‘Zero Option’ in Afghanistan is not an option

Last week, negotiations with our allies in Afghanistan were dealt a serious blow by none other than President Obama. The administration is reportedly threatening an accelerated drawdown of troops from Afghanistan and possibly a so-called “zero option” that would remove all military personnel from the country, even those in peacekeeping and training roles. 

As a veteran of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, I can say without reservation that both of these scenarios would be disastrous for American interests. Afghanistan is key to maintaining regional stability and must not be allowed to slide back into chaos because of an arbitrary timeline or complicated relationship.

Though the American people have been bombarded with the costs of our engagements overseas, they have been shown little of our hard-earned progress. The fact is, there are tangible, lasting accomplishments in Afghanistan that would be severely undermined, or even lost, if the United States were to withdraw our troops prematurely. Our country has spent far too much blood and treasure to let what would surely be an enduring success devolve into defeat due to a hasty exit. 

It is important to remember that the war in Afghanistan has not been fought solely with guns and drones. We have been battling an entrenched culture that breeds hatred of America and our very way of life. Bombs and bullets alone could never assure victory. In the early days of the war, abject poverty and a widely uneducated populous created a breeding ground for the extremist sentiments that swelled Taliban ranks. In order to choke the flow of new recruits and reverse the tide of extremism, there needed to be a fundamental change in the very nature of Afghan society.

After more than a decade of American and Afghan efforts, that desperately needed change is taking shape, and in a big way. In 2001, only 900,000 students, virtually all male, were enrolled in classes. Today, more than 8 million students attend school — 2.6 million of them female. There are currently 1,800 health facilities across the country, compared to just 450 in 2003. Infant mortality rates have been cut in half, and life expectancy has jumped by almost 20 years. 

Additionally, the young people of Afghanistan are the major drivers of this rapid change. An incredible 65 percent of the population is under the age of 24, creating fertile ground for widespread liberalization. Many of these youths have moved into cities, allowing women greater participation in the workforce and creating the beginnings of a middle class.

However, I believe Afghanistan’s greatest achievement has been its transition to a peaceful democratic process. In 2014 and 2015, the country will hold its third cycle of presidential and parliamentary elections. After decades of oppressive rule by the Taliban, the people of Afghanistan are finally beginning to control their own destiny. 

These are not only humanitarian victories, these are victories of social progress and terrible news for the Taliban, a group that preys on those with nowhere else to go. In fact, the Taliban’s popularity is at an all-time low, with less than 10 percent of Afghans viewing the group favorably.

The abundant evidence of real progress is why the Obama administration’s decision to negotiate with the Taliban stunned not only me, but also President Hamid Karzai and many of our key partners in Afghanistan. These negotiations only serve to legitimize the Taliban and cede to them precious credibility in the eyes of the Afghan people. 

The Taliban is indeed on the ropes in Afghanistan; why would we now decide to pull our knockout punch? A foolish withdrawal of American troops will undoubtedly jeopardize the progress we’ve made. Even worse would be abandoning the people of Afghanistan altogether. Frankly, the Obama administration’s “zero option” is not an option. It is an insult to all those who risked and gave their lives for every inch of progress made over the last decade. Every man and woman who served in Afghanistan should be proud of these accomplishments. I know I am.

Kinzinger has represented Illinois’s 16th congressional district ion the House of Representatives since 2011. He sits on the Energy and Commerce, and Foreign Affairs committees. He is a veteran of the United States Air Force.