Editor’s Note: Gayle Tzemach Lemmon is an adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. She is the author of “The Dressmaker of Khair Khana” and “Ashley’s War: The Untold Story of a Team of Women Soldiers on the Special Ops Battlefield.” Her next book, for Penguin Press, is set in northeastern Syria and is about the women who fought and defeated ISIS. Follower her on Twitter @gaylelemmon. The views expressed in this commentary are her own. Read more opinion at CNN.
As President Trump seeks to draw down US troops from Afghanistan and Iraq, some have argued the decision is about bringing an end to America’s endless wars. But the real issue is how to create enduring stability. Now is an important time to talk not about endless war, but rather about lasting peace.
In Afghanistan, Taliban talks (which the US initiated) hang in the balance, and Afghans see their lives become the fodder for a negotiated peace. That is especially true for women, who were shuttered indoors by the Taliban in 1994 and who continue to face violence from the Taliban today. As America looks to leave, the situation is fragile.
“The question is whether the people of America are ready to support surrendering the fate of 15 million Afghan women and girls to a violent extremist group that facilitated the 9/11 [attacks] in the US,” says Afghan activist Wazhma Frogh. “This is a question Afghan girls are asking today from the people of America.”
No one wants Americans to remain in Afghanistan forever.
As Afghanistan’s government negotiates over a process for dialogue with the Taliban, the on-the-ground reality for Afghans spans from difficult to deadly. In the last months, bombings killed students at Kabul University, and attacks targeted Afghan security forces. From the beginning of July through the end of September, “average daily enemy-initiated attacks … were 50% higher compared to last quarter,” according to the US Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction. According to a 2019 US government report, only 53.8% of Afghan districts were under the control or the influence of the Afghan government, with 33.9% contested and 12.3% under the Taliban’s control or sway.
President Trump has ordered a drawdown that would bring the total number of US troops in Afghanistan from 4,500 down to 2,500 by Jan. 15. And it is true that a large American presence in Afghanistan—US troop levels peaked at around 100,000, in 2011—would not be sustainable.
But the question of how the US draws down and goes home—and what it leaves in its wake—matters a great deal to keeping the war ended. No one wants US forces to head home only to have to turn back, as happened in Iraq in 2014, when US forces returned to fight ISIS after withdrawing from the country in 2011. Keeping a limited number of US troops in Afghanistan, to continue to train Afghan security forces while political talks progress, would mean both helping Afghan troops who are fighting extremists and supporting Afghan women and men fighting for their own futures.
Some may say that it is high time Afghans provided for their own security. That is true. What is also true is that Afghans have been fighting, dying and risking their lives for their own futures for years. In 2020, young people have been blown while studying in at university, they have been killed as they reported on their country and they have been slaughtered in its hospitals shortly after giving birth.
And yet, Afghans endure and push for peace.
No doubt Afghanistan continues to suffer from poverty, illiteracy and corruption. But less known is that the country can point to progress. Cell phone usage is up. Girls’ education is endangered but increased from 2001—even at university levels. Journalism is vibrant, even while journalists risk their lives to do their jobs. As Afghan President Ashraf Ghani noted recently, “The rate of access to electricity has increased from 8 percent to more than 30 percent; maternal mortality rates declined threefold between 2000 and 2015; and for every 1,000 births, 142 more children lived to the age of five in 2018 than they did in 2007. This progress can be attributed to development aid.”
Every Gold Star family is a tragedy and a loss for America. But it is also important to note that thousands of Afghans in uniform who have died serving their country and given their lives in unsustainably high numbers. The question now is what comes next.
Women who have been part of forging their nation’s future have been speaking about what should come next. Afghan Parliamentarian Fawzia Koofi, who faced a recent assassination attempt, noted in an interview recently that “the enemies of the prosperity of Afghanistan do not want to see this country being led and represented by the best version of its citizens.”
And truly, that is what this is about. Afghanistan in 2020 is very different from Afghanistan in 2001 following the American invasion. The country still faces poverty, illiteracy, crime and war. But it does so with a generation that is keen to be connected, increasingly educated, even outside Kabul, and desperate for peace.
These are America’s allies in the fight to keep the Afghan war ended. They are ready to go to work to ensure stability. Of course, the Institute of War and Peace Studies (IWPS) also noted that “there is a strong possibility that the Taliban sees the talks in Doha as merely an alternative to a military path to victory. If this is the Taliban’s calculus, it would be extremely high-risk for the Afghan government to accede to the Taliban’s narrative.”
Trump has also announced a drawdown from Iraq, where US soldiers have fought, off and on, since 2003. That country has seen similar fragility since US troops left in 2011—fragility that brought US troops back two and a half years later.
In Iraq, the presence of US forces has been crucial to stopping the Islamic State, whose unique brand of terror seized headlines from 2014 until it was finally stopped in March 2019.
I have visited Syria seven times since 2017 and have seen for myself that the US is the Oz-like presence in the region, rarely seen, but frequently felt. This presence ensures a very fragile stability, and it allows the forces who served as America’s ground force against the Islamic State to keep up pressure on the group. America’s presence in Iraq is key to supplying US forces in Syria.
It is also urgent to point out how much fighting and dying Syrians have done to stop the Islamic State and its territorial “caliphate.” The US has lost 21 service members killed in Operation Inherent Resolve, the name for America’s military campaign against ISIS across multiple countries. The Syrian Democratic Forces, the coalition of America’s local partners who fought ISIS in Syria, said in March 2019 they had lost more than 11,000.
This reality, that Syrians and Iraqis and Afghans are fighting and dying today, while US forces train and equip and help support them as they work to protect their areas, is little understood. But as we discuss the future of US troops in Afghanistan and Iraq, it is critical to keep in mind. It is in America’s interest to stand on the side of those who fight against extremism and for stability.