By Haroon Azar*
October marks the nineteenth anniversary of Operation Enduring Freedom, the United States’ military intervention in Afghanistan. The war accomplished its key goals effectively, at least initially. The Taliban were quickly removed from power, and al Qaeda was decimated. But the American led coalition was unable to prevent the Taliban from regrouping, and the subsequent nearly two decades have seen casualties mount for America, our NATO allies, and especially Afghan government forces and the country’s civilian population. Just last week, a car bomb targeting a government building in Nangarhar province killed 15 and injured more than 40.
The Taliban insurgency grew—quickly becoming persistent, evasive, and devastating with the help of key neighboring countries. By 2010 the number of American troops in the country had reached 100,000, and the total number of foreign troops was 150,000. Despite these numbers—or perhaps because of them—the United States and its allies were unable or unwilling to decisively defeat the Taliban—and the Afghan central government appeared too corrupt or at least too weak to encourage Taliban fighters to defect.
It is no wonder that so many Americans want to see the last of our troops come home. After a war that has lasted longer than Vietnam, and as such is the longest war in our history, and with over 2,300 dead and 20,000 wounded, Americans are exhausted. (This is nothing to say of the hundreds of billions of dollars expended.) The Trump administration is now supporting peace talks with the Taliban even as the Taliban continue a brutal campaign against the Afghan government that is ostensibly our ally.
While it is undeniably important to consider the costs of Operation Enduring Freedom on America and her Western allies, it is likewise vital to consider the costs American intervention (and resistance to it) have imposed upon Afghanistan: Since the United Nations began documenting casualties in 2009, over 100,000 Afghans have been killed or wounded. Keep in mind the events before this: A nightmarish Taliban Emirate, and before that, a condition of civil war preceded by a brutal Soviet occupation that claimed the lives of one million Afghans. Throughout the past four decades, the Afghan people have suffered immeasurably in many conflicts, most of which imported on them by foreign powers.
It is common for frustration with the war, and the violent persistence of the Taliban, to lead some to dismiss the American intervention as if it has had no accomplishments or achievements which Afghans might wish to fight to preserve. But this would be unfair. There have been undeniable victories. al Qaeda has no doubt been crippled by the American intervention if even its current strength is contested. And for some twenty years, Afghans were free from the Taliban—including their harsh social restrictions and imported extremist ideology.
With Western and primarily American support, Afghans realized great gains: A democracy, above all, however flawed. Progress in women’s rights, however tenuous. Access to education in a nation badly in need of it. And a relatively free media. Contrast the status of women under the Taliban—restricted, largely, to the home and forbidden education—to the current circumstance, in which women work in media and serve in senior government positions. What happens to all this progress now?
Withdrawal, in other words, is starting to feel like abandonment.
In February, the United States and the Taliban signed an agreement with several key elements. There would be a dialogue between all Afghan forces, meaning in this instance, the Western-backed central government and the Taliban. The Taliban would guarantee foreign actors would not use the country’s territory to plan, organize, or launch attacks. A ceasefire. And the complete withdrawal of American forces. There was no guarantee that democratic progress and women’s rights would be secured.
There is no evidence the Taliban have improved in this regard—and, given their complicity in attacks on civilians and the poor faith they have shown in continuing to attack fellow Afghans even as peace talks are underway, there is even reason to believe the movement has become increasingly conservative.
What then could any kind of negotiation accomplish for Afghanistan—and what would it mean for the world?
In 2008, during my second week on the job in the Office of International Affairs at DHS, I met with a group of female Afghan members of parliament. At the end of our meeting on how best the U.S. can help with drug interdiction on the Pakistani-Afghan border, the senior member of the delegation pulled me aside, and we chatted about the strength of Afghan women during the past two decades. She said to me in Dari, “you are an Afghan-American and have the lived experience of a strong Afghan mother raising you while living in a democratic environment; please ensure our voices are never silenced again so our children can have the same.”
While the United States still has leverage in the region, and before we have concluded our talks with the Taliban, we should demand from and empower the Afghan Government to negotiate from a place of strength, never compromising its constitutional commitment to the protection of women, minority groups, and the most marginalized in the country. Any final outcome must honor the sacrifices of Americans and Afghans—as well as the integrity of the Afghan constitution, the ideal of representative government, and the belief that all Afghans deserve equal consideration and treatment under the law.
*Haroon Azar is senior fellow at the UCLA Burkle Center for International Relations and program director for the Initiative on Security and Religious Freedom. A recognized national security expert with broad experience working with law enforcement and faith-based communities, Azar previously worked as regional director in Los Angeles for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. He is also former deputy director and senior policy analyst for the Middle East, Africa, and South Asia in the DHS Office of International Affairs in Washington, DC, where he was responsible for negotiating bilateral and multilateral security agreements with international partners focusing on improving immigration policy, visa security, aviation security, and countering violent extremism efforts.