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Yes, the United States Needs to Withdraw From Afghanistan

When President Trump scuttled talks for a peace deal in Afghanistan, liberal media heaved a sigh of relief. But despite the risks, an end to the US occupation is a precondition for peace in the country.

Men from the US Army fire on a Taliban position from Observation Post Mustang on September 2, 2011 in Kunar Province, Afghanistan. (John Moore / Getty Images)

On February 14, Adil Ahmed Dar, a Kashmiri-origin suicide bomber, rammed his explosives-laden truck into an Indian military convoy in the Pulwama district of Kashmir Valley. The attack triggered India-Pakistan skirmishes. It was the most deadly attack since 1989 on Indian forces, claiming over forty lives. The suicide bomber was inspired by the Taliban victory over the United States in Afghanistan. This “inspiration” was flagged by the suicide bomber himself in a pre-recorded video message released soon after the incident by the militant outfit Jaish-e-Muhammad.

Attacks like this haunted observers of the now-scuttled US-Taliban negotiations. Won’t a US withdrawal unleash a renewed wave of fundamentalist terror emboldened by a victory over the United States as was the case after the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan? Most importantly, won’t Afghanistan plunge into a new spiral of civil war once the US forces pull out?

The talks came to an abrupt end on September 8 when President Trump, in a series of tweets, scuttled the process after “an attack in Kabul that killed one of our great great soldiers.” Thousands of Afghans killed during nine rounds of US-Taliban negotiations did not merit any tweet.

Just ahead of Trump’s September 8 tweets, media were reporting a “deal” between Washington and the Taliban. Details of the “deal” were kept secret even from the Afghan government, which was in fact locked out of the negotiation process by the US representative Zalmay Khalilzad. If one goes by media leaks, the ill-fated deal would have had the United States pull out without the Taliban agreeing to a ceasefire. The Taliban, meantime, would not attack the departing troops. In simple words: the United States was abandoning Afghanistan to a bloody civil war.

If the reports were true, the “deal” hammered out by Khalilzad epitomized opportunism of the highest order. In media commentaries, a sigh of relief has been heaved on Trump’s tweets derailing the “deal.” After all, even an optimist could argue that a US withdrawal may perpetuate and aggravate the bloodshed in Afghanistan.

Yet an end to the US occupation of Afghanistan would be a welcome step. Arguably, it will create the necessary conditions for a return to peaceful times in the country. A balance sheet of US misadventure will provide the necessary context.

The 9/11 Moment as Year Zero

The seventeen-year-long US war in Afghanistan has cost, according to President Trump himself, over $2 trillion. Annually, this war is costing $45 billion. However, economic costs pale before the human toll. Over 35,000 Afghan civilians, only since 2011 — besides 2,400 US service members since 9/11 — have been killed. The Afghan government conceals exact figures for the deaths of Afghan security forces, but the Watson Institute at Brown University estimates a death toll in the range of 58,000. At least, 42,000 “insurgents” have also been killed in clashes with security forces.

Most mainstream narratives of Afghanistan begin with 9/11. The whitewashing of pre-9/11 history conceals the hypocrisy of the US occupation. While it’s frequent to find a passing reference to Moscow-sponsored “brutal communist” rule (1979–1992), any reference to the reign of terror (1993–97) unleashed by the Mujahideen to militarily dislodge the “communists” is expediently sidelined. Yet the Mujahideen regime proved the most horrible phase in the Afghan conflict that began unfolding in 1978.

Once the Soviet troops crossed the bridge over River Amu in 1989, the regime spearheaded by the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) disintegrated quickly. For roughly the next four years, 1992–97, various Mujahideen factions reduced Afghanistan to rubble in their bid to capture Kabul. In the process, countless died. Women were raped. Teenage boys were kidnapped for abuse. Afghanistan became a fiefdom of various brutal warlords. Some of them were rehabilitated by the US occupation.

Two major factions spearheading this civil war were the Northern Alliance, led by Ahmed Shah Masood; and Hezb-e-Islami, led by Gulbadin Hikmatyar. While Masood, ethnically a Tajik, was sponsored by India and Turkey, Hikmatyar was a proxy for Pakistan. Both factions and their leaders were fundamentalists, brutal, and antiwomen. Unlike the stereotypical understanding of Afghanistan in which the Taliban regime is the original architect of Afghanistan-as-women’s-prison, the Mujahideen factions had already consigned Afghan women to the Stone Age well before the Taliban movement was born in an organized fashion.

