Here’s how to ensure Afghan women are protected after the U.S. withdrawal

Opinion by Jeanne Shaheen and Angelina Jolie

The Washington Post
 
May 13, 2021
Image without a caption

Fatima Khalil was an Afghan girl, born in Pakistan. After the U.S. intervention in 2001, she returned to Afghanistan, went to school in Kabul and ultimately graduated with a double major in anthropology and human rights. She could have worked abroad. Instead, she took a job at the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission. She was assassinated in a bomb attack on her way to work last year. She was 24.

Fatima’s story tells us a great deal about the fate of Afghanistan, and of Afghan women, over the past 20 years. There are women who are now able to choose careers previously unavailable to them. Girls who are able to leave the house freely to go to school or college. This bright new generation doesn’t know a different Afghanistan, and they shouldn’t have to.

U.S. and NATO allies have decided to withdraw from Afghanistan. We accept that we must now work with this decision. One of the most pressing needs is a strategy to protect the progress made to ensure that women can live openly and freely in civil society as they have for nearly two decades.

Great strides have been made since the Taliban last held power, but that has not removed threats on women’s lives. Women are still gunned down in the streets while going to work or school. Last week, the world saw another horrific example of this violence when more than 85 people, mostly girls attending Sayed Ul-Shuhada High School in Kabul, were killed in a bombing.

According to a U.S. intelligence report, 80 percent of women over the age of 18 are illiterate. And, according to the same report, as of 2017, only 16 percent of eligible women are employed. Although there is much more progress to be made, we cannot afford to lose two decades of hard-won gains.

There are some in the West who question whether the Taliban of 2021 is different from the Taliban of 2001, whether the intervening decades have moderated its extremism.

To answer this, we point to those who have suffered the worst of recent violence: to Fatima; to Malalai Maiwand, a television reporter who was murdered in December, five years after her mother, an activist, was killed; to Freshta Kohistani, a 29-year-old women’s rights and democracy activist, who was assassinated near her home last year; to Zakia Herawi and Qadria Yasini, judges on the Afghan Supreme Court, who were murdered while they drove to work in January; to Basira, 20, Semin 24, and Negina, 24, who were shot and killed in March, while administering polio vaccines to children, and to the many other women — government employees, journalists, policewomen, doctors and nurses — who have been murdered for daring to build a better Afghanistan.

This is violence that the Taliban conducted or condoned. Women must not be dragged back to the horror and oppression that they previously endured at the hands of the Taliban. But that is exactly what we fear will happen after the United States’ abrupt departure.

The Taliban tells the world that it believes in rights for women as they align with sharia. But the Taliban’s definition of Islamic law also sanctioned the shuttering of women’s schools and universities, public beatings, restricted access to medical care, the brutal enforcement of a restrictive dress code and death by stoning.

To prevent a return to this violence, the international community and all those who care about a free and stable Afghanistan must develop a strategy for preserving and promoting the rights of Afghan women.

First, the international community — led by the United States, as it was when we entered Afghanistan in 2001 — must use all available tools to ensure that women’s rights continue to be protected. In negotiations, we must prioritize the inclusion of Afghan women and amplify their voices.

Third, there must be a major and coordinated diplomatic effort, transcending partisan differences, to bring together all countries in favor of a stable Afghanistan. Together, we need to make sure the Taliban cannot reinstate the oppression that once ruled the lives of Afghan women.

We all have a stake in the rights of women in Afghanistan. A country that oppresses half its people will never know stability. If we want to secure long-term regional security, we cannot allow rights and freedoms to be abandoned.

Jeanne Shaheen, a Democrat, represents New Hampshire in the U.S. Senate. Angelina Jolie is a humanitarian and filmmaker.

Here’s how to ensure Afghan women are protected after the U.S. withdrawal
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Opinion: A slaughter at a girls’ school may foretell Afghanistan’s future

May 10, 2021 at 5:27 p.m. EDT
Ruqia Bakhshi, 14, one of the students who were injured in a car bomb blast outside a school, receives treatment at a hospital in Kabul on Saturday.

THE HORRIFIC bombing of a school for girls in Kabul on Saturday was a grim presage of the catastrophe Afghanistan — and, in particular, its women — may suffer with the withdrawal of U.S. and other international forces. Three bombs killed at least 85 people and wounded more than 147 — most of them girls in their teens from the Hazara Shiite minority. The Taliban, which has often targeted that group as well as girls’ education more generally, denied responsibility. But the slaughter came as the insurgents are escalating attacks around the country, while refusing to negotiate in good faith with the U.S.-backed government.

As The Post’s Susannah George and Aziz Tassal have reported, the Taliban has been massing forces around a number of provincial capitals since May 1. It has overrun a number of Afghan bases, even as U.S. air support for the Afghan army has dwindled, and set up numerous checkpoints along the main highways leading in and out of Kabul. Inside the capital, key government and aid workers have been targeted for assassination.

Taliban spokesmen claim they do not intend to take over the country by force following the U.S. withdrawal, which is due to be completed by Sept. 11, and it’s not clear whether they could do so before the onset of winter. But Mr. Biden’s decision to withdraw U.S. forces has so far brought about a rapid and ominous deterioration in the government’s position and in security for Afghans who support it. If it continues, the result could be a collapse of the political system and civil society the United States spent two decades helping to build, a resurgence of Afghan-based international terrorism, and another massive wave of refugees headed toward fragile neighboring countries as well as Europe.

The State Department’s statement condemning the school bombing said the Biden administration “will continue to support and partner with the people of Afghanistan, who are determined to see to it that the gains of the past two decades aren’t erased.” U.S. officials have expressed the hope that, if it does return to power, the Taliban will ease its repressive policies toward women and denial of other human rights to avoid international pariah status. However, a recently declassified assessment by the National Intelligence Council was not optimistic, concluding that the movement would “roll back much of the past two decades’ progress.” In many areas the Taliban now controls, women are largely banned from working outside the home, and schools for girls don’t operate above the primary level, if they exist at all.

The administration apparently is seeking to hedge against a revival of terrorist bases or threat to the U.S. Embassy in Kabul by basing aircraft, troops and equipment elsewhere in the region; the Wall Street Journal reported Saturday that Central Asian countries bordering Afghanistan may be approached. That raises the question of why the United States does not simply retain its relatively small footprint in Afghanistan, which in recent years has consumed less than 10 percent of the Pentagon’s budget and cost few U.S. casualties.

It may, alas, be too late for that. But the Biden administration should be prepared to step up its air support for Afghan forces to ensure that any Taliban offensive against Kabul or other major cities can be turned back. It should also accelerate plans to grant visas, and if necessary, provide evacuation to the many Afghans who supported the U.S. mission and now face grave risks.

Opinion: A slaughter at a girls’ school may foretell Afghanistan’s future
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The U.S. Still Has Leverage In Afghanistan. Here’s How to Keep It

By ANNIE PFORZHEIMER

Politico

After two postings in Kabul, I worry what comes after our September pullout. But we can still keep faith with the Afghan people.

In this Jan. 28, 2012 file photo, U.S. soldiers, part of the NATO- led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) patrol west of Kabul, Afghanistan.
President Joe Biden last month formally announced plans to end America’s military presence in Afghanistan by the 20th anniversary of the 2001 terrorist attacks. | AP Photo/Hoshang Hashimi

In November 2009, with President Barack Obama only weeks away from announcing a surge of about 30,000 troops in Afghanistan and a drawdown of U.S. forces starting in July 2014, a team of concerned diplomats in Kabul cabled Washington with a classified warning.

I was one of those concerned diplomats, as the counselor for political affairs at the U.S. Embassy in Afghanistan. Both the surge and the deadline announcement worried us. We told the president and his top advisers that our local partners weren’t yet strong or reliable enough for a surge to work, and that announcing a clear withdrawal date would be a major incentive to the Taliban not to cooperate or back down. We recommended a different course: Apply steady pressure with a smaller troop footprint, and give the Afghan state and society more time to protect itself.

