Peace the priority as US, Afghanistan open new chapter
For the past 20 years, the US has had a defining role in shaping politics in Afghanistan. President Ashraf Ghani’s weekend visit to the US was significant in that it happened just a few months before American forces are due to leave Afghanistan. The final withdrawal date has been set as Sept. 11 — the date whose tragic events in 2001 were the main reason for the US forces’ presence in Afghanistan. With Al-Qaeda’s defeat and guarantees by the Taliban not to host Al-Qaeda or any other forces that threaten US security, Washington finds little reason to stay in Afghanistan any longer. It believes its presence in Afghanistan is no longer financially or politically worthwhile.
The Afghan delegation, whose composition reflected ethnic diversity rather than the relevancy of roles, met with key US officials and had a chance to discuss the nature of the relationship between the two countries in the wake of the upcoming US troop withdrawal. The most important message from the meeting between US President Joe Biden and Ghani was the former’s emphasis that it is up to Afghans to decide their own future. Ghani called this a new chapter in their relationship. This new phase of engagement presents both challenges and opportunities for Washington and Kabul alike.
There have been mixed feelings among Afghans about the visit, with government supporters touting it as a major policy achievement. Symbolism is part and parcel of Afghan society. Instead of focusing on the substance and outcomes of the visit, many Afghans are celebrating how the delegation was received by the US government in terms of protocols.
The priority of the US government during the visit was its support for peace and stability in Afghanistan in spite of limited progress in the peace negotiations. Its tone was carefully planned and mostly looking to the future, rather than associating itself with the incumbent government. This indicated that the US will honor its landmark agreement with the Taliban made in February 2020. For Afghanistan, the continuation of the US partnership and its support for the country even after the withdrawal of its forces is significant.
The Afghan delegation might have hoped for a change in America’s decision in terms of the deadline for its troop withdrawal in the wake of the Taliban’s capture of district after district and its challenge to central government authority in large parts of the country. However, there was no change in America’s withdrawal schedule, which Ghani referred to as transformational.
The US will continue its economic, political and diplomatic support for Afghanistan, in addition to its assistance to the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF). Biden emphasized that, even with America’s withdrawal, the country’s partnership with Afghanistan is enduring. It is to be noted that the ANDSF is totally reliant on US financial support, with a $4 billion annual contribution that is critical for the country’s national security. Meanwhile, US support for Afghan coronavirus disease relief in the form of financial aid and the provision of vaccine doses is commendable and timely, as the country has been hit hard by a third wave of the pandemic.
The US government’s promises of support for preserving Afghanistan’s gains in democracy, human rights and the empowerment of women can only be truly realized in the case of a peace settlement. Continuing war will bring more misery and suffering to the Afghan people and will not give a meaningful dimension to strategic Afghan-US relations.
For Afghanistan, the continuation of the US partnership and its support for the country even after the withdrawal of its forces is significant.
In a joint media briefing with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Ghani outlined his country’s achievements and his government’s commitment to the empowerment of women. However, the reality on the ground is different. Can the appointment of a few elite women to high-level government positions offer any fundamental change to the quality of lives of millions of Afghan women? An absolute majority of Afghan women face hardships due to insufficient healthcare and are the victims of injustices in recruitment if they are not politically connected. Worst of all, thousands of young brides of fallen soldiers face unfair treatment when seeking their benefits from security institutions. Women begging on the streets are a common sight in Afghan cities.
The Afghan government, the Taliban movement and the US government have different priorities for the future of Afghanistan. The Afghan government would be happy with the status quo, as long as it can retain minimal control over the country and continue to receive financial aid, even with the ongoing violence. On the other hand, the Taliban is hoping for a military victory. However, the US would prefer a political settlement that can ensure a stable Afghanistan to help protect its strategic interests in the region. It is time the silent majority of Afghans had their voices heard by all three important players.
- Ajmal Shams is Vice-President of the Afghanistan Social Democratic Party and is based in Kabul. He is a former Deputy Minister in the Afghan National Unity Government. Twitter: @ajmshams