The Way Out of Afghanistan: Reversing a Deadly Dynamic

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Author: David Cortright

As the scale of the military intervention has increased in Afghanistan, so has the armed violence and influence of the Taliban. Reversing this deadly dynamic will require an approach that pursues demilitarization through the gradual disengagement of U.S. and NATO military forces.

The Obama administration is committed to a gradual process of withdrawal from Afghanistan next year. While needed, this military exit must be done responsibly. In particular, it must not mean the abandonment of Afghan women. If the United States and its allies depart precipitously, women in Afghanistan could be subjected to grotesque cruelties as they were during the Taliban era, including public stoning, marauding gangs of Taliban thugs, and prohibitions against schooling and employment.

A broad set of agreements

Gradual military demobilization must be linked to a broader set of security and political agreements, including preventing the use of Afghan territory for terrorist operations, supporting political reconciliation and power-sharing within the Afghan government, and continuing financial support for political, economic, and social policies that enhance the status and well-being of women. Military disengagement should be combined with a greatly increased commitment to development, diplomacy, and protection of human rights.

As the scale of the military intervention has increased in Afghanistan, so has the armed violence and influence of the Taliban. Reversing this deadly dynamic will require an approach that pursues demilitarization through the gradual disengagement of U.S. and NATO military forces.

The Obama administration is committed to a gradual process of withdrawal from Afghanistan next year. While needed, this military exit must be done responsibly. In particular, it must not mean the abandonment of Afghan women. If the United States and its allies depart precipitously, women in Afghanistan could be subjected to grotesque cruelties as they were during the Taliban era, including public stoning, marauding gangs of Taliban thugs, and prohibitions against schooling and employment.

Gradual military demobilization must be linked to a broader set of security and political agreements, including preventing the use of Afghan territory for terrorist operations, supporting political reconciliation and power-sharing within the Afghan government, and continuing financial support for political, economic, and social policies that enhance the status and well-being of women. Military disengagement should be combined with a greatly increased commitment to development, diplomacy, and protection of human rights.
Negotiated security arrangements are needed to end armed attacks and establish conditions for longer term security and stability. The negotiations must involve the Afghan government as well as Taliban insurgents and their Pakistani military patrons.

The presence of an interim security force would facilitate the withdrawal of foreign troops and bolster Afghan security

The deployment of an interim security force to replace Western troops and provide transitional protection is an idea worth pursuing. Taliban representatives have indicated support for a Muslim-led protection force and have pledged not to attack such a force.

Such a force could operate under the auspices of the United Nations, with a mission of providing population-centric protection during an interim period. The presence of such a force would help facilitate the withdrawal of foreign troops and bolster Afghan security. It might increase the willingness of the Taliban to accept security and political cooperation agreements. It could provide security protection for women and other Afghan civilians who are threatened as foreign forces withdraw.

The required interim security force would not need to be large, once allied military operations cease and insurgent attacks diminish. A modest force of perhaps 30,000 troops may be sufficient. It would need to be paid, trained, and equipped by the United States and its NATO allies. The interim security force could be introduced as U.S.-led forces cease combat operations and pull back to their bases in advance of withdrawal. The remaining foreign troops could assist with training and equipping the force.

Risks worth taking

Of course creating an interim security force will require an enormous effort, which the United States must lead. The U.S. Army has well-established security training and education programs with the armed forces of Indonesia, Egypt, Jordan and other Muslim states. The armed forces of Bangladesh have had extensive experience serving in UN peacekeeping operations. Asian experts have mentioned Malaysia as a country that might be asked to provide troops. An appropriate independent command structure would have to be created. The United States and its NATO partners would need to leave behind sufficient equipment, including helicopters and vehicles, to enable the force to operate.

The strategy of demilitarizing and deploying an interim security force poses risks, but it is preferable to a permanent war that has created deepening insecurity in Afghanistan. The current strategy of military escalation and large-scale counterinsurgency is not working militarily and is unsustainable politically. The alternative approach contains uncertainties, but they are preferable to the known dangers of war.


David Cortright is director of Policy Studies at Notre Dame’s Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies. This essay, titled “Reversing a Deadly Dynamic in Afghanistan” and others investigating violent conflict can be found at the webzine Peace Policy, published by Notre Dame’s Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies.


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