When I returned to Kabul in 2017 as deputy chief of Mission, things had changed, in part because American policy had shifted. U.S. forces were no longer in a combat leadership role, and had begun handing responsibilities to the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF). The Obama administration’s planned pullout had indeed emboldened the Taliban, as had the withdrawal rhetoric of Donald Trump on the campaign trail. However, the Trump administration’s review resulted in the more nuanced August 2017 “South Asia Strategy,” which called for a negotiated settlement to the conflict—but an endgame based on meeting certain conditions, rather than a date.

As a country, Afghanistan was showing signs of new growth. There were new universities and younger Afghans in key ministry roles, slowly replacing a generation of war leaders who had brutally fought both the Soviets and each other in the 1980s and 1990s. There were growing energy linkages to Central Asia and new business opportunities.

The conditions-based formula for settlement undermined the Taliban’s narrative of imminent victory, making it harder for them to retain weary fighters. It also gave heart to the ANDSF, which continued to take heavy losses. With a robust Afghan offensive during the winter of 2017, and despite horrific Taliban terror attacks in Kabul in January 2018, the stage was set for an offer to the Taliban for a mutual cease-fire. This occurred in June 2018, when for the first and sadly last time, Afghanistan had a peaceful three-day Eid holiday. For many of us, the air of hope at this time gave a preview of Afghanistan’s potential as a country known for its trade, crafts, food and family celebrations, and not for bombs and casualties.

Now, with President Joe Biden’s decision to enact a conditions-free withdrawal by September 11, there seems to be little hope for that normal future, or indeed any pretense that we want to achieve the only war goal that has made sense from the start: advance U.S. global security interests in South Asia by giving the ANDSF enough training and footing to control its territory against terrorists and predatory neighbors. We’re just getting out, come what may.

Already, our loss of leverage is boosting the Taliban’s confidence, in a sad replay of the post-2009 dynamic. Not long after Biden announced the withdrawal, the Taliban declared they would not attend a peace conference in Istanbul that the U.S. and other countries had hoped would succeed where earlier talks in Doha had not. I remember once attending a ceremony in Kabul, held every February 15, to commemorate the withdrawal of the last Soviet tanks. It’s easy now to imagine the Taliban, always eager to portray themselves as giant killers, creating another anniversary on September 11 to trumpet the date U.S. and NATO troops officially leave for good.

Biden has already made his decision to withdraw, and we should not expect him to change his mind. But despite the leverage that new policy has lost, there’s still some left to help prevent disaster.

From a moral and strategic perspective, it makes no sense to politically abandon Afghanistan. Without any U.S. presence, and with no conditions or promise of a return, we can already predict that the Taliban will try to increase their territorial control and dictatorial rule, and other Afghans will arm and resist. There will also be ripple effects from the conflict: al Qaeda, ISIS and regional terror groups will have ample opportunity to regroup; it could also very well trigger a humanitarian crisis that drives masses of people across Afghan borders into United Nations-funded refugee camps. Instead of mustering the strategic patience to get the end game right and to ensure our reputation as an ally in an unfriendly part of the world, the U.S. is inviting regional chaos we’ll have to deal with (and pay for) anyway.

First and foremost, continued U.S. assistance to the ANDSF is essential. Our public commitment to this force, made most recently at the NATO Defense Ministerial, should remain solidly in place. This is the best way to counteract the psychological advantage we’ve handed the Taliban, to help protect the rights of women and other vulnerable minorities, and to prevent atrocities that will emerge in a lawless environment.

Second, U.N., U.S. and European sanctions against Taliban leadership must remain in place until the Taliban and other bad actors change their behavior—specifically, until they are no longer a “threat to the security and stability of Afghanistan.” In fact, we should consider imposing new, carefully targeted sanctions against those who are refusing to support peace talks.

Third, we also should employ vigorous diplomatic leverage over Afghanistan’s neighbors, particularly Pakistan and Central Asia, to prioritize their existing trade and energy linkages and press for a peace process that will contribute to regional prosperity. The Gulf States and other former and current Taliban patrons should understand that a peaceful outcome is a top U.S. government goal.

Fourth, and Congress should hold the administration to this, we can also make it clear that, as in the 1990s, there will again be no diplomatic recognition of a Taliban government if it denies basic human rights to its citizens. Finally, some development assistance could be conditioned or withheld for the same reason, although vulnerable populations should not suffer for the misdeeds of their unelected leaders.

Pulling out troops without conditions or remaining “at war” indefinitely are not the only two options; they never were. In our 2009 cable, we pointed out that anti-corruption and long-term development efforts were better investments than more troops. Rather than compound our past errors, the United States must now commit to the goal of stability by preserving our remaining leverage—and using it well.

The U.S. Still Has Leverage In Afghanistan. Here’s How to Keep It
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Afghanistan’s Moment of Risk and Opportunity

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani in London, December 2014
Dan Kitwood / Pool / Reuters

President Joe Biden’s decision to withdraw the remaining 2,500 U.S. troops from Afghanistan by September represents a turning point for the country and our neighbors. The Afghan government respects the decision and views it as a moment of both opportunity and risk for itself, for Afghans, for the Taliban, and for the region.

For me, as the elected leader of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, it is another opportunity to reiterate and further my commitment to peace. In February 2018, I made an unconditional offer of peace to the Taliban. That was followed by a three-day cease-fire in June of that year. In 2019, a loya jirga (grand council) that I convened mandated negotiations with the Taliban, and since then, my government has worked to build a national consensus on the need for a political settlement that would comport with the values of the Afghan constitution and the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights. My government remains ready to continue talks with the Taliban. And, if it meant peace would be secured, I am willing to end my term early.

For the Afghan nation, the announcement of the U.S. withdrawal is another phase in our long-term partnership with the United States. Afghanistan has been through consequential withdrawals before. In 2014, the year I first took office, 130,000 U.S. and NATO forces withdrew, allowing Afghans full leadership of the security sector and of the institutions that our international partners had helped us build. Since then, the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF) have protected and upheld the republic and made it possible for the country to carry out two national elections. Today, our government and our security forces are on a much stronger footing than we were seven years ago, and we are fully prepared to continue serving and defending our people after American troops depart.

The U.S. decision surprised the Taliban and their patrons in Pakistan, and it has forced them to make a choice. Will they become credible stakeholders, or will they foster more chaos and violence? If the Taliban choose the latter path, the ANDSF will fight them. And if the Taliban still refuse to negotiate, they will be choosing the peace of the grave.

To avoid that fate, the Taliban must answer critical questions about their vision for Afghanistan. Will they accept elections, and will they commit to uphold the rights of all Afghans, including girls, women, and minorities? Negative answers to those questions were suggested by the Taliban’s recent decision to pull out of a peace conference that was supposed to begin in Istanbul at the end of April. The Taliban, it seems, remain more interested in power than in peace. A political settlement and the integration of the Taliban into society and government is the only way forward. But the ball is in their court.

THE FUTURE THAT AFGHANS WANT

Afghans cannot and absolutely will not go back to the horrors of the 1990s. We are not idly waiting for peace to chance upon us but continue to take steps to create the environment and platform for it to take hold. The risks of the U.S. withdrawal have been widely propagated in the news media, but we see little serious discourse about the opportunities it presents.

All international stakeholders and the Afghan people want a sovereign, Islamic, democratic, united, neutral, and connected Afghanistan. The Afghan people affirmed their support for that end state at a peace jirga in August 2020. The international community affirmed its desire for that end state in March 2020 when the UN Security Council adopted Resolution 2513, which made clear that the world does not want the return of the Taliban’s emirate.

It is far less clear, however, what the Taliban want. They demand an Islamic system—but that already exists in Afghanistan. For any negotiations over a political settlement between the Afghan government and the Taliban to succeed, the Taliban must articulate their desired end state with clarity and detail.

Negotiations would require a credible and neutral mediator. That need is highlighted by the talks in Doha between the Afghan government and the Taliban; the talks lack such a mediator and have, so far, reached an impasse. The best-placed organization for this role would be the United Nations.

If the Taliban refuse to negotiate, they will be choosing the peace of the grave.

The first topics of negotiation must be reaching the desired end state and putting in place a comprehensive cease-fire to bring peace and respite to the daily lives of the Afghan people and to restore credibility and faith in the peacemaking process. Because cease-fires established during peace negotiations often fall apart, however, it is critical that we have international monitoring.

