The announcement was a long time coming. Finally, in his February 12 State of the Union address, President Obama declared his decision: the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan will be reduced by 34,000—slightly, and probably deliberately, more than half of the current 66,000—over the next year. Additionally, the NATO mandate in Afghanistan should be concluded by the end of 2014.
So, any self-respecting liberal should be popping a long-saved bottle of champagne, right? I’m not so sure.
Yes, this conflict has been long (12-year), messy (more than 2,000 American service members dead), costly (up to $90 billion has been spent on aid and reconstruction), and I’m glad to see it coming to a close. But so is the Taliban, which has been attacking U.S. troops on their way out, knowing that they’ll be weakest as they shut down their surveillance systems to leave.
In fact, the Taliban is poised to profit pretty heavily from our coming withdrawal. Because our lethal, costly, decade-long campaign hasn’t actually gotten rid of the Taliban, Afghan President Hamid Karzai, along with British Prime Minister David Cameron and Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari, have been staging peace talks and urging the Taliban to come to the table. Zardari has already released dozens of Taliban prisoners, no strings attached, to curry favor with the group. And it looks like Karzai’s ready to make some steep concessions, among them allowing the Taliban to become a political party.
Before leaving his post, General John Allen, former commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, had some advice for the Taliban: “If the Taliban wants to play [a role] in the future of Afghanistan, they’re going to have to give up the kind of violence toward the Afghan population, and the connection that they’ve had with al-Qaeda.”
What lovely, meaningless words. Why should the Taliban change their repressive menu if Karzai is willing to let them join the political process as they are? In fact, the Taliban hasn’t even shown any inclination to join the Karzai-Cameron-Zardari round table. Perhaps they’re simply waiting for the U.S. to leave so they can take control of the country on their own terms.
A cartoon recently published in the New York Times depicts an American soldier, arm in a sling, creeping away from Afghanistan, leaving small footprints behind him as he goes. He glances nervously beside him, at a trail of gigantic footprints leading towards the country.
You and I can probably agree on the notion that the United States has left some deep footprints in Afghan territory. From here in America, it always seemed to me that U.S. efforts in Afghanistan were completely futile or even harmful, like the bull in the china shop, if the bull had insisted that smashing everything was what was best for the store and, of course, its own security interests.
But the effects of this war haven’t just been negative; our footprint isn’t all bad. U.S. aid money has granted unprecedented health care access to Afghans, helped to educate young Afghan girls, and provided a base on which to build a functioning economy. Which is why my supreme concern isn’t the Pentagon’s angling to keep as many troops in Afghanistan post-2014 as possible (the actual number should be no more than 9,000), but the prospect of US troop withdrawal meaning a U.S. aid withdrawal as well.
The Obama administration’s current policy is one of support for an international agreement made last year to slowly wean the Afghan economy off of aid, giving them time to adapt to the changes.
But budgetary decisions aren’t made by the president, so his opinion isn’t worth much. And it’s not hard to imagine Congress chopping away at the $2.5 billion annual aid to Afghanistan when we’ve got our own economic issues to deal with here at home.
I sincerely hope our legislators won’t do that. Depriving Afghanistan of our economic aid, which exceeds its tax revenues, might mean the reversal of hard-won social and economic progress. I want to be out of this tangled mess as much as anyone, but there’s no sense in abandoning a country we’ve already invested far too much in to simply let fall into economic chaos.
—Stacey Nieves ‘15 is an English major.