANSF as it builds the skills and resources it needs to match its undoubted courage and commitment.

One final word on the progress we have seen in Afghanistan. We and our allies should be proud of the role that our assistance has played – including that administered through our unprecedented “civilian surge.” Development will always be difficult work, and there will at times be accurate reports of waste given the challenges faced by one of the world’s poorest, most conflict-affected, and least institutionalized countries. And to be clear, anyone – American or Afghan, government employee or contractor – who illegally benefits from assistance funds must be held accountable. But despite the easy allure of “gotcha” reporting on assistance delivery, we must continue to assess the overall impact of our efforts, and not just focus on the easiest, mechanical accounting of project execution. We must redouble our efforts to provide accountability to the extent feasible, but not fundamentally chill initiatives that are critical to achieving our core security interests – degrading Al Qaeda and its affiliates, and ensuring Afghanistan does not once again become a safe haven for terrorists who can threaten international security. These are hard goals and important ones, and there will be failures as we try to find the right mix of initiatives to achieve them. But that risk of failure is one worth taking.


In Pakistan, too, diplomats have been at the front lines of protecting our national interests. Diplomacy has brought our bilateral relationship from a tumultuous nadir several years ago to its current strengthened and stable position, based on a more honest and realistic set of expectations.

The principal vehicle for this recovery has been our Strategic Dialogue, where we have honed in on key areas of strategic alignment to deliver results, including countering terrorism, addressing nuclear concerns, and promoting stability through economic reforms and trade, energy initiatives, and educational opportunities.

This evolving dynamic has produced some notable progress, particularly in targeting Al Qaeda leadership and countering the threat posed by IEDs. There is a renewed effort by the Pakistani leadership to bring greater security throughout the country, as demonstrated by the ambitious undertaking of the North Waziristan operation just a year ago, and which has been further accelerated in the aftermath of the Peshawar massacre last December.

Our assistance has been of great value under Kerry Lugar Berman, which has rebalanced our assistance portfolio in favor of civilian assistance, from the previously disproportionate reliance on security assistance,. In particular, our ability to better brand key “high visibility, high impact signature projects” in energy, economic growth, infrastructure development, and higher education contributed to improved perceptions of the U.S. High-level economic visits, including by Commerce Secretary Pritzker earlier this year, showcase the potential of the economic relationship, which can be unlocked if Pakistan continues progress on its reform agenda.

Yet despite this progress, as with other complex – yet crucial – relationships, the U.S.-Pakistan one still faces challenges, though ones we now discuss in a transparent manner befitting real partners. We continue to have concerns about Pakistan’s history of using proxies against perceived foes in the region. Although we’ve seen concrete actions by Pakistan to more clearly establish the writ of sovereignty, the military and civilian leadership must make good on their commitments not to differentiate between terrorist groups. Just as they have vigorously pursued the Pakistani Taliban, they must take equally forceful actions against groups like the Haqqani Network, which pose serious threats to American (and Afghan) lives and resources, and Lashkar-e-Tayyiba, which has the potential to destabilize the region.

Let me also say a word about Pakistan’s democracy. I’ve heard many allege that the U.S. is ambivalent about democracy in Pakistan – but that could not be further from the truth. We realize that the process of strengthening and embedding democratic rule will be gradual – but it is critical to Pakistan’s future, and I know this is also understood by both Pakistan’s civilian and military leadership. It has been almost eight years since democracy was reinstated in Pakistan, and two and a half years since the country’s own first historic transition of power, and there continue to be challenges. Just a year ago, the Sharif government was beset by protests that fed rumors of a coup, but today, it appears that civilian and military leadership have come to an important modus vivendi, as preserving the centrality of civilian led, democratic institutions, is critical to Pakistan’s future.

AfPak / Reconciliation

Diplomacy is also giving new life to the relationship between Afghanistan and Pakistan. President Ghani deserves great credit for courageously opening the opportunity for rapprochement with Pakistan, and particularly in such a deliberate and strategic manner.

We similarly appreciate Pakistan’s efforts to further an Afghan-led, Afghan-owned reconciliation process, as the U.S. has long maintained that it is just such a process, which we strongly support without pre-conditions, is the surest way to end violence and achieve lasting stability in Afghanistan and the region.

It is clear that there can be no long-term stability in Afghanistan without Pakistan’s support and Pakistan has taken unprecedented actions this year to facilitate a discussion between the Afghan government and the Taliban, resulting in the Murree meeting on July 7th, the first time that senior Taliban representatives openly and with permission from their leadership met with an official and representative Afghan government delegation.

Needless to say, the news of Mullah Omar’s death last week has complicated this picture. But I believe it may be an important opportunity. The Taliban think of themselves as a movement that emerged to end a civil war. Now they have to decide whether to continue to fight, or to finally end the violence that has stunted Afghanistan’s development, and become part of the legitimate political system of a sovereign, united Afghanistan.


Concerted American diplomacy has also resulted in the sustained engagement of the international community, and particularly the key nations of the region. Since the beginning of this Administration, one important mechanism for coordination has been the International Contact Group we launched, comprised of the SRAPs from over 50 countries, including more than one-third from Muslim-majority countries.

I’m especially optimistic that regional powers have increasingly come to see that supporting a stable Afghanistan, free of terrorism, is in their interests. There has been a marked and productive change in the posture of countries in the region over the past six years. As one example, we welcome China’s engagement in Afghanistan and Pakistan, which we see not as competitive but complementary to our own efforts. In 2009, on my first official trip to engage the Chinese, my colleagues in Beijing refused to even have the words “Afghanistan” or “Pakistan” on our agenda. Today we have embarked on a series of collaborative development projects in Afghanistan and convened a trilateral U.S.-China-Afghanistan discussion, both firsts of their kind with the Chinese.

Our efforts to spur broader regional integration include both diplomatic endeavors to convene key neighbors, such as through the Heart of Asia process, and economic initiatives, such as energy connectivity between countries via the CASA-1000 project, or fully implementing the Afghanistan-Pakistan Transit Trade Agreement.


Our interest in stability in Afghanistan and Pakistan is no less acute than it was 14 years ago. The achievements that have been made in Afghanistan and Pakistan have come at the cost of an immense investment in blood and treasure by not just the U.S., but by our coalition partners, and most of all, by Afghans and Pakistanis. Those investments can be redeemed and our interests secured only by continued diplomacy. I am deeply grateful for the opportunity to learn from some of America’s finest and most storied diplomats and to myself carry that baton for a year, working with what remains, as Holbrooke frequently touted, the best and most dedicated team I’ve ever seen. I will watch with passionate interest as they continue this critical work.