Remember the first pictures most Americans encountered of Afghanistan, in the immediate aftermath of 9/11? The place where men could be jailed if their beards were not long enough, where women and minorities were treated as less than human, where owning or watching
TV was a crime? Sixteen years after we first saw those pictures of a country that looked like a relic of the Stone Age, rather than one of the Internet Age, and after paying dearly with more than 2,200 American lives and tens of thousands of others, U.S. efforts have not succeeded in bringing Afghanistan much closer to civilization — it remains locked in the past as the world enters an era of self-driving cars and artificial intelligence.
Bombings and the killings of innocent civilians continue unabated. On March 9, nine people died in a suicide attack in Kabul; 18 soldiers died in attacks in other parts of the country that same weekend. Unsurprisingly, there is extreme war-weariness and a sense of impossibility. The public wonders what U.S. troops are doing in a place that has resisted all civilizational efforts or order for its entire history. No doubt, it is tempting to leave
However, as with any deal that looks too good to be true, this one is just a mirage. The Afghan offer of peace talks is not from a position of victory or strength, but one from a position of weakness. The Taliban know that the Afghan government is ineffective, and can sense the American eagerness to leave. Such a peace deal is one in name only — it would mean turning over the country to the Taliban and instead should be called a transfer of power. Therefore, the United States must not make this Faustian bargain.
Why should we stay in Afghanistan? There are several reasons. First, having gone into the country following 9/11 with a very limited understanding of its complexity, the coalition’s position is akin to the surgeon who commences surgery on a patient for an ailment and discovers multiple life-threatening conditions. The surgeon does not have the option to walk away after having opened up the patient.
Second, the peace deal is an utter fallacy. The Afghan government wants to legitimize the Taliban and allow it to enter the political arena. This is all but certain to yield power to the Taliban, and the country will return to the pre-9/11 era. Women are sure to be brutalized, extreme barbarism will be practiced in the name of religion, and terror once again will reach our shores. There is not a shred of evidence that the Taliban’s core beliefs have changed in any measurable way over the past 16 years.
Some critics might respond that a peace deal could be conditioned upon the Taliban agreeing to gender equality, minority rights, etc. Assume, for the sake of argument, that the Afghan government is firm on such guarantees being included in the peace deal and the Taliban sign such an agreement. What is the enforceability of such guarantees? None. The Taliban are notoriously perfidious and have no credible record of keeping their word.
Third, peace in Afghanistan will come only after a sustained period of modernization and capacity building. This does not have to be America’s burden alone. There must be an attempt to forge a wider coalition of states to maintain peace and enable Afghanistan’s transition.
Fourth, and related to the above, Afghanistan’s peace does not have to come at American taxpayer expense. Afghanistan possesses valuable mineral resources that can be deployed for its development.
As far back as 2010, mineral resources in the country were estimated to be worth over $1 trillion. Even assuming some exaggeration, despite the massive potential, in the seven years since, the mining sector is trivial — as the U.S. Congressional Research Service noted in December 2017, it has been “largely dormant since the Soviet invasion.” However, there is considerable illegal mining activity that is depriving the government of revenues and aiding the enemy. It is the second-largest source of income for the Taliban and reportedly provides $200 milion to $300 million annually, according to the U.S. Institute for Peace.
Clearly, if the Taliban can generate $300 million from mining while fighting a war, Afghanistan aided by the United States can do a lot better. However, fulfilling Afghanistan’s destiny as a major extractives supplier requires a functioning government and peace. The United Kingdom’s Department for International Development identified the causes for Afghanistan’s mineral potential being underdeveloped: “[Severe constraints because of] weak regulatory and legal frameworks, corruption and government inertia.”
Turning Afghanistan over to the Taliban will not fix any of these problems; instead it will give the Taliban unimpeded access to massive resources with which to export terror. The United States should urgently prioritize the commercial development of mineral resources to fund Afghanistan’s development. An appropriate earmark for coalition expenses and compensation — as a deferred payment for the future — also must be made.
Finally, staying in Afghanistan gives the United States direct border access to Iran, Pakistan and China, which is of considerable strategic value.
Despite the temptation, now is not the time for peace with the Taliban. Instead, we must recall the words of President George W. Bush in his speech to a joint session of Congress and the American people on Sept. 20, 2001: “[The US response] involves far more than instant retaliation and isolated strikes. Americans should not expect one battle, but a lengthy campaign, unlike any other we have ever seen. ... We will starve terrorists of funding, turn them one against another, drive them from place to place, until there is no refuge or no rest.”
We must stay the course and not negotiate with the Taliban from a position of weakness. As Churchill memorably declaimed to Lord Halifax when the latter wanted to conduct talks with Hitler: “You cannot reason with a tiger when your head is in its mouth!”
Sandeep Gopalan is the pro vice chancellor for academic innovation and a professor of law at Deakin University, Australia.