Joe Biden’s announcement on 14th April signals an end to “America’s longest war,” as the U.S. President declared that all U.S. and NATO troops would withdraw from Afghanistan by 11th September, a symbolic deadline marking the 20th anniversary of 9/11. However, the legacy of the conflict, which remains unresolved, continues. Not only does it highlight the limitations of military involvement and challenge the legitimacy of western interventionism, it has left many Afghans and human rights groups fearing the erosion of substantial gains made regarding the rights of women and girls, education, and press freedom.
The U.S. administration acknowledged that violence will likely continue, however, it stated that American troops would no longer play a direct role on the ground. Biden criticized the lack of clarity in U.S. objectives after the killing of Osama bin Laden in 2011 and cited previous administrations’ inability to acknowledge the evolving nature of the conflict, and of terrorist threats, throughout the past two decades. In a press briefing the previous day Washington stated, “we’ve long known that military force would not solve Afghanistan’s internal political challenges, would not end Afghanistan’s internal conflict. And so we are ending our military operations while we focus our efforts on supporting, diplomatically, the ongoing peace process.” Biden continued this point in his address, “we cannot continue the cycle of extending or expanding our military presence… hoping to create ideal conditions for the withdrawal and expecting a different result.”
The announcement made it clear that any withdrawal would not be “conditions based,” meaning that regardless of what happens in the conflict, the U.S. will maintain its position and leave Afghanistan.
Biden highlighted that U.S. diplomatic and humanitarian work would continue, as would support to the Afghan government and Afghan National Defences and Security Forces. These reassurances were extended to the Afghan President Ashraf Ghani in a telephone conversation prior to the announcement. Subsequently, Ghani published a series of tweets accepting the withdrawal, stating that Afghan security forces were “fully capable of defending its people and its country.”
However, these reassurances have been somewhat undermined by recent developments. The testimony of the head of Central Command which directs U.S. troops in Afghanistan, general Kenneth “Frank” McKenzie, questioned the “ability of the Afghan military to hold the ground that they’re on now, without the support that they’ve been used to for many years,” and the unreliability of the Taliban to maintain peace or negotiate. These words came following Turkey’s decision to indefinitely postpone a U.S.-backed international peace conference in Ankara between the Afghan government and the Taliban. According to Reuters, this was due to the Taliban’s decision to not participate and reflects fears that an unconditional withdrawal would leave no incentive for the Taliban to take peace talks seriously.
In her discussion of Biden’s decision to withdraw from the conflict for the World Politics Review, Candace Rondeaux writes, “the trouble in Afghanistan has always been that the U.S. consistently placed a greater premium on security than justice, and Washington has failed time and again to understand the symbiotic relationship between the two… There is, at least, now some consensus that the failure to enter the war with a dynamic strategy for negotiating an end to the conflict with the Taliban and other anti-government combatants was a recipe for disaster.” U.S. acknowledgement of the futility of continued military action is an important turning point. However, it is imperative that the current administration does not shirk its responsibility to support the peace process through diplomatic means, to take responsibility for past abuses (by either U.S. forces or U.S.-backed paramilitaries) by cooperating with the International Criminal Court and tackle a culture of impunity that continues to pervade western intervention in conflicts across the globe.
Human Rights Watch’s associate Asia director Patricia Gossman echoed this sentiment, “Afghans who have endured decades of human rights abuses are understandably fearful that achievements in media freedom, education, health care, and women’s rights may soon be lost, and that there will be no accountability for the injustices they have endured.”
Alongside diplomatic efforts and accountability, the U.S. must also commit to providing long-term financial support to aid programs so that human rights gains are not lost or undermined. Foreign donors, including the U.S., have reduced their funding to Afghanistan since 2016. This has been exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic as donors reduced their contribution. The Borgen Project reported in February that poverty increased from 54% in 2020 to 70% during the pandemic. Despite the billions of dollars devoted to the country over the last two decades, it has failed to fully counterbalance the consequences of civil war and the pandemic.
The future of Afghanistan remains unclear, and the U.S. has a responsibility to support the peace process and uphold human rights via diplomatic means. Other states must also be proactive in supporting stability in the region and provide diplomatic and financial support to facilitate a resolution to a conflict that has caused immeasurable suffering and death for millions of Afghans. It is important that the peace process is Afghan-led, and that human rights are prioritized, especially the rights of women and girls which remains fragile. The U.S. and its NATO allies must take responsibility for the consequences of military intervention, reflect on the limitations of western intervention, and be accountable for the injustices it committed or was complicit in over the past 20 years.
It is important to remember that as the conflict draws to a close for America, daily instability, insecurity, and uncertainty for Afghans continues. The U.S. has failed to provide enough reassurance that it will follow through with its commitments, and it is essential that they are held to account by the press and by human rights organizations throughout the withdrawal process and beyond. The UN Afghanistan Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict Annual Report 2020 showed a spike in civilian casualties at the start of peace negotiations in September 2020. This must not be repeated in the coming months, and all parties have a responsibility to protect civilians from further harm as Afghanistan experiences another period of substantial change.
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