Next, the parties would have to discuss and decide on a transitional administration. Although the structure of the republic must remain intact, a peace administration would maintain order and continuity while elections were planned and held. This transitional authority would have a short tenure, and it would end as soon as presidential, parliamentary, and local elections determined the country’s new leadership. I would not run for office in such an election, and I would readily resign the presidency before the official end of my current term if it meant that my elected successor would have a mandate for peace.

The negotiations would confront difficult issues, such as whether and how the Taliban would end their relationship with Pakistan, which provides them with support for logistics, finances, and recruitment. The talks must also address the Taliban’s ongoing connections to al Qaeda, which the UN detailed in a 2020 report. Thus it is crucial that the Afghan government and the Taliban also agree on an approach against the Islamic State (or ISIS), al Qaeda, and other terrorist groups and that our agreement include a framework for counterterrorism that secures guarantees of support from other countries in the region and from international organizations. The agreement must also ensure the continuation of high-level regional diplomacy and welcome the involvement of the UN secretary-general’s personal representative.

Once the Afghan government and the Taliban have reached a settlement, the Afghan people would need to publicly endorse it through our country’s highest form of national consensus building: a loya jirga, a grand meeting of male and female community leaders from every province. The Taliban have been deprived of immersion in Afghan society for the past 20 years, and a loya jirga would offer an ideal opportunity for their leadership to interact with all segments of the population.

The Afghan people want a country that is sovereign, Islamic, democratic, united, and neutral.

After a political settlement has been negotiated, inked, and endorsed, the hard work of implementation would begin. This is the process of building peace. There is always a temptation to make the temporary permanent, which is why the peace government must prioritize elections.

In the interim, however, the transitional leadership would have to make a series of hard decisions about how to govern. Economic development, education and health services, and other key functions of the state would have to continue without disruption. Any stoppage would have disastrous ramifications for the Afghan people and for the economy. There would also be new priorities, such as releasing prisoners of war; integrating members of the Taliban in all levels of government, the military, and society; and addressing the grievances of those who have lost loved ones, property, and livelihoods during the past two decades of war.

A newly elected government will have an important mandate to sustain peace and implement the agreement. That may require making amendments to the constitution. The constitution makes clear that, except for the Islamic character of the state and the fundamental rights of citizens, all else is subject to amendment, and there are mechanisms in place to enact those changes.

The new government would also confront the reintegration of refugees (particularly those who fled to Iran and Pakistan), the resettlement of internally displaced people, and the often overlooked issue of national reconciliation. Meanwhile, the transitional cease-fire would have to give way to a situation in which state institutions command a legitimate monopoly on the use of force. And Afghanistan would need to commit to permanent neutrality in order to mitigate the risk of regional conflicts. The UN General Assembly or the UN Security Council would be the ideal venues for establishing and formalizing Afghanistan’s neutral status.

THE PATH AHEAD

Even in an ideal environment, achieving a just and lasting peace would not be an easy journey. And unfortunately, the environment we are operating in is not ideal. There are many risks that this process could be derailed or disrupted, and Afghans may lose yet another opportunity for peace.

For one, the perception of uncertainty, fueled by dire predictions in the media, may incline many Afghans to leave the country. This could lead to a repeat of the refugee crisis that unfolded in 2015 and would deprive the country of talented people right at the moment when they are most needed.

Another risk is that a disrupted or disorderly transition could threaten command and control within the country’s security sector. There must be an orderly political process to transfer authority so that the security forces are not left without leadership and direction. Moreover, it is critically important that the United States and NATO fulfill their existing commitments to fund the ANDSF. This is perhaps the single most important contribution that the international community can make to a successful transition to peace in Afghanistan.

There is also a risk that Afghan political figures will not galvanize around an orderly peace process. Thus we are reaching out to ensure that the process is inclusive, not only of internal political figures and different strata of Afghan society but also of regional actors who could potentially attempt to spoil the process.

The main risk to peace, however, is a Taliban miscalculation. The Taliban still believe their own narrative that they have defeated NATO and the United States. They feel emboldened, and because their political leaders have never encouraged their military branch to accept the idea of peace, the greatest risk is that the Taliban will continue to show no earnest interest in making a political deal and will instead opt for continued military aggression.

It is not too late for Pakistan to emerge as a partner and stakeholder in an orderly peace process.

If that is what happens, the Afghan government and the security forces are ready. As we prepare for peace talks with the Taliban, we are also prepared to face them on the battlefield. Over the last two years, more than 90 percent of Afghan military operations have been conducted entirely by Afghan security forces. Should the Taliban choose violence, it would mean a major confrontation over the spring and summer months, at the end of which the Taliban would be left with no good options except to come back to the negotiating table.

Pakistan might also miscalculate in a way that threatens peace. There have been positive signs that Pakistan will choose the path of regional connectivity, peace, and prosperity, as indicated in remarks delivered in March at the Islamabad Security Dialogue by Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan and the Pakistani army chief of staff, General Qamar Javed Bajwa. Those remarks could signify an important pivot from a destructive to a constructive approach to relations with Afghanistan. Now is the opportunity to put those words into action.

If Pakistan chooses to support the Taliban, however, then Islamabad would be opting for enmity with the Afghan nation and would be foregoing the enormous economic benefits that peace and regional connectivity would offer. Pakistan would become an international pariah, as it would be left with no leverage in the aftermath of the U.S. troop withdrawal. The Pakistani government miscalculated in its response to the United States’ plan of action for Afghanistan and the region, but it is not too late for Islamabad to emerge as a partner and stakeholder in an orderly peace process.

As we move into uncharted waters for Afghanistan, I am focused on achieving the best possible outcome of this long period of conflict: a sovereign, Islamic, democratic, united, neutral, and connected Afghanistan. I am willing to compromise and sacrifice to achieve that. The withdrawal of U.S. troops is an opportunity to get us closer to that end state, but only if all Afghans and their international partners commit to a clear path forward and stay the course.

ASHRAF GHANI is President of Afghanistan.
Afghanistan’s Moment of Risk and Opportunity
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Peace is possible in Afghanistan

Few have hope for Afghanistan

Those in favour of the United States government’s decision to withdraw forces from Afghanistan see no pathway to victory by American forces and NATO allies over the Taliban. Meanwhile, opponents of President Joe Biden’s proposed drawdown are less interested in the welfare of the Afghan people, than they are about leaving conditions ripe for a terrorist haven to develop.

Yet, this general pessimism about the current state of affairs in Afghanistan misses one central fact – that not since 1979, before the Soviet invasion, has there ever been as much of a chance for peace as there is now.

Integral to this is how no side to the conflict – neither the Taliban nor the Afghan government – possess the ability to subdue the other.

The Taliban is, at best, a guerrilla insurgency without the capacity to capture the entire country. It has an estimated 50,000 to 60,000 fighters, a force five times smaller than that of the government. Even during the Taliban’s reign, 15 percent of the country remained under the control of its opposition, the Northern Alliance.

Today, the Taliban is thought to control approximately 15 percent of the country and the government claims it controls about 50 percent, with the remainder contested.

The Taliban has also lost the ability to justify more conflict: In the past, the claim was that foreign invaders needed to be expelled. Now, the US and NATO are gesturing that they are more than ready to hand over the political reins of the country to domestic forces.

For the Afghan government, its military support may seem to be under threat by the US and NATO withdrawal. But the troop drawback is not total abandonment. The Afghan government has a 300,000-strong military force that will continue to be financially supported by the US and NATO. The US military leadership has also made it clear that it is willing to use force in the near future if hostilities continue.

Such comments and commitments show that the US will remain behind the scenes, in some fashion, for years. Removing troops does not include the use of advisers, as well as potentially using the air force to make limited, targeted strikes in the future.

It is true that since President Biden announced the US troop pullout, violence has risen across the country from both the government side and the Taliban. Yet, these twin showings of force are best understood as evidence of strategic posturing; this temporary escalation proves that the two parties retain the capacity to blow things up and kill one another.

More to the point – this short wave of violence illustrates how neither side can bend the other to its will.

What we have is an impasse, but not one without hope.

In this situation, the art of making sustainable peace depends on interests – some inside; others, outside the country – aligning over more long-term prospects.

What could lead different economic and political interests to view peace in Afghanistan as desirable?

