For all those in Afghanistan who are planning and working for peace, this is your moment. You were the optimists when nothing seemed to succeed, and I believe you carry the approval and hope of the vast majority of your countrymen.
Seen from the United States, the war in Afghanistan can appear bloody and even hopeless. Yet that reflects the shock of violence more than it really conveys the reality of millions of people who live without causing pain to each other, amid a struggle against a vicious disease and economic hardships. Afghans do not want to fight unnecessarily, I would argue, what they want is to live with honor, dignity, and family health. They want to make enough money to live on and make sure their children can go to school. And they want to make their own choices and love their culture their own way.
The boldness and confidence of the United States when it brought international forces to Afghanistan in 2001 has altered. We have a more humble opinion of our ability to make changes in another country. We see our social needs at home as having grown more serious in the years since that first invasion. United States public opinion is clear, and surprisingly bipartisan: we must bring most if not all of our troops home from Afghanistan and other foreign war zones, and more fully disengage from active combat abroad.
The U.S. presidential political campaign has been relatively silent on Afghanistan, yet both candidates will promise (or deliver, in the case of the current President) even more disengagement. This message resonates with the American left that wants to stop using military power to project American strength, and with the right that still thinks we are “nation building,” and with anyone seeing our shrinking economy after COVID, who believes we are pouring too much money into a foreign problem.
Our current President has called for options which remove troops quickly. Candidate Biden has said “there is no possibility to unite Afghanistan,” similar to some of his statements when he was Vice President. His policies if elected President would likely focus on moving towards the minimal force posture that can pursue counter terrorism goals – and there are no guarantees whether U.S. support to Afghan security forces and basic development and humanitarian needs will continue.
As one of Afghanistan’s friends, this is what I worry about the most. I know that Americans want a strong partner in a particularly important part of the world. We want Afghanistan to succeed. But we are turning to our problems at home, because if we don’t solve those we aren’t in a position to be a steady and reliable friend, and any way you look at it our commitment will diminish.
With respect to the U.S. relationship, Afghans have three key advantages: the strong U.S. national security case for remaining engaged; the compelling story of how our values and Afghan aspirations are found in the Afghan Constitution, and the need to protect it; and the friendships and mutual respect between our two countries that have occurred over the past 19 years.
Out of these, the one that is the most under Afghan control is conveying the huge importance of the constitution, giving strength to your peace negotiators. How might Afghans, young and old, rural and urban, show support for the continuation of a Constitutional order? What tools exist for the Afghan people to safely express their wish for legal protection of their rights? That would be a demonstration of unity that also could impact decision-makers in Washington. Furthermore, while the political agreement from May helped repair the damage inflicted by last year’s election, cooperation will be tested every day. What behavior can Afghans demand of their leaders? Can they express concern at cases of political gridlock or settling of scores? How can they point the conversation back to where it matters most: Afghanistan’s future generation?
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Reporterly’s editorial stance.