QI’s Afghanistan Experts Reflect on Withdrawal, Next Steps for U.S. Engagement in Central Asia
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WASHINGTON, DC — The Quincy Institute’s Afghanistan experts – Research Fellows Anatol Lieven and Adam Weinstein – released the following statement reflecting on the completion of U.S. military withdrawal from Afghanistan earlier this week, and laying out a path for future U.S. engagement in the region rooted in core American interests and commitments.
“President Biden’s completion of the U.S. military withdrawal from Afghanistan, which began under the Trump administration, will go down in history as a courageous decision. The withdrawal from America’s longest active war is a recognition that the United States cannot lead through unending projection of military power abroad, and of the impossibility of the United States recreating very different societies in its own image through military occupation. It is also a reflection of the wishes of a majority of Americans across the ideological spectrum who reject the idea that the United States’ moral or strategic destiny can be fulfilled by pursuing global military domination and the open-ended wars it begets.
The United States has a clear decision in front of it. We can pursue a contradictory policy of diplomatic disengagement combined with sporadic sanctions, muddled covert operations, and drone strikes, conducted unilaterally and without either an overall U.S. strategy or coordination with other states. Or we can learn from the past and develop a more sustainable way to defend vital national interests and pursue common human goals through engagement with partners, adversaries, and the world in general.
Afghanistan is a country of nearly 40 million people whose lives have been shaped by the U.S.-led military intervention and other U.S. policies dating much further back. Now is not the time to wipe our hands clean of Afghanistan. Military withdrawal does not cancel the promises made by America to ordinary Afghans to help improve their lives. Ending forever wars must be succeeded by a policy rooted in pursuing U.S. interests through diplomatic and economic engagement in cooperation with Afghanistan’s neighbors. The United States must recognize both that its own ability to work its will in Afghanistan and elsewhere is limited, and that regional countries have legitimate vital interests that the United States must respect while of course also pursuing American interests. Regional cooperation is therefore vital to containing future threats from Afghanistan and influencing Taliban behavior in a positive direction. Most importantly, future U.S. engagement in the region should be rooted in several core interests and commitments:
• Refugees – The United States should continue to take steps to ensure remaining Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) applicants and their families find their way out of Afghanistan to the United States. We must also work closely with the international community to relocate vulnerable Afghans in third countries and the United States.
• Drone usage – The proliferation of drone warfare has proved counterproductive over time and destroyed countless families. Time and time again innocent lives are taken as a result of flawed intelligence. We must have a reckoning with this dismal record and open investigations into our past failures and the lives ruined as a result. Strikes should be a tool of absolute last resort against targets with an imminent intention and capability to kill Americans.
• Diplomacy – Diplomacy with the Taliban and other political actors in Afghanistan should continue through the U.S. Embassy in Qatar with the aim of reopening a diplomatic mission in Afghanistan. Consular services must be continued inside Afghanistan through a third country’s diplomatic mission or ideally a U.S.-run diplomatic office. Recognition of the Taliban-led government will ultimately depend on the behavior of the Taliban but dialogue must continue regardless.
• Aid – The United States and international community need to develop a plan to continue humanitarian aid. Afghans should not be plunged into starvation due to political grandstanding, aid cut-offs, or sanctions that will have little effect on the Taliban. Aid and financial support beyond humanitarian initiatives should remain contingent on the Taliban-led government’s protection of fundamental human rights.
• Security – Washington should adopt a global, partnership-driven counterterrorism strategy and work with regional countries on shared interests, including counterterrorism and suppression of the heroin trade. Combating heroin and international terrorism are vital interests of Russia and China as well as of the United States. The Biden administration has stated that it wishes to cooperate with these countries when appropriate and possible. Afghanistan is a good place to begin.”