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OPINION

Don’t cut and run from Afghanistan

By MIHIR SHARMA | Bloomberg Opinion | Published: February 5, 2019

Afghanistan’s future has never looked more uncertain — and, as so tediously often in the past, it is largely the fault of the U.S. In a hotel room in Moscow, representatives of the Taliban are meeting members of the Afghan opposition, in negotiations deliberately designed to exclude members of the government in Kabul led by President Ashraf Ghani. In the 38-member Afghan delegation are not just mercurial former President Hamid Karzai but also Mohammad Hanif Atmar, who will challenge Ghani for power in presidential elections in July.

U.S. special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad, who held talks of his own with the Taliban in Qatar recently, won’t be there; this is Russia’s show. But, it was Khalilzad’s declaration that the U.S. and the Taliban had agreed “in principle on a couple of very important issues” that launched this latest round of politicking. It’s a chilling thought that some politicians in Kabul might, for the sake of power, be willing to cut a deal with the Taliban that they know is flawed.

The problem isn’t that the U.S. seeks to end its 17-year war in Afghanistan. The problem is that it seeks to end the fighting purely on its own terms. The U.S. wants to ensure that the Taliban never again shelters al-Qaida, as it did in the 1990s, and that it continues to prosecute its internecine war against the local Islamic State offshoot. If that commitment can be enforced, the optimists hope, then the U.S. could withdraw its 14,000 troops and declare a tragic chapter closed. The editorial board of The New York Times merely echoed prevailing opinion by calling for a withdrawal “before the year is out and more lives are lost to a lost cause.”

This would be an appalling abdication of responsibility. For reasons both practical and moral, the U.S. cannot abandon Afghanistan in this manner.

First, the practical reason: The Taliban — and their patrons in the Pakistani army — simply cannot be trusted to keep their side of the agreement. This is something everyone knows but few are willing to admit, apparently preferring the fantasy that the Taliban are reasonable men who would hesitate before they broke a solemn agreement.

As it happens, the Taliban offered similarly firm assurances to the Clinton administration in the 1990s — and we know how that turned out. The Taliban may never again incubate al-Qaida and may fight ISIS. But, can we know what form the next threat might take? Could anyone in 1989, as the U.S. left the first time, predict al-Qaida? Who in 2001, as the U.S. returned, foresaw the rise of ISIS?

We also know what happens to a country abandoned by the U.S. It turns anti-American with a vengeance, feeling it has been used, abused and discarded. This is what happened to both Afghanistan and Pakistan after they ceased to be useful as Cold War proxies against the Soviet Union. If the U.S. departs Afghanistan abruptly, it will leave behind a country divided about everything except how much it despises America.

Then there’s the moral argument. And that is that there’s no “lost cause” in Afghanistan. From the ashes of a conflict that has, in its various iterations, lasted longer than I have been alive, some in Afghanistan have struggled over the past decade to build a decent society. The government in Kabul is far from perfect. But, the Afghan state looks exactly like what it is: the first, and very young, attempt by a long-brutalized country to develop institutions that work for all its citizens. This is the very opposite of a “lost cause” and it requires colossal self-obsession on the part of the U.S. to call it so.

Perhaps we should listen to Afghanistan’s women, given that the 38 men in that Moscow hotel — or the men in the Qatar talks — may not.

“Peace” talks that are founded on the assumption that America’s purpose in Afghanistan is solely to pressure existing terrorist groups don’t deserve the name. The Afghan Women’s Network released a six-point agenda for peace, one with which it’s impossible to disagree. “Do not choose peace without human rights,” demand the people most at risk from the men with whom the U.S. is negotiating. Women’s rights cannot be bargained away; women must be at the table; law-and-order cannot be compromised; and, above all, do not abandon a political order that has employed women, “has educated them, given them skills, lowered their mortality rates, and provided them with relative security.”

What needs protection in Afghanistan are its people and the opportunities even a weak state makes possible for them. The New York Times doesn’t seem to think that’s much of a priority: “No one can pretend that a withdrawal, even with an agreement, is likely to make life better for the Afghan people in the short term.” Well, it won’t in the long term, either. Let us hope that such callousness does not prevail.

Mihir Sharma is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He was a columnist for the Indian Express and the Business Standard, and he is the author of “Restart: The Last Chance for the Indian Economy.”

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