First, there’s lots of money to be made.

How? There’s lithium, natural gas, cobalt, gold and all other kinds of mineral deposits currently sitting in the ground, untouched. Development could mean jobs for people in Afghanistan, as well as revenue for everyone involved. Given that the most pressing issue within the country is hunger, a steady stream of money will definitely ease the conflict.

Furthermore, international projects such as the TAPI pipeline, which will carry natural gas from Turkmenistan through Afghanistan, Pakistan and India, should strengthen regional peace through cooperation and result in billions of dollars of royalties for Afghans and neighbouring countries.

The $10bn project will not only provide gas but also heighten regional peace and stability through connecting the economic and energy interests of the countries involved.

There is also the potential refugee catastrophe that may result from the conflict continuing or getting worse.

Look no further than the Syrian civil war for what could happen if nothing changes or if the conflict worsens. That conflict displaced upwards of 50 percent of its population and the resulting refugee crisis added fuel to far-right, xenophobic forces across Europe. Afghanistan’s population is double that of Syria’s. An Afghan refugee crisis would make what happened in Syria appear minimal.

Is Europe prepared to receive millions of new refugees?

The European Union has the capacity – and interest, namely, for fear of another refugee crisis – to use its diplomatic expertise to pitch in and help the opposing sides to the Afghan conflict sit down and come to terms.

A practical way towards peace can be found in history; namely, the Chapultepec Peace Accords that ended the more than 12-year Salvadoran Civil War in 1992.

El Salvador had been caught in a civil war that began in the late 1970s. The country was torn apart as the US supported the military government and the Soviet Union, Cuba and Nicaragua all helped the left-wing FMLN (Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front) insurgents. Years of violence led the parties to the conflict to request United Nations mediation in 1989. Meeting in 1990, after a resurgence of violence proved that neither side could beat the other, peace talks began in earnest.

The resulting peace accords contained political and economic elements.

Politically, the military became subject to civilian control, human rights training became part of the reformed military and police forces, and institutions were created to ensure electoral integrity. Additionally, the FMLN agreed to lay down its weapons and transition into a political party.

Economically, land redistribution was promised, as well as creating an institutional space for unions, businesses leaders and government officials to debate policy.

The peace negotiations proved successful in ending the conflict but didn’t achieve all that they could have to fashion a sustainable peace in a post-conflict society. What is positive beyond doubt is how guerrillas became politicians and a multi-party democracy replaced a military dictatorship.

Yet, economic reforms took a back seat. This was the critical shortcoming of the accords and is why El Salvador remains a country ravaged by inequality and drug-related violence.

Those negotiating peace in Afghanistan must learn from the Salvadoran experience.

For starters, a third-party mediator, like the United Nations, is key.

Additionally, the Taliban must agree to a ceasefire and to integrate into the political system. Reports show that this is, in fact, on the table.

Human rights cannot be ignored, especially concerning women. Even here, despite some doomsday predictions in the press, the Taliban has made changes, particularly with respect to women’s rights. Knowing that they cannot simply erase the freedoms that women have earned in the government-controlled areas of the country since 2001, the Taliban’s position has softened on women’s involvement in the public sphere such as acquiring education, employment and partaking in social life.

Such changes should provide hope for the potential future of human rights in the country, not receive scorn for failing to immediately create a perfect world.

Still, the lynchpin to an enduring peace lies in economic matters.

The question is how to develop infrastructure and promote mining in ways that would benefit the Afghan people by providing employment and resources for critical public services such as education.

For a country as corrupt as Afghanistan – ranked in the top 12 in the world – the danger is that the lion’s share of the profits will go to the few.

This is why economic deals need to be integral to peace negotiations, including dedicating royalties to provinces, promoting international monitoring to ensure transparency, and targeting infrastructure spending for schools and hospitals.

This money would help stop young men from choosing the path of war and, instead, to rebuild their country. Local Taliban leaders, therefore, would have a more difficult time recruiting people who wish to dedicate their time to jobs, families and school.

Taliban leaders, too, stand to benefit, by becoming involved in these business ventures and seeking to direct resources and provide services to their future constituents.

The international community and most people in Afghanistan agree that war is not the answer. Peace is inevitable, will be advantageous to most and, finally, possible. The enlightened self-interest of various stakeholders could lead to a sustainable peace for a people who deserve so much more and absolutely no less.

Peace is possible in Afghanistan
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The Afghanistan War Will End as It Began: In Blood

The New York Times

Mr. Ackerman, a former Marine and intelligence officer who served five tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan, is a contributing Opinion writer.

Members of a Taliban Red Unit in the Alingar District of Laghman, Afghanistan, last year.
Credit…Jim Huylebroek for The New York Times

This past week saw a spate of violence as the Biden administration began its withdrawal from Afghanistan. On Friday, a truck laden with explosives detonated south of Kabul, killing 27. On Saturday, a professor at Kabul University was fatally shot, and that same day Kandahar airfield came under rocket attack.

Last month, when President Biden first announced the withdrawal, I was having lunch with the Afghan ambassador to the United States, Roya Rahmani. I fought in Afghanistan and over the past couple of years Ambassador Rahmani and I have become friends, periodically catching up over a meal.

Her phone was ringing as we stepped into the dining room at her residence in Washington. With typical Afghan hospitality, we sat down to what turned out was a meal for one, as she would not be eating, in observance of Ramadan. Then, as a steward brought my first course, her phone rang again. This call she had to take. It was the foreign minister. She excused herself as the two of them crafted a statement for her to deliver to the Biden administration. So I sat alone, picking at the vegetables on my plate, in what felt like a dream.

Two days later, I went for an early-morning run with an old friend, whom I’ll call Jack. The two of us had served in Special Operations together, where he still works. Jack has spent so much time in Afghanistan that he holds a tribal membership and, as we passed by the fenced-off Capitol and down along the National Mall, I recounted my lunch, how odd that moment felt, and said, “I can’t believe that’s going to be my memory of how it all ended.”

Jack laughed, and with a doomy pragmatism, predicted that the war wasn’t going to end with a salad at the ambassador’s residence and a news conference by the president; it would end as it began: in blood.

Jack reminded me that removing the 3,500 American troops from Afghanistan is, in military terms, what’s called a “fighting withdrawal,” in which an army leaves the field while still in contact with the enemy. Of all the maneuvers an army can perform (advance, flank, defend, etc.), it is widely accepted that a fighting withdrawal is the most complex and difficult because you are neither attacking nor defending, and so are exceedingly vulnerable.

Unlike the withdrawal from Iraq, in which U.S. troops could drive through the desert into Kuwait as they did in 2011, and unlike the Soviet withdrawal in 1989, in which they could drive across a then-shared border, U.S. troops are currently marooned in Afghanistan, reliant on three principal U.S.-controlled airstrips (Bagram, Jalalabad, Kandahar), making their journey home all the more perilous.

Afghans have a very long memory. During my service there, elders often pointed not just to where they’d fought the Soviets, or to where their great-great-grandfathers had fought the British, but often even to the ruins of the fortresses where their ancestors had fought the armies of Alexander the Great.

Perhaps the most famous fighting withdrawal in Afghan history came at the end of the First Anglo-Afghan War in 1842. That conflict began with a resounding British victory, in 1839, and the installation of a sympathetic government. But that government collapsed, leading to an uprising in Kabul.

Like the U.S. Army today, the British found themselves geographically marooned, and secured favorable terms for withdrawal from their adversaries, but when their column — around 16,500 soldiers and camp followers — left the gates of Kabul on their way to Jalalabad, the Afghans descended, slaughtering all except one: an army surgeon, William Brydon. When Dr. Brydon — the original Lone Survivor — arrived on horseback at the gates of Jalalabad, near death himself, with part of his skull sheared off, a sentry asked him where the army was, to which he responded, “I am the army.”

Although the Soviet army avoided this fate a century later, the regime it left behind fared little better. Mohammad Najibullah, an infamous torturer and former head of Afghanistan’s intelligence service, the KHAD, as well as a K.G.B. agent, had been installed by the Soviets as president and was able to hold onto power for more than two years after they left. As the Soviet Union collapsed, its financial support of his regime evaporated. Mr. Najibullah was soon deposed and eventually found himself at the end of a Taliban executioner’s rope when they took control of Kabul. Which raises the question of how long the United States will continue to support the government of President Ashraf Ghani of Afghanistan after our withdrawal. One year? Two? Three? What is the “decent interval,” to borrow Nixon’s phrase from our calamitous withdrawal from Vietnam?

