FCNL has provided our responses to commonly raised questions regarding military withdrawal from Afghanistan.
Update: FCNL originally produced this FAQ in conjunction with a set of issue briefs making the case for a responsible withdrawal from Afghanistan before a withdrawal had commenced. Now that a military withdrawal is nearing completion, we have updated this resource to reflect new information and developments as of July 2021.
Q: Even if we remove combat troops, shouldn’t we maintain a small contingent and/or continue drone strikes for counterterrorism purposes?
The Biden administration appears to be contemplating continued lethal strikes and military contractor engagement despite troop withdrawal. But the objective should be to abandon a failed strategy, not to simply continue it on a smaller and even less transparent scale. Evidence is clear that U.S. military operations—including not just traditional combat troops, but also targeted strikes and partnerships with abusive militias—only fuel recruitment for terror groups and help them grow.1
Fully ending militarized counterterrorism practices in Afghanistan would not only remove a continuing source of grievances, but also a high-profile target of opportunity. Instead, the United States should center the United Nations in conducting ramped-up diplomatic and development efforts and work towards a political settlement.2 The United States needs to fully withdraw and allow the U.N. to lead negotiations. This approach would be better for Afghans, regional countries, and Americans as the United States has failed in bringing peace to Afghanistan.
Q: What will happen to women and girls in Afghanistan after we leave?
The difficult reality is that many of the important successes made by Afghan women in recent years - such as increased access to education, health care, and leadership roles in business and government - are in danger of being reversed. At this point, the United States has very little leverage to achieve any specific outcomes in Afghanistan.
Although the United States should support Afghan women peacebuilders’ recommendations for how to prevent atrocities, promote human rights, and include women in negotiations about the country’s future, these efforts cannot succeed without backing from the Afghan government, the United Nations, and the broader international community. The U.N. should encourage all international and regional actors to stop fueling the conflict, to support a continued peace process, and to facilitate aid to women human rights defenders and civil society.
It is also critical to recognize that improvements have not benefited all Afghan women and girls equally, and that the country has remained one of the worst places in the world to be a woman. Indeed, the well-being of Afghan women is intrinsically linked with the overall security of Afghanistan as a whole. Thus, the best way to strengthen women’s rights in Afghanistan, and human rights more generally, is for there to be peace and an inclusive and representative government. This is something that may take many years, and can never be achieved by U.S. military might.3 As a State Department spokesman recently admitted, “Any government in Afghanistan that comes to power through the barrel of a gun, through force, is not one that will have popular support.”
A leading Afghan woman peacebuilder wrote:
“We have been fighting for our rights long before the American military arrived and will continue long after it has withdrawn. We kept struggling and educating our young ones in underground schools before America came to help us, and we kept our struggle going when American money went to empower warlords who were more interested in personal enrichment than advancing peace. Afghan women have sacrificed greatly for a war they never asked for.”
Q: What if terror groups or the Taliban fully take over now that we are leaving? What if there’s a civil war?
There is no way around it: in the absence of an inclusive and verifiable intra-Afghan peace deal, U.S. military withdrawal will, and already has been, accompanied by increased violence. Unfortunately, there is no reason to believe that leaving U.S. troops in Afghanistan would help the country to reach a peace deal or reduce the likelihood of violence at a later withdrawal date.
The reality is that—even after nearly two decades of U.S. military engagement (which has included a troop presence as high as 100,000)—at the time of the U.S. government’s exit agreement with the Taliban, the Taliban already controlled or contested more territory than at any point since 2001.4 Violence has raged on throughout the time of U.S. occupation, and the U.S. government never put the focus on peace, instead continuing to rely on military force which did not bring either temporary peace or a durable solution to the conflict.
One concrete way the United States can help Afghans at this difficult juncture is by improving, speeding up, and expanding immigration opportunities, such as the Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) program, for Afghans who have worked alongside the United States. These visas should be granted not only to those who helped the U.S. military, but those who assisted U.S. diplomatic and aid efforts and placed their lives at further risk as a result. Additionally, the United States should fast-track a visa program for Afghan women human rights defenders, politicians, and journalists, and diplomatically engage allies to do the same.
Q: What if there is a new terror attack against the United States? Won’t those who supported a withdrawal from Afghanistan be blamed for it?
Regardless of the status of U.S. troops in Afghanistan, it is almost certain that supporters of military aggression and occupation will exploit any violence inspired or facilitated by transnational terror groups to blame those who advocate peaceful, diplomatic solutions. But the U.S. occupation of Afghanistan has not made Americans safer; in fact, it has only contributed to the dispersion and growth of terror groups. As U.S. troops leave Afghanistan, they leave behind at least twenty militant groups, a far cry from the Pentagon’s single target of al-Qaeda upon invading Afghanistan in 2001.
It is important to remember that there is no evidence to suggest that the attacks of 9/11 could have been prevented by an occupation of Afghanistan. After all, 15 of the 19 hijackers were citizens of Saudi Arabia and none were Afghans. And although the Taliban allowed al-Qaeda to operate within its controlled territory, most of the planning for the attack took place in Germany and Spain. More broadly, the challenge of terrorism should not be over-inflated to score political points. The reality is that climate change, pandemic diseases, rampant inequality, gun violence and racial injustice pose more urgent threats to American lives.
The United States has failed in its stated objective to eradicate terrorism in Afghanistan by military means. Counterterrorism efforts should be directed towards addressing root causes of the conflict.
1 Lizzie Dearden, “Former US Military Advisor David Kilcullen Says There Would Be No ISIS Without Iraq Invasion,” The Independent, March 4, 2016 (“We have to recognize that a lot of the problem is of our own making.”); David Plotz, “What Does Osama bin Laden Want?” Slate, September 14, 2001; Steven Feldstein, “Do Terrorist Trends in Africa Justify the U.S. Military’s Expansion?” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, February 9, 2018; Christopher D. Kolenda, Rachel Reid, Chris Rogers, and Marte Retzius, The Strategic Costs of Civilian Harm: Applying Lessons from Afghanistan to Current and Future Conflicts (Washington, DC: Open Society Foundations, 2016).
2 Kate Gould, “Treat ISIS Like an Artichoke,” Truthout, March 30. 2016; Madeline Rose, “How Peacebuilding Can Replace Endless War,” Responsible Statecraft, December 18, 2019.
3 “Women, Peace and Security Index 2019/2020” (Washington: Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace, and Security, 2019); Heather Barr, “A crucial moment for women’s rights in Afghanistan,” Human Rights Watch, March 5, 2020.
4 Alia Chughthai, “Afghanistan: Who Controls What,” Al Jazeera, June 24, 2019; Associated Press, “A timeline of U.S. troop levels in Afghanistan since 2001,” Military Times, July 6, 2016.
For more information, please contact Heather Brandon-Smith, legislative director on Militarism and Human Rights at HBrandon-Smith@fcnl.org.
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