Our final withdrawal from Afghanistan on August 31 will perhaps go into the record book as the biggest airlift since Berlin (1948-49). Total evacuated were more than 120,000 Americans, Afghans and others over the past several weeks.
According to estimates by the Costs of War Project at Brown University, the US has spent more than 2 trillion dollars on the war in Afghanistan. The costs of the war in lives lost (Ellen Krickmeyer AP News 8/17/21) can be summarized as follows: American service members and contractors 6294; NATO & allied members 1144; Afghan civilians and Taliban/opposition 98,436; Journalists and aid workers 516.
The fall of Saigon (April 1975) culminated in a similar ending for the US in Vietnam. US marine and air force helicopters transported more than 1000 American civilians and nearly 7000 South Vietnamese refugees out of Saigon in the 18-hour mass evacuation effort. By the end of the war around 58,000 Americans lost their lives, estimated 1.1 million North Vietnamese and Viet Cong fighters were killed, up to 250,000 South Vietnamese soldiers died and more than 2 million civilians were killed on both sides of the war.
History repeats itself. America did not learn much from its Vietnam debacle. Looking forward it is important to analyze the developments of the post war US-Vietnam partnership in order to contextualize a future US-Afghanistan relationship.
After 20 years hiatus of severed ties, President Clinton announced the formal normalization of diplomatic relations between the United States of America and the Socialist Republic of Vietnam. Bilateral trade agreements including the Permanent Normal Trade Relation (PNTR) among others followed. Today, trade between the two countries has expanded massively from just $400 million in 1994 to over $90 billion in 2020 despite Covid-19. Vietnam has also become a favorite tourist destination for many Americans.
Soon as the dust settles, America needs to quickly refocus on its relationship with Kabul. The geo-political importance of the country cannot be underscored. Chinese and Russian encroachments during this void cannot be minimized. With a somewhat ‘accommodating’ Taliban leadership, we should press them on two basic issues:
Human Rights and Women’s Rights
Is the Taliban’s ideological belief different this time? Recently they have pledged to respect and protect human rights, women’s right to work and girl’s right to attend school. The Quran advocates the absolute moral and spiritual equality of woman and men and declares them as equal members (surah 33:35 and 3:195). When Islam was introduced in the sixth century, women’s status improved substantially. Islamic law made education of girls a sacred duty and gave women the right to own and inherit property. Also, religious freedom is a universal right and not merely a set of western values. The Quran (2:256) explicitly says ‘no compulsion in religion’. The onus is now on the Taliban to prove their true adherence to the scriptures and respect the will of its people.
President Biden declared “……our only vital interest in Afghanistan remains today what it has always been: preventing a terrorist attack on (the) American homeland”. It would be a serious mistake on the part of the new Taliban leadership if they allow their country to be once again used by terrorists and turn it into a haven for transnational terror networks like Al-Qaeda, ISIS-K as well as their affiliates and regional branches. “The Taliban have a certain self-interest in this. They know what happened the last time they harbored a terrorist group that attacked the United States. It’s not in their self-interest to allow a repeat of that” noted Secretary of State Blinken. While the White House is taking this potential threat seriously, they think they can use the Taliban’s desire for international legitimacy as leverage.
Qatar is the Gulf State that has maintained the best relations with the Taliban which in turn facilitated the US-Taliban agreement of February 2020 signed by the Taliban and the United States of America. Qatari negotiators have been closely involved in softening the Taliban’s attitude towards the US. They would also be helpful in bringing to the attention of the US policymakers the cultural, ethnic and religious aspect of the Afghans which plays an important role in their personal and political lives.
Al-Udeid air base in Qatar (est. 1996) houses the US Air Force (CENTCOM) and according to media reports the base has over 10,000 US and US-led anti-ISIL coalition forces with over 100 operational aircrafts. Today it is playing a major role and a vital staging ground in this unprecedented evacuation and airlift from Kabul. Given Doha’s strong regional presence and its considerable financial power it is expected that Doha will continue to moderate Taliban’s extreme worldview and narrow sectarian policies.
With a total population of about 40 million, Afghanistan’s median population age is 15.6 and according to the United Nations Population Fund about 41.2 percent of Afghans are under the age of 14. Majority of Afghans were born after 9/11 and have been exposed to social media, internet, cable TV, foreign travel and other modern international activities. They will be the bedrock of a future Afghan society and the Taliban’s old method of governance and theocratical extremes may be rejected by them.
The US, G-7 countries and the OIC must strictly monitor any abuses and encourage the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan to return to constitutional governance with the protection of civilian life, liberty and property. A clear and unequivocal message should be sent to them that any cooperation would be conditional to adherence to international law of human rights and justice. Penalties for violations will include but not limited to sanctions, freezing of assets, withholding of diplomatic recognitions, travel ban, and the suspension of bilateral and multilateral assistance. Action must follow words.