As Jack and I ran, we discussed this history and other complex aspects of America’s withdrawal: how many senior members of the Afghan government possessed dual citizenship and would likely depart the country, leaving behind less capable subordinates to fill critical positions; the challenges of collapsing more remote outposts; and whether the State Department would grant visas to those Afghans who’d thrown their lot in with their government and us.

Jack concluded, “America might be done with Afghanistan, but Afghanistan isn’t done with America.” In his view, my lunch at the ambassador’s residence wouldn’t mark the end of the war at all. Not for me. Not for anyone.

Ambassador Roya Rahmani.
Credit…Lexey Swall for The New York Times

After finishing her call, the ambassador apologized for being so inattentive. She confessed that she had an agenda item we hadn’t gotten to discuss. She wanted some advice as she was considering writing a book. Like those of the millions of Afghan girls we are now in the process of abandoning, her story is marked by war and overcoming an oppressive version of Islam championed by the Taliban, a personal journey that leads to a final chapter in which she is appointed as the first female Afghan ambassador to the United States. My advice to her was to keep notes, and I told her that she might not be ready to write that final chapter yet. Because she may not be remembered most for having been her government’s first female ambassador, but rather for having been, as it related to America, its last.

Elliot Ackerman, a contributing opinion writer, is the author, most recently, of the novel “Red Dress in Black and White” and “2034.” He is a former Marine and intelligence officer who served five tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The Afghanistan War Will End as It Began: In Blood
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Here’s What Biden Must Do Before We Leave Afghanistan

Michael McCaul and 

Mr. McCaul is a U.S. representative and the ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. Mr. Crocker served as ambassador to Afghanistan under President Barack Obama.

The New York Times
United States troops in Helmand province, Afghanistan. A complete withdrawal, based on an arbitrary deadline rather than conditions on the ground, threatens America’s long-term national security.
Credit…Jim Huylebroek for The New York Times

Last month, President Biden announced a complete withdrawal of all United States troops from Afghanistan by Sept. 11, the 20th anniversary of the day terrorists killed almost 3,000 Americans.

Many in the defense and intelligence communities oppose the move. A complete withdrawal based on an arbitrary deadline, rather than conditions on the ground, threatens our long-term national security. After all, it was the decision to rapidly pull out of Iraq, creating a power vacuum that allowed the Islamic State to grow, that ultimately forced our return to Iraq, prolonging the war.

We cannot allow history to repeat itself.

It’s foolish to think the Taliban will engage in good faith with the Afghan government or abide by the commitments made to the previous administration after we’ve departed. In response to the withdrawal announcement, the Taliban tellingly announced they would not participate in a peace conference planned to start late last month in Turkey and refused to commit to a date in the future, effectively ending the already fragile peace process. The Taliban clearly does not want peace.

In fact, after America withdraws, it’s very likely the Taliban will try to take control of the country, once again giving our enemies a place from which to conduct external attacks against us and our allies. Without a military presence in country, the United States will be giving the green light to the Taliban to roam and conquer.

As William J. Burns, the C.I.A. director, told the Senate Intelligence Committee in April, there is “significant risk” associated with withdrawal. “The U.S. government’s ability to collect and act on threats will diminish,” he said. “That’s simply a fact.”

The decision, however, has been made. But before the pullout is complete, the Biden administration must mitigate its dangers. As our sources on the ground will soon go dark, the gaps in our intelligence collection and counterterrorism networks must be remedied so we retain the ability to identify and eliminate threats before they reach our shores. To do so, we must urgently set up agreements with neighboring countries to provide us with intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities.

Mr. Biden promised that America’s humanitarian and development assistance to the country would continue. To enable our personnel and the countless nongovernmental organizations we work with to provide that help, we must keep them safe. If the country slides back into civil war or once again falls under Taliban rule, maintaining an embassy presence and distributing assistance will become close to impossible. The administration must develop a clear strategy for protecting our embassy, diplomatic staff and aid workers.

The president must also acknowledge that the withdrawal will have dire consequences for Afghan women and girls — and work hard to prevent it. For the past 20 years, we have encouraged Afghan women to step forward, as students, teachers and professionals. Encouraged by our presence, they did just that. But without our presence in the country, it will be difficult to safeguard the gains women have made in Afghan society and to ensure women’s rights are protected.

Lastly, we have obligations to the thousands of Afghans who supported us, mainly as interpreters for our military. They were promised special immigrant visas to get them out of harm’s way, but many have yet to materialize. The Taliban view them as traitors: Since 2014, there have been at least 300 targeted killings of people who worked with us. Many more will die if the administration doesn’t take immediate steps to speed up the process to get them out safely.

These are vital issues Mr. Biden and his team must address — before we pull out on Sept. 11.

Yet so far they have offered no clarity on what counterterrorism agreements, if any, have been reached with other countries. They have provided only minimal assurances for how they will secure the safety of our embassy and personnel. They appear to have no plans for protecting Afghan women. And they have announced no strategy to address the visa backlog that could endanger thousands of our Afghan partners’ lives.

When America pulls out of a conflict zone at the wrong time, it creates a vacuum in which the terrorist threat grows again. That, in turn, eventually requires a re-entry of forces to keep Americans safe. So begins yet another forever war.

The ill-advised decision to pull out of Afghanistan may do just that. But by ensuring proper guardrails are in place, we have a chance to limit the fallout.

Here’s What Biden Must Do Before We Leave Afghanistan
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Even After Withdrawal, U.S. Retains Leverage Over Taliban

Members of the Taliban in Laghman Province, Afghanistan, on March 13, 2020. Many fear that the extremist group will return to power after the Americans leave. (Jim Huylebroek/The New York Times)
Members of the Taliban in Laghman Province, Afghanistan, on March 13, 2020. Many fear that the extremist group will return to power after the Americans leave. (Jim Huylebroek/The New York Times)

No Troops Doesn’t Have to Mean State Collapse

In 2014, the United States and its coalition partners drew down their military forces in Afghanistan as a result of the transition in security responsibility from international to Afghan forces. At the time, I was serving in eastern Afghanistan and was on the receiving end of countless dire warnings from Afghan counterparts of state collapse and criticisms of American abandonment.

Yet, in 2018, I returned to work in an Afghanistan that looked much like the one I had left in 2014. Millions of donor dollars continued to pour into the country, supporting the security forces and the development of health, education, the private sector and women’s empowerment, among other things. There had been no state collapse though state institutions were fragile. Fighting between Afghan government forces and the Taliban was fierce, but the Afghan people had recently celebrated a nationwide Eid cease-fire, catalyzing Afghans’ demands for an end to conflict with the Taliban.

Significantly, the United States was entering a new transition, having accepted we were not going to “win” militarily in Afghanistan. Finding a political solution, most notably through Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad’s mission as special representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation, became the main effort. Khalilzad broke new ground in reaching agreement with the Taliban on counterterrorism commitments, leading to the launch of direct negotiations between an Islamic Republic team and a Taliban delegation in 2020.

Now, President Biden has decided the United States will withdraw its remaining troops in Afghanistan, in coordination with its international partners. There will still be a military requirement to preserve security gains, achieved at tremendous cost in human lives and fundamental to meeting our counter-terrorism requirements, but Afghanistan will no longer host an international force.

While it is right to analyze the risks of military withdrawal, as many have done, the implosion of the Afghan state does not have to be an automatic outcome of troop withdrawal. I would argue the state collapses only if Afghans and international partners allow it to collapse. For Afghans, this is a time to unify and strengthen their positions — with each other, with regional partners who have an immediate interest in a stable Afghanistan and vis-a-vìs the Taliban. International donors should take note of the Soviet experience, which saw the Afghan state collapse not as a result of troop withdrawal but because Moscow cut funding for state institutions and security assistance.

Sources of Leverage

How can the United States help advance a political settlement without boots on the ground? What sources of leverage can it employ?

