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The moral case for remaining in Afghanistan

The moral case for remaining in Afghanistan
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After 20 years of our engagement in the Afghan war, supporters tend to make the case for remaining in security, mainly counter-terrorist terms. This is still central. But other aspirations, such as progress for women, a free press or democracy, are generally seen as nice to have but not something for which we should continue a war. In general, I agree. In my 37 years as a U.S. diplomat, I believed human rights were worth supporting and campaigning for but drew the line at their being a legitimate reason to commit Americans to combat. Yet in Afghanistan, I believe there is a moral reason to remain — not forever, or at any cost, but for a while longer at current costs.

In Afghanistan, we are the ones who held out the vision of freedom and a changed society. We educated young Afghans and promised repeatedly to support these freedoms. We helped build a free press, TV and radio, which thrives today in a way not evident in any of Afghanistan’s neighbors. Private donors as well as U.S. government funds have nurtured the American University of Afghanistan, certainly the leading university in Afghanistan today. After a savage Taliban attack in 2016, the injured men and women students mourned their murdered fellow students and then returned and graduated. 

Foreign and Afghan nongovernmental organizations built up civil society, including human rights bodies, free election-monitoring bodies, girls schools and more. We held up and funded these visions; Afghanistan’s youth gave them life and today are dying to keep these visions alive.  And dying they are, in a rising tide of assassinations of women judges, journalists, educators, the head of the election monitoring commission and so many more. And yet the youth keep coming. They live and work in fear, but they keep working — as visible TV anchorwomen, as journalists, as teachers, as government staff and as the staff of numerous nongovernmental organizations that drive a civil society, infinitely more worthy than the squabbling politicians who lead Afghanistan.

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The Taliban is showing its true colors in the assassination campaign. They deny it is their doing but only they have the organization to keep it going. Clearly, they do nothing to stop it. And the logic of the assassinations is clear: It is an effort to destroy or drive out the intellectual leaders of society who would stand in the way of the medieval views the Taliban want to implant under the banner of the emirate.

At this time, when so many young Afghans are dying to build the kind of society we preached to them, have we no moral responsibility to sustain what we helped build? I would argue that we do. There is a moral case to remain and support Afghanistan against the Taliban threat. It is not a case without limits. It is not a reason to shed thousands of American lives or spend trillions more dollars. But thousands of Americans are not dying in Afghanistan. Afghans are doing the fighting and the dying. American casualties are down: 18 combat deaths in 2019 and four in combat in 2020

Afghanistan is no longer a place where we have massive numbers of troops. We are now down to about 2,500, although that drop may have been excessive. Nor are we alone. All our NATO partners remain in Afghanistan with us and they are counseling that we, together, should remain until a real peace that meets our values can be achieved. 

The costs are down as well. Afghanistan is now taking about 2 percent of the U.S. defense budget. That is real money, but it is clearly a sustainable cost if we judge it worth paying. 

The purpose of the U.S.-Taliban agreement was not simply to remove our troops, for which no agreement is needed. It was to start serious negotiations among the Afghan parties. So far, the Taliban have avoided any substantive negotiations. They have added new demands, maintained their ties with al Qaeda, and stepped up the pace of assassinations of intellectuals.  

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Under these conditions — or rather, the lack of conditions that were to have come into being — we have no obligation under the agreement to continue our withdrawal. It should be paused until negotiations are serious and peace is in reach.

There are serious concerns about the level of corruption in Afghanistan and with its weak governance. Those concerns legitimately limit what we should continue to spend and to sacrifice. But if Afghanistan’s young people are willing to continue taking risks — and, yes, dying for the image of life and society that we, too, believe in — should we not summon the will, with our NATO and other partners, to continue helping? I believe we should.

Ronald E. Neumann was U.S. ambassador in Afghanistan from 2005-2007 and has returned frequently since.