Foreign Policy

A hasty US withdrawal from Afghanistan will throw a lifeline to global violent extremism

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“Thank you for the Taliban.”

This was said to me wryly, a few years ago by a Somali civil society leader when I mentioned I was a native of Afghanistan. I was in Mogadishu to support the United Nation’s peacebuilding efforts and what I was hearing from her and others is that Al Shabaab, the Islamic militant group that have brought so much turmoil and terror to Somalia, drew inspiration from the Taliban in their mission and methods. I had heard similar comments among local actors, ranging from Syria to Senegal, about the extent to which the lessons of the Taliban insurgency capture the imagination of Islamic militants. In Abuja, for example, authorities noted that Boko Haram is dubbed by some as Nigeria’s Taliban because their conception of an Islamic State in Northern Nigeria was based on the Taliban model.

{mosads}The Taliban insurgency’s gains and misfortunes on the battlefield against the Afghan government and its Western allies reverberate well beyond Afghanistan and South Asia. Important as this reality is, it is conspicuously missing from the current public discussions about President Trump’s recent decision to withdraw nearly half of the 14,000 U.S. troops deployed in Afghanistan. But if the U.S. prematurely concludes its presence in Afghanistan without linking its strategy to a broader political and reconciliation process, there will be dire repercussions from South Asia to the Middle East and Africa.

The various strands of Islamic militant groups may have distinct constituencies, grievances, political considerations and objectives, but they share important commonalities: almost all of these groups see themselves fighting the West and its proxies. Most share religious objectives and aspire to establish a version of Shariah law. They also aspire to roll back social and political progress, particularly for women, and many seek territorial control and a state-like status. There is growing evidence that they directly and indirectly draw lessons regarding military tactics and communication strategies.

A U.S. retreat from Afghanistan will undoubtedly be a victory for these groups. Afghans, who have witnessed how the country served as the starting point and continues to be seen by Islamic militants from around the world as a symbolic heartland of jihad against infidels understand this and wonder why the U.S. and international community fail to understand this implication. The West did not intervene in Afghanistan out of altruism, but to stem the tide of terrorism emerging from the country and region. If the U.S. simply pulls out its troops and the Taliban prevail and establish an Islamic state in all or even part of Afghanistan, it will set an enormous precedent that will embolden Islamic insurgencies everywhere waging war against weak pro-western governments with fragile institutions. Even if the Taliban fail to gain total control and a civil war ensues, it will benefit terrorism, allowing the reemergence of terrorist safe havens that the U.S. has successfully targeted in the last decade. There is no better testament to the defeat of the West than reclaiming Afghanistan as a sanctuary for terrorism.

The alternative however is not endless U.S. engagement in Afghanistan. It is sticking to the strategy President Trump put in place and linking a troop withdrawal to peace and reconciliation efforts with the Taliban. Until the recent news of the troop withdrawal, the appointment of Zalmay Khalilzad the U.S. Special Envoy to Afghanistan, had reinvigorated momentum in peace efforts. While significant challenges remain in achieving an agreement, the incremental progress made by the previous and current administration in engaging the Taliban is promising and has reignited hope in Afghanistan and the region that peace is possible. For Ambassador Khalilzad to have any chance of succeeding, he needs to have President Trump’s solid backing and a clear signal that troop withdrawal decisions will be made within the context of peace negotiations. The Obama administration made a mistake when it announced a plan to ramp up and reduce troops in Afghanistan without linking it up to a wider political and reconciliation strategy. There is still an opportunity for the Trump administration to correct course.

{mossecondads}Just as a withdrawal of U.S. presence in Afghanistan can embolden extremist groups worldwide, a peace agreement there could serve as a groundbreaking precedent for the international community and the insurgent groups they are fighting. The starting point of the war on terror could also serve as a model of how war with some extremists could be brought to an end through a negotiated settlement.

Moreover, a peace breakthrough in Afghanistan could potentially address important questions regarding how a state can accommodate Islamic hard-line groups whilst protecting pluralism and women’s rights. It can show how insurgencies can be demobilized and integrated in national security forces and how the U.S. and international community can prevent the further proliferation of extremist groups without waging endless wars.

No doubt, Afghanistan still faces enormous security and political challenges, but if the U.S. walks away from that country now without support for a broader political and peace process, those problems will not only get worse. They’re likely to exacerbate the threat of violent extremism in many other places, as well. In effect, it will be throwing a lifeline to a dangerous global movement.

Rina Amiri, Visiting Scholar at New York University’s Center for International Cooperation, has served as senior advisor on mediation at the UN and a senior advisor on Afghanistan at the U.S. State Department. 

Tags Afghanistan Donald Trump Terrorism troops

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