The writer is a politician, women’s rights activist and member of the Afghan delegation for peace talks
President Joe Biden’s decision to pull troops from Afghanistan at such a critical juncture will have grave consequences. The decision risks not only destabilising my country, but also the region and beyond. I understand that Biden wants to end the “forever war”. Yet I believe that he may not have fully considered the disastrous fallout of withdrawing at a point when we are still negotiating the foundations for a political settlement.
As an Afghan and as a woman, I fear this will set the stage for the triumph of violent extremists. All we have fought for over the past 20 years — equality between men and women, human rights, independent media, to name a few — will backslide. My country may once more become the breeding ground for regional rivalries and home to violent extremist groups. As our history shows, conflict in Afghanistan does not stay neatly within its borders.
I want the world to know that I see history repeating itself. I grew up under communist occupation and came of age during a deadly civil war that led to the emergence and ultimately the rule of the Taliban. I know the cost of war is not just the lives that are taken from us, but also our future. War erases our hopes and dreams. If there was no war, I could have been a medical doctor. My daughters could have become engineers, entrepreneurs or political leaders. The dreams of millions of Afghans have become nightmares during this long conflict.
Every week we listen attentively to the US military as it informs us in cold mathematical terms of how its drawdown is progressing. This week, the Pentagon announced the withdrawal was 90 per cent complete. Now that the troops are almost gone, one might assume the Taliban would return to the negotiating table in good faith. The exit of foreign troops has been one of their core demands.
Yet the opposite is happening. Since the announcement of the US withdrawal, violence and targeted killings of anyone who could challenge the extremist group have increased. Even polio vaccinators are gunned down. I myself am a victim of a failed assassination attempt. The tactic of deliberately targeting civilians shows that this is not a struggle for liberation; it is a drive to implement the extremist ideology which returned our nation to the dark ages in the late 1990s.
As a member of the Afghan government’s negotiating team, I have seen how the Taliban has demonstrated little interest in a genuine political settlement since discussions started in September 2020. The group’s political leaders in Qatar talk peace while their fighters are emboldened by the departure of international troops. The withdrawal has also weakened the morale of Afghan security institutions, revealing their dependency on the US military, especially for air support. Bickering leaders in Kabul are not helping.
At the moment, there are two possible scenarios for the aftermath of the full troop withdrawal, due to be completed by the end of August.
In the first, both sides pursue military means to achieve their political objectives. There is no winner in this scenario, particularly for Afghan civilians. Violence will bring further devastation, loss of life and destruction of infrastructure, deepening our humanitarian crisis.
Taliban leaders seem to think that their violent campaign is backed by popular support. The facts on the ground speak otherwise. Let’s remember that when the Taliban were toppled in 2001, people could travel the length of my country without fear. But when the US invaded Iraq in 2003, it shifted its focus and resources away from Afghanistan and the Taliban re-emerged. Their position was strengthened by the mistakes of the US and Afghan governments.
The second scenario is the one I am hoping for. It involves the resumption of genuine peace talks leading to a political settlement under the supervision of the UN with regional support. The world — and our neighbours in particular — needs to use political leverage to help make this the only lasting option.
But while this may be the best and only choice, I fear that the door is closing. The first scenario is already playing out. The US, despite having lost its moral authority to claim it stands for women’s rights, can still play a positive role by collectively working towards a political settlement to protect the gains of the past 20 years.
It is critical that the US stays engaged in Afghanistan and provides sustained aid and military support to our security forces. Washington needs to value what a peaceful Afghanistan can bring to the world. As for the Afghan government, it’s our responsibility to take ownership of our differences and work towards mending them. Our country — and its future — is our responsibility.
Finally, let’s remind ourselves that the conflict in Afghanistan is not a war against an occupation or an internal squabble. It is a four-decade long conflict driven by regional rivalries, exacerbated by competing ideologies and intensified by the rise of a brand of violent extremism which led to the tragic 9/11 attacks almost 20 years ago. If Afghanistan is forgotten again, disastrous consequences undoubtedly await.