LET’S START BY acknowledging that yes, COVID-19 is important. We are all impacted by COVID-19 in far more severe ways than we could have ever imagined. It is hard to think about, let alone advocate for much else.
And yet, we need to acknowledge that the world of human rights and politics trudges forward. Though it has slipped through much of our 24-hour news cycle, it’s time to talk about Afghanistan and the United State’s critically important peace talks there. Sadly, it is not an exaggeration to say that almost every individual around the world has been impacted by the United State’s involvement in the region. Certainly everyone in the United States and Afghanistan has been (not to mention the broader coalitions established to fight the Taliban, Al Qaeda and a variety of other insurgent actors in the region).
Although some individuals identify this as the very reason that the United States should pull troops out of Afghanistan, ultimately the United States has a responsibility to ensure that its only legacy is not instability.
Despite the United State’s “War on Drugs,” in Afghanistan, 5,330 metric tons of opium continues to fund the Taliban insurgency throughout the country. U.S. involvement in the region has destroyed most economic opportunity, leaving opium as the main source of economic wellbeing and livelihoods for much of the rural population. Simply eliminating the trade through violence has only served to disenfranchise more of the population and fuel support for the Taliban.
While the United States has a responsibility to promote economic growth in the region, the Trump administration has instead focused on a haphazard process of transferring its responsibility onto others: all of whom have competing interests in the country. By committing to withdraw all forces in just 14 months, the U.S. is relying on countries like India and Pakistan to cooperate with the Afghan government to ensure peace. Recently, U.S. special envoy to Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad called on India to take a more direct role in promoting negotiation between the Taliban and the Afghan government. Meanwhile, the United States continues to accuse Pakistan of having an oversized influence over the Taliban.
India and Pakistan came to the brink of war in 2019 and have not shown a desire to financially support the region’s stability and do not have a track record of cooperative engagement on international issues.
Meanwhile, following new attacks in Kabul by the Taliban, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani ordered the military to switch to “offensive mode” against the Taliban, demonstrating an approach that seems contrary to the United States’ peace process. Each of these governments has differing outlooks and approaches, which contributes to confusion and uncertainty.
Some might argue that the U.S. should not dictate its foreign policy based on another country’s needs and wants. Fair enough. But by removing U.S. forces, the Trump administration is risking losing its ability to maintain influence in the country’s social and political affairs. During recent testimony in congress, Laurel Miller of the International Crisis Group said that the United States would likely not be able to safely maintain an embassy’s presence in Afghanistan if it withdraws military forces. Therefore, without the military, the U.S. risks throwing away its influence in the region.
The United States’ decades-long involvement in Afghanistan has made it responsible for much of the region’s economic, political and social instability. Is it important to engage the Taliban in negotiations on the country’s future? Absolutely. However, withdrawing troops in such a fast-paced manner does little to promote the peace and stability that the U.S. should be seeking for the region.
It has been a long war. But doesn’t that solidify the fact that the U.S. has a long-term responsibility to support Afghanistan’s population until the Taliban and Afghan government are willing to work together to promote peace?
Like much of its foreign policy, the Trump administration appears ready to abandon local populations and throw away its own power and influence in favor of rapid change. We cannot allow COVID-19 to distract us from such foolish games.