Cyr column: Afghanistan lessons for Americans and the world
"The partnership between Afghanistan and the United States is not ending.”
That was President Joe Biden’s declaration of support as he met on June 25 with Afghanistan leaders Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah.
The U.S. is committed to withdrawing military forces by September 11, 2021, but other aid will continue. That symbolic date is the twentieth anniversary of the al Qaeda terrorist attacks, followed by international military invasion and occupation of the country.
The extreme fundamentalist Taliban regime that sheltered al Qaeda terrorists was overthrown. Ever since, the international community has worked to create a strong central government and representative political system.
Ghani and Abdullah are an odd couple, bitter rivals who wrestled for power following the disputed 2019 presidential election. Ghani won the election by over ten percentage points, but Abdullah contested the outcome. Now, they cooperate.
The two leaders worked out a shared governance arrangement that so far has functioned effectively. Their collaboration is one promising sign amid the uncertainty facing their nation after the withdrawal.
Serious negotiations aimed at bringing peace to Afghanistan have now reached and surpassed the nine-month mark. Many knowledgeable observers are surprised, in some cases amazed, that the discussions have taken place at all.
Representatives of the government of Afghanistan and the Taliban movement continue their direct peace negotiations in Doha, capital of the Persian Gulf state of Qatar. The two sides have persevered, impressively, since last September.
In February 2020, after nearly two decades of occupation, the U.S. government and the Taliban signed a formal agreement for the phased withdrawal of international troops. The accord includes detailed stipulations to help protect the population and discourage the return of terrorists.
Context is important. Afghanistan has no established history of formal representative elections, Western-style rule of law, or effective national government. Powerful local tribal leaders are primary. They establish the rules, maintain social order, command exceptionally lethal warriors.
At the same time, the Taliban today experiences limitations. The movement remains markedly unpopular with the population at large. Islamic extremism lacks international strength.
The Soviet Union, after years of de facto control over the national government in Kabul, in 1979 launched a massive military invasion. A decade of unconventional warfare followed before Moscow finally accepted defeat and withdrew.
President Jimmy Carter demonstrated aggressive, effective leadership in supplying weapons and related support for the Mujahideen warriors who fought the Soviet military. President Ronald Reagan expanded aid to include vital Stinger anti-aircraft missiles.
The frustrating aspects of Afghanistan today can mask positive changes such as reasonably honest elections, and rapidly expanding political participation of women. Technology spreads steadily even to remote rural areas. Cellphones, the Internet, and traditional television are in even isolated communities.
Wider historical and political context is important, especially for Americans who characteristically are impatient and present-focused. Youssef Aboul-Enein, a U.S. Navy officer, is one talented scholar and analyst who provides such context.
Major East-West trade routes traverse the region since ancient times. Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean, leased from Britain in 1966, contains major American military facilities.
Great Britain’s long-term approach is a good guide. Historically, in South Asia as elsewhere, they combined economic and political with military tools. They emphasize human intelligence, in contrast to American preference for technology. Above all, we must be uncharacteristically patient.
Ultimately, the Afghan people are responsible for their own political future.
Learn more: Youssef H. Aboul-Enein, “Militant Islamist Ideology” (Naval Institute Press)
Arthur I. Cyr is Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College and author of “After the Cold War.” (NYU and Palgrave/Macmillan). Contact firstname.lastname@example.org.