There is a famous line at the end of Saving Private Ryan where a dying Tom Hanks says to the private his rangers died trying to find and rescue, “earn this.” It raises the question about Afghanistan today. Can the diplomats now in charge of finishing the war earn the sacrifices of the Afghan civilians, the Afghan military and police forces, and the U.S.-led NATO-plus coalition members. Can diplomats find peace for Afghans and punish the nations that have supported the Taliban and terrorists?
I’ve been watching the Afghanistan debate in the US carefully, and frankly the September 11 withdrawal date is more than I thought the administration would allow. After watching multiple presidents discuss options over the years, I knew that this was where we were headed with Afghanistan. The studies of the war that the Biden team ordered were mostly a fig-leaf to cover the decision they already came into office with—get everyone out as fast as possible and let the Afghans fight their own war. So here we are.
Gone are any ideas about conditions-based disengagement decisions. Biden has declared that the 2001 objectives have been achieved and all NATO forces will be gone by September 11,2021. This is in keeping with the “in together, out together” mantra of NATO.
No Surprise to Afghans
This shouldn’t be a surprise to Afghans—in this world full of problems, getting over 40 nations to care about Afghanistan for 2 decades was a true miracle. These nations are ready to bring their forces home. As I warned my Afghan colleagues for the last couple years, it wont matter what political party controls the White House—Americans are ready to bring our troops home. Afghanistan was never going to be a long-term military outpost like Germany, Japan, or Korea. It would make sense to do so as South Asia is a critical location, but the world has changed much since the 1950s.
The decision to withdraw should not mean the end of support to the ANDSF, to development goals, and maybe most importantly to education expansion in Afghanistan. It is estimated by Brown University that over 170,000 casualties have occurred since 2001 and the present in Afghanistan. The vast majority of them have been Afghans. This war has had a high cost for civilians, whose numbers (47,000 plus) are just behind the casualty rates of the main combatants, the Afghan defense and security forces (60,000 plus); and the Taliban militants and their terrorist partners (vastly underestimated at only 51,000 plus).
With all those losses, the Afghan people are yearning for peace. These losses in the American/NATO era are much lower than the losses in the previous civil war and Soviet era. Afghans have seen enough killing. Let’s look at what comes next.
WINNING THE PEACE PROCESS
First things first—win the peace process. The diplomats from around the globe need to push very hard to get the Taliban to seriously take part in the peace negotiations and most of that push needs to be directed at Pakistan. Pakistan is still calling the shots on the outcome of the Taliban peace process concessions. Without significant pressure on Pakistan and possibly a mediator, the peace talks will drag on through September with little give from the Taliban side as they refuse to confront reality.
The NATO team must continue to hand off all of their expertise to the ANDSF on the way out and nations that want to continue their support for the Afghan republic will need to secure long-term security partnerships that can strengthen the hand of the Afghans in peace talks.
A few things that might speed up the peace talks include individual sanctions on Pakistani military leaders and government civilians that continue to assist the Taliban. Whether they are active or retired the Pakistanis that are stopping peace from taking hold must be punished.
Next NATO can ensure that counter-terrorism forces are on standby to assist ANDSF with any problem spots that pop up during peace talks. There is nothing stopping the use of commandos if the Afghan government asks for assistance. This would be easier with internal basing in Afghanistan but it can be done from afar.
Additionally, NATO can fund a regional CT center of excellence in Kabul owned by the ANDSF and used to rally all CT forces and SOF in the region together to combat remaining terrorist threats into the future. This will send a strong signal to Pakistan that their support for the Taliban is pointless.
AFGHANS MUST EARN THIS
To best honor the sacrifices of all those involved since 2001, the Afghan people must embrace unity and nationalism. They should decrease support for all separatist movements. Find ways to increase democracy that improves security and protects human rights for all. They have the support of the majority of nations today to do these things.
Afghans should earn this at the peace table. The world currently supports IRoA in the peace talks as they are the legitimate government of Afghanistan. Afghans must use that leverage.
Afghans should continue professionalizing ANDSF and fighting corruption and removing bad leaders. A focus on strong security partnerships with individual nations and NATO will ensure long-term funding.
IRoA empowering security responsibility at the lowest levels possible each year can help citizens take more ownership of fighting terrorism and crime. When all citizens have ownership for security, they can’t just blame Kabul when superman doesn’t come save them. If IRoA doesn’t embrace smart forms of decentralized responsibility for security, warlords, or worse the Taliban will take control of this issue and use it to decrease security. Find a way to make more democracy equal more security; or at least don’t let ethnic separatists or insurgents use the issue against you.
Education partnerships should also be a main focus for Afghans to continue to earn the freedoms that so many have died to increase. To continue to build the human resources in Afghanistan that Afghans will need to govern and develop themselves over the next couple of decades—a strong education system at all levels is a must.
President Ghani laid out the future quite succinctly this weekend on CNN. He explained that he wasn’t surprised by the US policy decision and that everyone has been discussing a full NATO withdrawal for a couple years. He noted that the choice now rests with Pakistan and their Taliban clients. Do they choose peace or war? He rightly pointed-out that there is no longer an international troop presence excuse for the Taliban to cling to. He also explained that there is not and never was any religious justification for the Taliban killing tens of thousands of Afghans. He also reminded everyone that he ran on a peace platform and he still stands by his promises. He offered that he would be more than willing to create a short transition peace government that leads to an internationally monitored election for power.
President Ghani knows the Republic and the Constitution will win the vote. Afghans have moved on from the Taliban era and there is no going back. The mission isn’t over for those who believe in a peaceful and rising Afghanistan, it’s just changing its form again.