Retreat from Afghanistan would restore the abhorrent conditions that led the U.S. to intervene in the first place and represent a devastating foreign policy blunder. Since 2001, the U.S. has endured massive losses in blood and treasure — over 2,400 soldiers died, 20,400-plus wounded and nearly a trillion dollars spent. Afghans have suffered enormously — at least 38,000 civilians and nearly 60,000 Afghan security forces have died.
Numerous justifications for the American intervention in Afghanistan were articulated in 2001: Punishing al Qaeda for perpetrating the 9/11 attacks; eliminating the Taliban, which gave al Qaeda sanctuary; releasing the Afghan people from decades of repression; creating a democratic government; and empowering Afghan women and girls to exercise their fundamental rights.
Considering those objectives have not been achieved, a quixotic reduction of U.S. forces, even by half of current levels, would endanger the government’s stability; heighten extremists’ power; undermine Afghan security forces’ professionalization; derail the peace building process; perturb U.S. allies; and cause a backslide of women’s rights.
The implications are as wide-ranging as they are disquieting. The political situation in Afghanistan is volatile after the disputed parliamentary elections, which culminated in a record number of civilian casualties and in advance of the presidential elections.
The current government — closely supported by the U.S — is increasingly unpopular, with ethnic and party tensions threatening further political fragmentation, which is likely to be exasperated by an escalation of violence precipitated by additional U.S. withdrawal.
A rollback of U.S. forces in Afghanistan will be a boon for the Taliban, Islamic State and other extremist elements, which continue to exert increasing territorial and population control. It would also enhance the odious geopolitical influences of China and Russia — the latter of which has consistently worked against American and Afghan interests by directly arming the Taliban. While Afghan security forces have increased their ability to repel insurgents through U.S. assistance, capacity deficits remain rampant.
Furthermore, an announced withdrawal of U.S. troops essentially repeats past mistakes by articulating a timeline, which contradicts President Trump’s own policy and belief that “a hasty withdrawal would create a vacuum that terrorists, including ISIS and al Qaeda, would instantly fill, just as happened before September 11th.” Indeed, a reduction in U.S. forces will likely facilitate an uptick in violence and collapse the government, leading to the removal of all American troops while leaving Afghanistan as it was found 2001 — a haven for violent extremists ruled by the Taliban.
Parties to the conflict and the international community assert that only a political solution will resolve the challenges facing Afghanistan. For the first time in years, a peace process is underway in earnest. The Taliban’s key demand is the removal of U.S. forces from Afghan territory. Any withdrawal of the U.S. at this juncture is an acquiescence to extremists and eviscerates a vital leverage point available to U.S. Special Representative Zalmay Khalilzad in ongoing negotiations.
Significantly, U.S. abandonment of Afghanistan will vitiate its commitment to Afghan women and children, who have borne a disproportionate cost of this war. The gender inequality, domestic violence and discrimination that skyrocketed during the Taliban reign led to Afghanistan consistently being ranked as one of the worst places in the world to be a woman. Since the 2001 intervention, partially predicated on releasing women from repressive grip of Taliban rule, Afghan women and girls have made phenomenal strides. Despite overwhelming challenges, women and girls now have increasing access to education, economic opportunity and other human rights, as well as and meaningful participation in the peace building process. A reduced U.S. presence threatens all of that.
A withdrawal would be yet another deleterious signal to our allies, that the U.S. is no longer a reliable partner in operations that espouse democracy, protect human rights and promote security for those with whom it shares mutual interests. Outgoing Defense Secretary Mattis ruminated on the value of America’s intricate network of alliances in his letter of resignation. This surprise force reduction would serve as yet another eschewal of U.S. obligations to long-standing international partners and jettison over 70 years of core foreign policy principles.
According to ret. Army colonel Christopher Kolenda — who assisted in re-opening the peace talks through backchannel diplomatic efforts — “We must resolve this conflict in a way that respects the services and sacrifices of both Americans and Afghans.” While a large U.S. military presence should not be perpetual, reducing force strength at this moment in this manner will eviscerate the 17-plus years of colossal sacrifices endured by the Afghans, Americans and our allies alike.
Manizha Naderi is the former Executive Director of Women for Afghan Women, which provides vital protection and services to victims of gender-based violence, including pro bono legal, vocational, educational, mediation, healthcare, childcare, counseling and housing assistance in Afghanistan and to Afghan-Americans in the United States. Megan E. Corrado is a human rights attorney and serves as Women for Afghan Women’s Director of Advocacy. Corrado leads the organization’s advocacy efforts in New York and Washington, DC, to influence policy related to women, peace and security and to promote and expand women’s rights around the world.