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Solving the Impossible at National Cathedral

October 10, 2009

The eighth anniversary of the war in Afghanistan passed this week amid calls for the withdrawal of American troops and angry protesters on both sides of the political aisle looking for answers as the number of Americans killed in the war draws ever higher.

It was in this atmosphere, eight years to the day the war began, that Washington National Cathedral held its annual Nancy and Paul Ignatius Program, meant to offer discussion “on issues of importance at the intersection of faith and public life.” This year’s topic: Afghanistan and Pakistan: America’s Challenge: Solving the Impossible.

I felt (and still feel) inadequately informed to offer opinions on the war in Afghanistan and US relations with Pakistan. While the Iraq War may incite strong feelings in me, I am not prepared to make a judgement about other US involvements overseas. But when my mom mentioned National Cathedral’s program, I was interested in attending and learning more.

Solving the Impossible had a distinguished panel — Husain Haqqani, Pakistan’s ambassador to the United States; Senator John Kerry, who said that he’s recently been inspired by Greg Mortensen’s brilliant “Three Cups of Tea”; and journalist Rory Stewart, author of the extraordinary “The Places In Between” his journey on foot across Afghanistan.
None of the men favored total and immediate withdrawal of troops, and it would have been informative to have a panelist representing that viewpoint. What the panelists did agree on was the importance of helping Afghani people and improving services like education and healthcare.

One interesting point Kerry made was that even if the US stays involved for the next 20 or 30 years, Afghanistan will only have reached the economic, political and social level of Pakistan today, and that’s not good enough. Haqqani disagreed on Pakistan’s world standing and also vehemently maintained that his country does not support terrorists — he had a good sense of humor, though, joking that it’s impressive he’s been able to advise three Pakistani prime ministers, including the late Benazir Bhutto, and stay alive.
I thought that Stewart, who now runs the Turquoise Mountain Foundation, made the most balanced and well-thought points. He said that the US made a financial commitment that, when troops withdraw, Afghanistan will be left to bear without the capital to do so. Based on his discussions with people across Afghanistan, he said, the number one thing they want is security.

It was a fascinating evening. Although it would have been helpful to have someone advocating for a more radical plan, it was interesting to hear what all three men had to say based on their experiences and expertise. National Cathedral is always a fantastic place to spend time — it’s absolutely stunning day and night — although the acoustics that make it such a lovely place to hear music are not the best for listening to a panel discussion.

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