First, are Afghans themselves. Afghanistan in 2021 is younger, healthier, better educated and more urbanized than it was in 2001, due in part to international investments in health, education and infrastructure. Women likely outnumber men. The internet connects Afghans to each other and to the world. Indeed, ties to the international community today — the result of 20 years of partnership — are one of Afghanistan’s strengths. Afghans have considerable power that is not being fully utilized, largely because too many Afghan leaders continue to put narrow self-interest ahead of the national good. We should continue to press Afghan leaders to do more to unify around a national dialogue that makes clear the Afghan government’s commitment to safeguard the investments of the past two decades. We should also champion Afghan civil society, particularly women and youth, even as we support their own efforts to convince the Taliban that Afghans are focused on future opportunity not past isolation, and will not relinquish their hard-won rights.

Second, is the money. The United States, European Union and other donors provide hundreds of millions of dollars in assistance. Humanitarian assistance reaches impartially into both government- and Taliban-controlled territory. On-budget assistance to government institutions supports service delivery: The Ministries of Public Health and Education are two of the most effective recipients of international assistance, serving millions of Afghans. International support to civil society empowers women, girls and minorities. Private sector development is the engine of Afghanistan’s future growth — revitalizing Afghanistan’s rich agricultural heritage and exporting it to markets in Central Asia and India.

The Afghans representing the Islamic Republic in peace talks know how far the country has come in the last 20 years and how much is due to international support and sacrifice. They also know how much more help is needed for Afghanistan to become more self-reliant. The Taliban, on the other hand, may at best be dimly aware of how much has changed in the intervening 20 years, particularly in Afghan cities, and will need a continuing education on the realities of building a secure and prosperous country. They should already be aware education and health care are services their constituents have come to expect — and will continue to expect from whomever is in charge. Frank conversation between the Taliban and the government (and with donors) on how Afghanistan’s development needs can be met in the coming years should be a diplomatic priority.

Third, are recognition and sanctions relief. In the U.S.-Taliban agreement, the United States commits to work with the U.N. Security Council and others, including the Afghan government, to remove sanctions. From a practical standpoint, the United States and many donors cannot currently provide assistance if it benefits the Taliban. In order for the Taliban to achieve the recognition they crave and unlock assistance, they will have to respect the progress made on issues like women’s and minority rights, education and democracy.

Beyond looking at leverage, there is other work for the United States to do, even while the future of talks is uncertain. Discussions have occurred among the United States, donor countries and international financial institutions like the World Bank since at least 2018 about how to support a peace settlement. There are three assistance scenarios for which it is prudent to plan. All three could be affected or influenced by available leverage.

  1. Localized “cease-fires”: Either as part of a negotiation process or as a confidence-building measure if talks stall.
  2. The nationwide cease-fire included in the U.S.-Taliban agreement: Afghanistan will need additional resources — almost certainly both more money and more people — to reach areas of the country previously out of reach or underserved. This phase could last a considerable amount of time and could involve international monitoring, possibly from the region.
  3. A comprehensive settlement: An end to the conflict will have new requirements (e.g., refugee returns, possibly) as well as expanded access for programs that may have underperformed due to violence or the threat of violence.

It is no secret that change is hard. U.S. leverage relies on diplomatic engagement with Afghan interlocutors at the local, national and international levels. A settlement that ends the fighting also begins a long, arduous process that will be traumatic in its own ways: changes to the labor market, new ethnic tensions, integration of wartime fighters into the economy, management of unsustainable expectations. The development community can incentivize peace by equating it with economic opportunity and improved quality of life. The diplomatic community can support change, even as it keeps the pressure on both parties to end the conflict and agree on a political settlement.

The Biden administration has said it will continue to assist Afghanistan and the Afghan government.  Secretary of State Blinken has promised the full weight of American support in the peace talks. He has warned the Taliban that if it wants to be internationally recognized it must engage in the peace process. He has also said U.S. assistance comes with conditions. These are powerful expressions of commitment and should be taken seriously.

Karen Decker is a U.S. Department of State foreign service officer and currently a visiting fellow at USIP. She served three times in Afghanistan, most recently as deputy chief of mission from 2018-2020. These are her personal views.

Even After Withdrawal, U.S. Retains Leverage Over Taliban
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How American Politics Got Troops Stuck—and Killed—in Afghanistan

By ERIK EDSTROM

Erik Edstrom graduated from West Point and deployed to combat in Afghanistan as an infantry officer. He is the author of Un-American: A Soldier’s Reckoning of our Longest War and a senior fellow at the Eisenhower Media Network, an organization of independent military and national security veteran experts. He holds an MBA and MSc from the University of Oxford where he studied finance and climate change.

Politico Magazine
05/04/2021

As a combat officer, I watched people die in a dysfunctional war. Then I returned to a country unable to end it.

Maybe it was the ketamine talking. Or maybe A.J. Nelson, an 18-year-old private, possessed a type of bravery that I did not. Whatever it was, lying on his back, bones broken, blood rivering from his lacerated lips, he said something that I can’t forget.

“I want to come back.” Flecks of blood sprayed in the air with each word, speckling his uniform. “I want to come back to the platoon, sir.”

Two years earlier, in the spring of 2007, I had commissioned from West Point as an infantry officer. Now I was leading roughly 30 men in Maywand and Zhari—poverty-stricken, hard-scrabble districts within Kandahar Province. These districts had developed a sort of infamy, called the “Heart of Darkness.” This was our first week in Afghanistan, and a roadside bomb had just obliterated one of my platoon’s hulking armored vehicles.

The desert around us was a yard sale of twisted metal and vehicle parts. The wreck of their vehicle—it’s engine block sheered completely off—looked like poachers had gotten it. As the Blackhawk helicopter hovered to land, we attempted to shield the four wounded men from the sandblasting rotor wash. At that moment, I knelt, looked at A.J., and proceeded to lie directly to his face.

“You’re going to be OK.”

I had no idea what “OK” might even mean in that situation. Did “OK” mean quadruple amputee with a pulse? Did “OK” mean years of horrific facial reconstruction surgeries? Or the loss of only one eye? Paralyzed from just the waist down? Or maybe “OK” meant being really lucky—a traumatic brain injury or a single leg amputation, below the knee, which is what my wounded friends from Walter Reed Hospital would later call a “paper cut.” I would have a lot of time to figure this out. Before our tour was over, 11 months later, 25 percent of my men would become casualties.

It took less than a month, however, to realize that America’s war in Afghanistan was a complete disaster.

On the ground, I participated in a mission nicknamed “Operation Highway Babysitter,” in which the infantry secured the road, allowing logistics convoys to resupply the infantry—all so that the infantry could secure the road, so that the logistics convoys could resupply the infantry.

Worse, whenever a road was blown up—since protecting all the roads, all the time, was impossible—American forces would pay exorbitant cost-plus contracts to Afghan construction companies to rebuild it. It was common knowledge that many of these companies were owned by Afghan warlords guilty of human rights abuses. In turn, the construction companies paid a protection tribute to the Taliban. Then the Taliban would buy more bomb-making materials to destroy the road—and U.S. vehicles. We were, indirectly but also quite literally, paying the Taliban to kill us.

But it was the Afghan people, not U.S. soldiers, who have been the greatest—and most numerous—victims of America’s longest war. Nearly 4 million Afghans have been displaced from their homes. Likewise, amid the fighting, the number of Afghan civilians who were injured or killed by our troops was multiples higher. “We have shot an amazing number of people, but to my knowledge, none has ever proven to be a threat,” said General Stanley McChrystal, then-senior American and NATO commander in Afghanistan.

When I returned to America, the war came home with me, along with the regret of having harmed the people of Afghanistan. In the spring of 2011, while serving in the Honor Guard, I buried Tyler Parten, one of my close friends from West Point, in Arlington National Cemetery. As the officer-in-charge, I had the somber job of handing the folded American flag to Tyler’s crying mother.

Several months later, I found myself at the same grave, standing next to the man who had sent me and Tyler to war. President Barack Obama and the first lady had come to Arlington on the eve of the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks to pay their respects to the dead. Seeing me and my friends, they approached us.

The Obamas pose for a picture with Erik Edstrom at the grave of Edstrom’s friend Tyler Parten at Arlington National Cemetery in 2011.

