Afghanistan has come a long way since the United States and its allies arrived in the country 12 years ago. Daunting challenges remain, but it is a far cry from the failed state and terrorist hideout it was in 2001. Doom-and-gloom press prognostications of an inevitable post-2014 return to Taliban tyranny do not reflect the realities on the ground. The fact is that Afghanistan has a solid chance of becoming significantly more stable, productive, and self-sustaining. This outcome, however, depends upon the will of the United States, its partners, and the leaders Afghans choose in next April's presidential elections.
As political leaders in Washington wrestle with budget issues in the coming months, they should resist the temptation to slash funding for Afghanistan. Outbursts from an outgoing President Hamid Karzai should not obscure larger U.S. interests in Afghanistan and the region. Abandoning Afghanistan now would squander the significant investments and sacrifices the United States and its partners have made there, including the sacrifices still borne by many U.S. service members and their families. The scale of the investments needed over the next few years pale in comparison with the magnitude of the earlier ones, which have enabled the Afghan government and its police and military forces to degrade the Taliban-led insurgency and build the country's institutions and economy.
Although skepticism exists in Congress and even parts of the administration, most officials who have worked on Afghanistan, regardless of their political leanings, tend to have far more confidence in the future of the country. That's why I and many other former officials and diplomats and civil society leaders have come together to support a new initiative - the Alliance in Support of the Afghan People, a bipartisan coalition dedicated to preserving and protecting the progress made by the Afghan people since 2001.
Underlying our confidence is an appreciation of how much Afghanistan has changed for the better. Living standards have improved dramatically across most of the country. Significant advances have taken place in agriculture and healthcare. An unprecedented 8.2 million children and young people, four million of them young women and girls, are now in school in Afghanistan, and 180,000 of them are in university classes. Women in Afghanistan, who suffered unspeakable oppression under the Taliban, have become an increasingly significant voice in Afghan society, calling for minority rights, criticizing corruption, and demanding the rule of law. Fresh, young leaders with passion, commitment, resilience, and incredible talent are already emerging. These twenty- and thirty-somethings are serving in the private sector, non-governmental organizations, government, academia, and many other professions. Though they are Pashtuns, Tajiks, Hazaras, Uzbeks, and often refugees who grew up abroad, they see themselves first and foremost as Afghans. The recent victories of the Afghan soccer and cricket teams, which were celebrated across all ethnic lines and throughout the country, highlighted this new reality.
The Taliban insurgency will not overrun Afghanistan's central government so long as the United States and its partners continue to support the Afghan government and its military and security forces as planned. Some 80 percent of the population is now largely protected from Taliban violence, which has increasingly been confined to the country's more remote regions. The major cities and transportation routes are now secured by the Afghan security forces rather than by foreign troops.
Why surrender this success in the area of security -- the sine qua non for success in every other aspect of communal life?
The next generation of Afghan leaders offers a compelling vision and opportunity for the country's future: Afghanistan can combat corruption and hold increasingly free and fair elections -- undertaken within a legal framework and overseen by independent electoral watchdogs -- that produce officials and legislators acceptable to the country's voters. It can become a country where the political rights of women are fully respected. It can undertake an inclusive peace process that addresses the root causes of conflict. And it can continue to develop its economy, trade, and regional ties.
True, these would be immense achievements for any poor, remote, war-torn country, but this vision is not beyond the reach of Afghanistan, with modest international support. Given all that we have achieved together and all that we have sacrificed together, it would be worse than foolhardy to short change this future now. It would be tragic.