Pro-women, anti-war? There is another way on Afghanistan

Pro-women, anti-war? There is another way on Afghanistan
© Getty Images

To date, campaign rhetoric has touched only briefly and broadly on our longest war. Audiences who understandably can’t remember why we went to Afghanistan in the first place, let alone why we are still there, applaud the call to end “endless wars.” And yet, our core security interests and national values require us to avoid a precipitous pullout, especially one unduly driven by U.S. domestic political considerations and set timetables. Fortunately, there is another option.

I left Afghanistan less than a year ago, after serving as the second in command at the U.S. Embassy. I had the chance to meet people like the Deputy Civil Service Commissioner, a woman in her late 20’s with the skills of a seasoned leader. She could achieve this powerful position only because a democratic and meritocratic space has emerged during her lifetime.

Our security efforts have strengthened government control, nearly eliminated Al Qaeda, and destroyed ISIS footholds throughout the country.

ADVERTISEMENT

At the same time, our development support has generated huge results: Once banned from primary school, women now constitute one-third of Afghan public university students. International engagement has raised Afghans’ national life expectancy from 56 to 64 years between 2002 and 2017, an amazing achievement, along with significant improvements in education, income, and health indicators. As a result, women have emerged from the shadows of violent fundamentalist repression.

Of course, it is up to the Afghans — not us — to keep this progress alive, but we should end our engagement responsibly. Increasingly, Afghanistan’s own post-2001 military is conducting the vast majority of the fighting, which is a positive indicator for keeping the peace in the future. Compared to the $30-$40 billion our troop deployment costs us annually, our current support to the now-robust Afghan military, through a NATO combined trust fund, is just under $5 billion a year. That amount will decrease as the Taliban comply with an eventual peace agreement and the Afghan government shoulders more of its own financial burden.

Within the context of an internal Afghan peace process, international troop withdrawal is the right idea. That said, getting to this point has been arduous, and examples from other conflicts indicate that the road to full implementation of a future agreement is long.

Troop withdrawal therefore must be coupled with a continuing commitment to fund the Afghan security forces, in order to avoid a power vacuum that would allow Taliban or other armed groups to undermine the constitutional rights of the most vulnerable populations.

Cutting this support could lead to much greater costs and undermine all that has been accomplished not only for Afghans but for our regional interests. If the Afghan military cannot defend the state for lack of resources, the Taliban might renege on peace arrangements and allow international terrorist groups to flourish. Iran and Russia could steer resources to unpaid Afghan soldiers in regions near their borders or areas of influence, resulting in the virtual annexation of western and northern Afghanistan. Iran is likely to welcome the opportunity to control Afghanistan’s water resources, which it has eyed for years. The winners in this scenario: ISIS and Afghanistan’s predatory neighbors. The losers: not only women in a democratic Afghanistan, but the global community, faced with renewed terrorism and new waves of refugees.

ADVERTISEMENT

In this volatile season leading up to our national elections, we need to take deliberate steps that reflect national security goals and our moral objectives.

We are a global power with worldwide interests. In consultation with Congress, this and future administrations should focus on our interest in supporting and partnering with the Afghan military. For now, that means ensuring that our contribution to the NATO trust fund that pays salaries continues. As we move our troops out, this support becomes more important than ever, not less.

Our interests and our morality converge — we want a sustainable peace. We can discontinue direct participation without ending our support to our Afghan allies. We must reject a false binary rhetorical choice between all-out “war” or abandonment of a country just beginning to give its most vulnerable citizens control over their own destiny. Instead, officials, candidates and voters can embrace a better option — both pro-woman and anti-war — to honor the grave sacrifices of our own troops, the generous taxpayer-funded development that has begun to take hold, and the bravery of Afghan women and men.

Annie Pforzheimer, a retired diplomat who served as Deputy Chief of Mission in Afghanistan 2017-2018, is a member of the US-Afghan Women’s Council and a non-resident Senior Associate at the Center for Strategic and International Security.