The Obamas pose for a picture with the author at the grave of his friend Tyler Parten at Arlington National Cemetery in 2011. | Courtesy of Erik Edstrom

The president tactfully asked to hear about Tyler’s life, and I told him. We took a photo, capturing the moment for Tyler’s family. It felt like a touching gesture from a genuinely decent man. And yet I could not shake a rotten feeling that this was also the man who had pushed the number of troops in Afghanistan beyond 100,000. And though he had just announced his intention to bring that number back down, the violence would not really diminish, just be replaced by drones and special forces. The tableau was thick with irony: The politicians who sponsor pointless wars are the same ones who must be seen “power grieving” for fallen troops on days of remembrance.

And at that moment, standing in the sunlight of Section 60, I had no way of knowing we were only halfway through the war.

When it comes to negative-sum financial profligacy, no event in American history rivals the War on Terror. The more America contributes—soldiers, taxpayer dollars, opportunity costs, global reputation—the more America continues to lose. At roughly $910 billion, which doesn’t include future costs like disability pay in perpetuity or servicing our debt obligations, the total operating costs of the Afghan War are greater than the cost of the Civil War (both sides), World War I and the Korean War combined.

And yet the Taliban is stronger now than at any point since 2001.

Two weeks ago, President Joe Biden announced all U.S. troops would be out of Afghanistan by this September. No pre-conditions. Gone. He acknowledged a truth that many of us had accepted many years ago: The war was unwinnable and no amount of men or money would ever change that.

Why, I wondered, had it taken so long?

The reason that America has been fighting a self-defeating, multitrillion-dollar, two decade-long conflict in Afghanistan is because America is perfectly designed to fight self-defeating, multitrillion-dollar conflicts. We are, as a country, hard-wired for it.

For the first six months after I returned from war, thudding back slaps and free beers from well-meaning civilians numbed a sense of betrayal. It seemed like a pleasant enough cultural nicety, but over time, I realized that all of this “thank you for your service” stuff was just a culturally ingrained reflex, like saying “bless you” to someone who sneezes. When it comes to our military, the mantra of the public has become: Thank, don’t think. To most Americans, insulated from its effects, war is elevator music.

It’s easy to see how we became insulated.

Fewer U.S. soldiers have died in Afghanistan than in Vietnam, resulting in fewer grieving families seeking justification for their loved one’s ultimate sacrifice. With fewer soldier deaths comes less political pressure for change. And although fewer soldier deaths are, obviously, a good thing, any time soldiers are dying in aimless wars—irrespective of the number—it should register as “unacceptable” in the national consciousness.

The lack of a draft has played a role, too. “Without a draft,” writes the Project on Government Oversight (POGO), “99 percent of the nation had no skin in the game, preferring to subcontract it out to a professionalized military cadre so civilians could ignore it.” That the burden of war is shouldered by a few, of course, does not make its total weight any lighter.

We never felt the pain in our pocketbooks, either. Government obfuscated the financial costs of war by funding it through debt, rather than tax hikes. As Robert Hormats, the former vice chairman of Goldman Sachs, has pointed out, it is unprecedented in U.S. history that we pay for a war entirely from debt. Indeed, we cut taxes repeatedly during wartime (as the George W. Bush administration did in 2001 and 2003 and the Trump Administration did in 2017). Deferring war costs into the future reduces public awareness of those costs and reduces the likelihood that citizens will sue for peace.

Frankly, the public got bullied into silence. Although there has been admirable pushback from concerned citizens, anti-war activists were mostly sidelined, tut-tutted as fringe, uninformed isolationists. Instead of listening to the dissenting voices, both parties relied on experts who proved to be anything but.

It turns out quacks, too, can possess an Ivy League education and a tidy haircut. And for years, a gaggle of sober-sounding quacks—politicians, generals, pundits and military industrial complex executives—desperately tried to invent “progress,” to retrofit the War on Terror with meaning and purpose, regressing to the depths of caricature. The biting wit of Duffel Blog, an Onion-esque website with military-insider jokes, captures the madness with remarkable clarity: “Taliban wonders who will inadvertently fund operations after US leaves” and “‘We’re Making Real Progress,’ Say Last 17 Commanders in Afghanistan.”

But the public didn’t need The Afghanistan Papers to tell them something was amiss. They had been complicit in allowing our troops to be sent into a series of wars that everyone knew to be costly and self-defeating, while simultaneously maintaining the audacious idea that, in doing so, they “support the troops.”

That is not patriotism; that is betrayal.

Since 9/11, a veneer has enveloped American patriotism that is crass and shallow. “Patriotic correctness,” according to author and veteran, Phil Klay. Rather than getting thoughtful public debate, veterans got sad-button Facebook emoticons and 20 percent-off Memorial Day mattress sales.

In the aftermath of 9/11—perhaps out of fear, perhaps out of a desire to manufacture unity—America developed some unhelpful psycho-social dynamics. Anyone old enough to remember the career-torpedoing of the Dixie Chicks and “freedom fries” probably remembers that speaking out against the war was a career-limiting move. Dan Rather, the former anchor of “CBS Evening News,” spoke of these extreme dynamics, “There was a fear in every newsroom in America … a fear of losing your job … the fear of being stuck with some label, unpatriotic or otherwise.” As such, there was less cultural pushback and friction that might have led to more open, productive debate about US foreign policy.

Similarly unhelpful, there remains a meatheaded, “if-you-do-not-wear-a-combat-badge-on-your-chest-then-you-are-not-qualified-to-hold-an-opinion-about-war” sentiment that lives on. But the thing is: Civilians are just as “American” as their military counterparts, and you don’t have to have been deployed to combat to present a well-reasoned argument. If anything, due to the disproportionate risks and costs associated with warfare, the hurdle for condemning American political violence should be much lower than the hurdle for insisting that it must continue.

Whether our nation’s abdication of civic responsibility to protect veterans’ service is a matter of blindly moving with the herd—a kind of lobotomized patriotism—or a sneaking sense that speaking truth to power has no effect—civic helplessness—neither sentiment serves the nation.

Pew Research shows that the majority of veterans and the American public do not believe America’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were worth fighting. And they have felt this way for years. It is our duty, as engaged citizens, as policymakers, to ensure not only that this war ends, but that future wars, which may resemble Iraq or Afghanistan, never start in the first place.

If the public wants to think more than thank, it needs to end the legislative madness: reassert Congress’ war powers, clip the Pentagon’s brass parachutes and rationalize the military budget.

Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution gives Congress the power to declare war. However, since 1942, Congress has eschewed all responsibility for war, delegating it to the executive branch. For almost a century, the United States has replaced legal declaration of war with “authorization to use military force,” or AUMF, with predictably deleterious consequences. Although originally intended to be narrow in scope, AUMFs have become bloated vehicles for sweeping presidential authority, facilitating political violence unbounded by constraints of geography or timeline.

To redress the resulting imbalance of power between the executive and legislative branches of government, President Biden and Congress should push for the repeal of all existing AUMFs (i.e. H.R. 1274) and reassert Congressional authority to declare war. The 2001 AUMF, for instance, has been perverted to the point where it has been used to justify 41 operations in 19 countries.

More boldly, any future declarations of war should include a sunset clause, forcing Congress to perennially reconsider and reaffirm the decision to wage war, giving the American people the democratic recourse to fire representatives who vote the wrong way.

This step would help to protect our military from having their service misused by upending the default American posture, which favors extending war through indecision and inertia.

Congress must cut the risers on “Brass parachutes” and disable the revolving door between the Pentagon and the military-industrial complex. “When it comes to the Department of Defense,” the Project on Government Oversight notes, “the conflicts created by the revolving door can potentially lead to favoritism, ineffective weapons and programs, bad deals, and misguided foreign policy.”

Brass parachutes and the cozy relationship between defense contractors and senior military leaders seeking lucrative post-retirement jobs confuses what is in the best interest of America with what is in the best interest of their individual careers. This phenomenon partially explains the F-35—a jet that “doesn’t work particularly well” and will cost the American taxpayer $1.6 trillion over its lifetime.

