Numbers tell the toll inflicted by America’s longest running war: Nearly 18 years of conflict in Afghanistan. More than 2,400 U.S. soldiers killed. Some 38,000 Afghan civilians dead. Washington’s price tag since America’s post-9/11 invasion in 2001: $760 billion and counting.
America’s eventual decoupling from the Afghan conflict remains an enduring goal. But so is lasting peace, bulwarked by the safeguarding of human rights — particularly for Afghan women — and the prevention of Afghanistan again becoming a haven for terrorism.
President Donald Trump’s point man for talks with the Taliban, U.S. special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad, has announced an agreement in principle with the Taliban. The U.S. would withdraw 5,400 troops within 135 days. The rest of the 14,000 U.S. military personnel deployed there could come home within 16 months. In exchange for the start of troop withdrawals, the Taliban would agree to sever ties with al-Qaida.
Trump has been itching to extract the U.S. from Afghanistan and declare himself the president who — unlike his two predecessors — extracted most American forces from that war-ravaged Central Asian nation. A rash, hasty withdrawal, however, will do much more harm than good, for Afghans and for America. Three crucial questions for the president:
• How will the U.S. ensure the Taliban obeys its pledge to disavow al-Qaida and preempt any revival of anti-West terrorism?
Al-Qaida’s use of Afghanistan as a staging ground for the 9/11 attacks was the impetus for America’s intervention. Al-Qaida still maintains a presence in the country, as does the similarly dangerous Islamic State. And as longtime AP correspondent Kathy Gannon reminded National Public Radio listeners this week, the Taliban has never severed its ties with al-Qaida and other terrorist groups that have the U.S. in their crosshairs.
Allowing a contingent of U.S. counterterrorism forces to remain would help safeguard the U.S. and its allies from those threats. Right now, however, there’s no sign that the Taliban will agree to such a measure.
• Afghanistan has made strides in protecting women’s rights. Would this peace agreement advance that tolerance or quash it?
When the Taliban ruled, women were banned from going to school, working or leaving home without male chaperones. They were essentially prisoners in their own houses. Violations brought on floggings or worse. Today, women can study, work, own their own businesses, vote and serve in government. The U.S. can’t enter any agreement that enables a rollback of those rights.
• Glaringly absent from ongoing peace talks between the Taliban and the U.S. has been the democratically elected Afghan government. Will the deal between Washington and the Taliban lead to meaningful negotiations between the Taliban and Kabul?
Taliban leaders regard the Afghan government, led by President Ashraf Ghani, as Washington’s puppet. They’ve been steadfast in ignoring Ghani and his team. Without a political settlement between Kabul and the Taliban, peace remains a faraway prospect.
The temptation for the U.S. to exit Afghanistan grows stronger with news of every bombing and ambush inflicted on civilians, Afghan security forces or U.S. and NATO troops. But a withdrawal that doesn’t keep Afghanistan from becoming a rogue state, that fails to safeguard women’s rights, that leads to the collapse of legitimate Afghan governance, would prove disastrous — both for Afghans and, in future years, for America.
— Chicago Tribune