In fact, the Taliban first drew favorable public attention when they rescued a teenage boy from a local warlord. Such was the brutality of Mujahideen’s period that sections of Afghan society passively welcomed the Taliban takeover. The Taliban, they argued, were at least not plundering, raping, or kidnapping. However, the Taliban would not have reached Kabul without Pakistani sponsorship. Islamabad, upon realizing that Hikmatyar cannot outfox Masood, betted on Taliban founder Mullah Omar.

The above brief on the pre-Taliban years is a necessary reminder that the Mujahideen symbolized terror, rape, fundamentalism, and plunder while the Taliban, in comparison, were viewed by sections of Afghans as a lesser evil. Post-9/11, the discredited and hated Mujahideen were rehabilitated, rearmed, and redeployed as the political plank of the US occupation. No doubt, a few Mujahideen had their beards trimmed for the consumption of Western media. Hardly surprising that Hikmatyar is one of the presidential candidates in the elections due on September 28. The political facade erected by the US occupation was unpopular, unrepresentative, and isolated from the start. It could not be otherwise. Occupations install puppet regimes in order to consolidate the occupations.

Failed Reconstruction Efforts

While the hated Mujahideen provided a political facade for the US occupation, an NGO-led reconstruction effort turned Afghanistan into a neoliberal laboratory.

During 2002–2013, the international community pledged $90 billion for reconstruction (ultimately only $69 billion was committed and $57 billion actually disbursed). But inside Afghanistan, traces of a $57 billion development are largely missing.

It’s not that nothing has happened. As a regular visitor to Afghanistan, this author has seen massive improvements in certain sectors. For instance, 4,000-kilometer-long paved highways have been built. Primary education, in particular, is a step forward. Besides seven million children in schools, aid money has helped build 3,500 schools. Roughly 30 percent of Afghanistan has been electrified. Now 85 percent of the population has access to some basic health facilities.

However, Afghanistan remains one of the poorest countries in the world, and living standards are abysmally low. The reconstruction bid has largely failed. This can be seen in Kabul, which was the largest beneficiary of development aid. Roughly $3 billion was spent, yet most of the streets remain unpaved while clean drinking water is a rarity. The plight of hospitals, schools, and civic amenities will require a separate book-length story. What went wrong with reconstruction?

The failure of Afghan developmental plans is often blamed on corruption. This discourse was lent an aura when, in 2010, Transparency International declared Afghanistan the world’s second most corrupt country. Corruption, no doubt, is a problem. However, it was the flawed development model (which also made corruption easy) that bred the failure. The model was to rebuild Afghanistan through NGOs instead of the state. This is not unique as development aid is increasingly reaching Global South countries through NGOs. But Afghanistan, in particular, as a “clean slate,” was converted into a laboratory for neoliberal NGO-ized experimentation. The excuse behind channeling development aid through NGOs is that state establishments/institutions are corrupt, hence, inefficient.

To offset the presumed corruption of Afghan bureaucracy, aid was handed down to NGOs, which mushroomed overnight. Many arrived almost onboard US B-52s. Between 2002–2010, over 82 percent of development aid bypassed the Afghan government/state and ended up with the NGOs. Unsurprisingly, the NGOs proved many times more corrupt than the Afghan bureaucrats and politicians. From 2009–2010 onward, foreign assistance has tilted back in the favor of the Afghan state.

But corruption and lack of accountability were not the only problems in the NGO sector. On the one hand, ministries were denied the chance to learn and administer development projects; on the other, resources were lavishly wasted. For instance, certain projects were subcontracted five times, and every subcontractor earned a 5–10 percent profit from the deal. Moreover, since the state was not involved in planning or executing the overall development picture, some sectors drew huge resources while others were gravely ignored.

NGO-driven development is, however, only a partial explanation of this mega-failure. Another major factor was the militarization of the aid. Fifty percent of aid was spent in the name of security (the US DoD appropriated over half the aid money), and the militarization of aid also meant that the prioritization of projects was not based on need, but on which areas the military identified as important for winning support for the United States.

But then occupations are not meant for development, anyway. The argument here is not that a different political model coupled with an efficient reconstruction effort would have yielded different results — rather it is that the occupation submitted Afghanistan to its own interests at the cost of Afghans. It could not have been otherwise. Consequently, Afghan revolt was inbuilt in the occupation. However, the US failure to consolidate the occupation does not imply an automatic victory for the Taliban in the event of a US withdrawal, as many liberal commentators in the media suggest.

The Taliban Cannot Win

Back in 1997, objective conditions favored the Pakistan-sponsored Taliban’s seizure of Kabul. Arguably, a disinterested Washington welcomed Taliban arrival in the capital. To quote the New York Times, the “State Department was touting the Taliban as the group that might finally bring stability.” A US diplomat, Jon Holtzman, was advised to visit Kabul. The trip was, however, canceled after a media kerfuffle about women’s rights. Still, $125 million was granted in aid (the largest foreign aid package received by the Taliban).

