This is not something I intended to write.
However, as my tour in the Navy Reserve working with the Afghan National Police came to an end earlier this spring and I spoke with my Afghan counterparts about their successes, hopes, failures and future, I asked them a question: “What should I tell folks back home about Afghanistan?”
Their response led me to write this piece.
Shortly after Sept. 11, 2001 — when I was still in high school — the United States military partnered with the Afghans of the “Northern Alliance” to drive out the Taliban regime and rout Al-Qaeda from their place of refuge.
Since then, our nation’s blood, sweat, and treasure have been poured into that nation. This effort was U.S.-led, but it included numerous countries and individuals from throughout the world. While the story may not lead the evening news, the effort continues today.
It has been decided that combat operations will cease at the end of this year, and our future presence hinges solely on the Bilateral Security Agreement, or BSA. President Hamid Karzai has refused to sign it, and Washington has countered that his delay places any future commitment in jeopardy.
In late 2013, Karzai punted this decision to a loya jirga, a large gathering of leaders and elders from throughout Afghanistan. They deliberated over a number of days.
The result? Overwhelming support for the signing of the BSA. This is due, in part, to the inherent intertwining of international aid and a U.S. presence in the coming years. Without one, the other is unlikely to be effective.
But there was more than that. Some provinces asked for new U.S. bases to be opened near them, hoping for the security that comes with it. Others wanted a continued presence because, although they want their countrymen in the Afghan National Army and Afghan National Police to be responsible for security, they know their forces are currently unable to do it alone.
The views of all the major candidates for president reflect the views of the population. This includes the two top vote-getters, Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani, who face each other in a runoff vote on June 14. Each has declared his support for a BSA and, together, they garnered nearly 80 percent of the vote. But the voting population has significantly changed from the days after September 11.
Today, nearly 68 percent of Afghans are under the age of 25. The majority of their lives have been free from direct Taliban rule. They have known an Afghanistan open to the outside world, with opportunities for prosperity and education and without public executions. They access the Internet, use social media and exercise their right to vote.
This is the background I knew when I asked my Afghan counterparts the question. It is important to consider. It is factual, but it’s not personal. And it does not answer the question, “What should I tell folks back home about Afghanistan?”
For the Afghans I worked with, their answer was simple, yet powerful: “Tell America it is only one man that stands between us. Tell them we want your friendship.”
That was the message I was asked to bring home: President Karzai is the only obstacle standing between our nations. It came from senior police colonels I spent months working with. They are men whose departments I watched grow and develop. They are men who led their fellow Afghans into taking responsibility for the security of their country, albeit with a little help.
But the help they require is rapidly decreasing. The fact is, from what I saw, the Afghans are in the lead and are capable in many disciplines necessary to secure their country. From kinetic, offensive operations to the intensive intelligence and detective work necessary to fight the insurgency and organized crime, Afghan forces have reached a level of self-sufficiency.
Our support in the future — if the BSA is signed — will focus on the areas that make American forces successful throughout the globe. They include reconnaissance, logistics, supply, communications, MEDEVAC and close air support. Without this support, the Afghans will have difficulty maintaining the hard-earned gains of the past few years.
This is not to say what the U.S. must do. We need to make our own decision on what our future commitment may look like. But the Afghans I worked with — my friends — asked me to deliver their message. And that is something I am proud to do.
Michael Cianchette is an officer in the Navy Reserve and recently completed a tour training, advising, and assisting the Afghan National Police. He is Gov. Paul LePage’s former chief legal counsel. The views expressed are his own and do not reflect those of the Department of Defense.