It seems hard to believe, but two months have passed since the U.S.-Taliban exit deal was finalized. Since that time, we have seen bipartisan pushback from Members of Congress insisting that we must maintain some form of military presence in Afghanistan for the foreseeable future. The novel coronavirus has also since grown into a global pandemic, threatening a humanitarian disaster and potentially interfering with withdrawal plans. But even though conditions and rhetoric are volatile, a truth remains constant: we must push forward in responsibly ending the Afghanistan war.
To be sure, Americans are sick and tired of being at war in Afghanistan, as the remote South Asian country is now synonymous with America’s longest active conflict. After nearly 20 years, many Americans do not even remember or care why we invaded in the first place. But the public’s war weariness isn’t the only or even the primary reason we must fully withdraw: the truth is that no amount of American military power can bring peace and security to Afghanistan. The sooner we recognize that, the sooner we can pivot to solutions that actually improve the security of Afghans and Americans alike.
It is important to first recognize that the U.S.-Taliban deal is not a peace agreement. It is an exit deal that may lead to the start of negotiations between the government of Afghanistan and the Taliban that will hopefully result in a peace agreement. Given that Afghanistan is a complex environment with many countries supporting the various and numerous factions of the Taliban, and other warring parties, only an inclusive intra-Afghan dialogue can produce a peace agreement. As such, a deal between only the United States the Taliban without the participation of the Afghan government seems doomed to fail. However, the United States has squandered multiple opportunities for a negotiated settlement over the years, prolonging the violence and losing leverage along the way. Thus, this deal is the only viable opportunity before us.
The U.S.-Taliban deal very well may fall apart. But no matter the obstacles before us, we must resist calls to revert to more militarism. To that end, we shouldn’t conflate leaving militarily with leaving altogether. It is past time for the United States to withdraw its troops, but the need to deepen our diplomatic and peacebuilding engagement has just begun. For years, U.S. military commanders in Afghanistan have recommended ramping up our diplomatic efforts in order to secure a political settlement. Now as we withdraw militarily, we must strengthen and increase our diplomatic efforts and bring in the international community to support the intra-Afghan negotiations. It is in everyone’s interests for intra-Afghan talks to meaningfully include women and to be successful in securing a negotiated solution that addresses the root causes of Afghanistan’s suffering. We must further work multilaterally to reduce the violence by encouraging other regional actors to stop fueling the warring factions and treating Afghanistan as an arena on which to fight proxy battles.
Further, instead of abandoning our aid responsibilities, we should be leading the international community in committing to long-term narrowly tailored development assistance that supports local, Afghan-led solutions. This is especially necessary as the pandemic only increases the suffering of the Afghan people. Additionally, any further direct economic support to the Afghan government should be conditioned on progress toward human rights and good governance in order to maintain and build on important gains.
Put simply: we don’t need more military might, we urgently need more diplomatic engagement. The United States retains leverage, but it is quickly diminishing. We must use that remaining leverage immediately to help secure an intra-Afghan peace agreement that is as authentic, inclusive and robust as possible.
There simply is no military solution to Afghanistan’s insurgency conflict or to the challenge of terrorism, and Afghan civilians pay the highest price for continued conflict. More importantly, we must recognize that the United States does not have the power to impose any particular outcome in Afghanistan – only Afghans can determine their future. What we can do is decide whether we want to use our limited leverage and resources to help or harm those Afghan-led solutions. In this crucial moment, we should choose to do everything we can to help.