The State Department maintained a secret correspondence with the Taliban regime. At the time, the media was replete with rumors regarding US-backing for the Taliban. Unlike the anti-US image the Taliban cultivated afterward, they were pretty cozy with “infidel” Uncle Sam. The US rationale for the Taliban support was not merely an over-publicized gas pipeline project that Unocal wanted to pursue. The Clinton administration, it was rumored, had Iran in mind while welcoming the Taliban. Whether or not these rumors were true, the Taliban’s second major sponsor, Riyadh, definitely wanted to contain Iran through the staunchly anti-Shia Taliban.

Equally important was the turmoil in Russia and in the Central Asian Republics (CARs). Following the Soviet dissolution, new regimes in Russia and in the CARs were struggling to consolidate. Most importantly, Afghans were desperate for peace after years of brutal infighting among Mujahideen gangs. Hoping against hope, at least a section of Afghans (conditioned as this was by ethnicity) pinned their hopes on the Taliban even if it meant sacrificing civil liberties.

Presently, the odds are stubbornly going against the Taliban. Saudi royals, one of them personally humiliated by Mullah Omar on the question of Osama bin Laden’s expulsion, would find it imprudent to annoy Washington by patronizing the Taliban. Regimes in the CARs and Russia, dealing with confessional militancy, would not sit idle in the face of a Taliban takeover of Kabul (Moscow hosted talks between the Taliban and Afghan Opposition in February this year).

China, facing Uighur dissent, has publicly expressed disapproval of the Taliban. Most importantly, a large majority of Afghans, particularly the non-Pashtuns that constitute almost 55 percent of the population, having lived the Taliban nightmare are not ready to experience it one more time. Hence, the Taliban march on Kabul may not be resisted only by the United States, Iran, India, China, CARs, and Russia, but also by most Afghans.

However, despite lacking a mass social base, the Taliban have the advantage of an unceasing supply of fanatics ready to explode on Afghan streets en route to paradise. This implies that bloodshed will not come to an end despite a US withdrawal. Also, certain Taliban factions may not agree to any final settlement with the Trump administration. War, after all, is also a lucrative drug trade and a flourishing economy for the Taliban commanders. Still, there is a strong case for US withdrawal.

The Case for US Withdrawal

The US-Taliban “deal” announced by Khalilzad in the last week of August was not only opportunistic, but it was also so risky that even Mike Pompeo was reluctant to sign it. One hopes that any future “deal” has a ceasefire as a precondition. However, though there may be many qualifications, the urgent priority is still US withdrawal.

First of all, eighteen years of US occupation has only complicated, intensified, and prolonged the conflict. This track record is itself the biggest argument in favor of US withdrawal. Ironically, over this time the Taliban have not merely regained the control of considerable parts of Afghanistan, they at one time extended their writ to Pakistan through their Pakistani cousins. It’s worth noting that since Vietnam, it has been established that the most powerful imperial countries can destroy a country in the Global South, but it cannot occupy them colonial-style.

Secondly, a US withdrawal will deny the Taliban their appeal as the “resistance force.” It is the presence of foreign occupying troops that legitimize the Taliban terror. For almost a decade now the Taliban have stopped targeting civilian targets.

After the death tolls from suicide bombings began to isolate the Taliban, they announced their intention to aim only at foreign forces or Afghan security services (though such attacks claim civilian lives anyway). Attacks on Shia-Hazara schools and mosques in recent years have been claimed by ISIS (Da’esh). The Taliban have religiously denied attacks on the Shia-Hazara community.

Thirdly, if the United States pulls out, the Taliban’s main sponsor, Pakistan, will be under huge external and internal pressure to stop patronizing the Taliban. Most importantly, Islamabad will forego the blackmailing power it currently musters owing to the fact that US military supplies depended on Pakistani cooperation. Already, Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi has ironically suggested that the US forces should not pull out in haste (implying that a US pullout will render Pakistan rudderless).

Fourthly, as argued above, a US withdrawal does not automatically imply a Talibanized Afghanistan. Despite Trump’s example, it is possible to engineer a withdrawal and a deal that involve many more stakeholders and draw better plans for ending the country’s civil war.

Finally, and most importantly, the Afghan people increasingly want a US withdrawal. They never invited or endorsed the US occupation. They have paid a huge price. They do not want to be sandwiched anymore between a US hammer and the Taliban anvil.