It is time for Congress to step up and rationalize the military budget—for the sake of both sanity and national security. National security must take on a broader meaning beyond bombs, bullets and bases. Members of Congress must right-size the military budget to allow for increased investments in humanitarian aid, public health, climate resilience and diplomacy. Representatives like Jake Auchincloss of Massachusetts, Barbara Lee of California, Mark Pocan of Wisconsin, and 50 other members—have already begun the conversation to rationalize and reduce the defense budget.

Criticizing American foreign policy does not diminish, or debase, the service of our nation’s veterans. Healthy debate and skepticism about the use—and abuse—of power is about as “American” as it gets.

The costs of not pushing back against these aimless wars are incalculable—to civilians, to the soldiers who are wounded and killed but also to the ones who survive and to the society that has had to suffer with them. I have seen how those long-tail costs—divorce, alcohol and drug abuse, depression, “zombie” medication, suicide and violence—have seeped into every sinew of our country. And while it’s hard to isolate whether an act of suicide or homicide is attributable to combat deployments or something else, it’s not a great leap to say that a decadeslong war didn’t reduce the likelihood of either occurrence.

One of my soldiers, who was 18 years old when he deployed to Afghanistan, killed himself not long after returning home from deployment, a reminder that suicide has been deadlier than combat for the military.

Another soldier is currently serving life in prison after murdering and dismembering someone he never knew, in a bathtub in Oregon. In 2012, he and an accomplice rammed a crossbow bolt through the victim’s ear, and when this failed to kill him, they choked him to death with a chain. After they chopped up his body in a bathtub, they used his car to rob a bank. This was not the first murder the soldier had been involved in.

The name of the convicted murderer: A.J. Nelson—the same soldier who was injured by a roadside bomb during our first week of deployment, the one who had wanted so badly to return to the platoon. In the end, A.J. got his wish—the military patched him up and sent him back to my platoon seven months later. For the final four months of the tour, he experienced yet more trauma. A.J. may have recovered from his physical wounds, but still, I was wrong. He was not “going to be OK.”

The destroyed vehicle that A.J. Nelson was in.

The destroyed vehicle that A.J. Nelson was in. | Courtesy of Erik Edstrom

It makes you wonder: Was the sum of the traumas experienced during the war in Afghanistan necessary to protect the national territory of the United States?

No. No they were not.

How American Politics Got Troops Stuck—and Killed—in Afghanistan
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The U.S. is pulling out of Afghanistan. Don’t expect an al-Qaeda reboot.

By Daniel Byman

The New York Times

May 2, 2021

Here’s why the country won’t necessarily become a base for international terrorist attacks

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U.S. troops are beginning the process of leaving Afghanistan, after almost 20 years of fighting. Announcing his decision to complete the U.S. withdrawal by September, President Biden declared: “I believed that our presence in Afghanistan should be focused on the reason we went in the first place: to ensure Afghanistan would not be used as a base from which to attack our homeland again. We did that. We accomplished that objective.”

But al-Qaeda — which, after 9/11, provided the U.S. rationale for invading Afghanistan — still has 400 to 600 members fighting with the Taliban, according to U.N. Security Council estimates. In a recent interview, al-Qaeda operatives promised “war against the U.S. will be continuing on all other fronts.” Citing concerns about an al-Qaeda resurgence, several members of Congress blasted Biden’s decision. More quietly, many of the president’s military advisers also opposed the U.S. move to withdraw.

Critics of Biden’s decision warn that al-Qaeda remains strong — and that, if U.S. troops depart, the Taliban will allow it a haven, U.S. counterterrorism pressure will decline, the Afghan government will struggle and attacks on the United States from Afghanistan will occur. How valid are each of these concerns?

How strong is al-Qaeda in 2021?

Although al-Qaeda has fighters in Afghanistan, its ability to launch international terrorist attacks from there and from Pakistan, where the core organization has been based for almost 20 years, is limited. Al-Qaeda core members haven’t successfully attacked the U.S. homeland since 9/11, despite numerous attempts, and have also been ineffective against Europe in the past decade. Affiliate groups such as al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula have conducted limited attacks, including a December 2019 attack that killed three people at a U.S. naval base in Florida, but they are not based in Afghanistan and Pakistan like the core. Indeed, in the past decade, al-Qaeda has localized more, relying heavily on affiliates to keep its name alive.

The United States has killed numerous al-Qaeda core leaders, and overall leader Ayman al-Zawahiri may be dead — the fact that we don’t know his status months after rumors of his death tells us something about his decreased relevance. Pressure from U.S. airstrikes and Special Forces raids have kept leaders on the run and have prevented the establishment of large-scale training camps akin to those that existed before 9/11.

And countries around the world remain focused on the al-Qaeda threat, in contrast with the pre-9/11 era. The global intelligence campaign has made it harder for the group to communicate, send its operatives to reconnoiter or raise money, or otherwise prepare to conduct attacks.

The Taliban lies, but it has reasons to restrain al-Qaeda

U.S. negotiators have pressed the Taliban for years to agree to prevent al-Qaeda from using Afghanistan as a haven for international terrorist attacks. The Taliban claims to have accepted this demand, and al-Qaeda members also claim they will honor this even as they attack the United States from other theaters. However, Taliban leaders have lied about the

extent of their relationship with al-Qaeda in the past, casting doubt on denials about the future relationship between the two.

However, drawing the line at international attacks is logical for the Taliban. While it gave Osama bin Laden sanctuary, the Taliban opposed many of al-Qaeda’s attacks, including 9/11 — though it continued to cooperate with al-Qaeda despite being angry with the decision to attack the United States in 2001.

Since then, the Taliban has learned the cost of opposing the United States, and its leaders may recognize that keeping al-Qaeda personnel as fighters but drawing the line at anti-U.S. terrorist attacks satisfies the Taliban’s loyalty to its ally and desire for capable fighters while keeping Afghanistan out of U.S. crosshairs.

U.S. counterterrorism capabilities will diminish

The U.S. withdrawal will limit the U.S. ability to strike the al-Qaeda core in Pakistan and Afghanistan. The lack of U.S. troops is likely to hinder efforts to strike al-Qaeda directly — but also make it difficult to determine whether the Taliban is cheating on its commitment to halt al-Qaeda from conducting international attacks.

U.S. troops on bases in Afghanistan also protected intelligence assets and conducted raids against al-Qaeda, and the bases served as drone launching points. CIA Director William J. Burns recently testified that, after a withdrawal, “the U.S. government’s ability to collect and act on threats will diminish.”

However, the United States will be able to sustain at least some counterterrorism capacity outside Afghanistan and is already working on other basing options, including Qatar and Uzbekistan. These alternatives are farther away, however, which will make U.S. operations more difficult.

The Afghan government is likely to get weaker

“I am concerned about the Afghan military’s ability to hold on after we leave,” Gen. Kenneth “Frank” McKenzie, commander of U.S. Central Command, testified last week. This military weakness exists despite billions of U.S. dollars in aid, massive military training efforts and other support over the past two decades.

In the aftermath of a U.S. departure, the Afghan government’s ability to go after al-Qaeda may be limited at best. The operations of Afghan forces depended heavily on U.S. intelligence and military support. In addition, without heavy pressure or inducement from the United States, the Afghan government is more likely to focus on the Taliban and other immediate threats — it’s less likely to have the bandwidth to address small groups of terrorists setting up shop to conduct international attacks.

Pakistan, however, may have more of an incentive to separate out al-Qaeda from the Taliban, its longtime ally. Greater Taliban influence in Afghanistan is a victory for Pakistan, but Islamabad has its own Islamist militant challenge. An al-Qaeda attack from Afghanistan on the United States or Europe would put renewed pressure on the Taliban — an outcome Pakistan would oppose.

Taken together, these factors suggest the U.S. troop withdrawal will ease pressure on al-Qaeda, but the group is far from its pre-9/11 strength, and it faces many challenges. As a result, it is far from certain that international terrorist attacks are a likely consequence of the departure of U.S. forces from Afghanistan.

Daniel Byman (@dbyman) is a professor in the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. His latest book is “Road Warriors: Foreign Fighters in the Armies of Jihad” (Oxford University Press, 2019).

The U.S. is pulling out of Afghanistan. Don’t expect an al-Qaeda reboot.
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