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The Cost of Leaving: The Afghan Human Rights Dilemma

As President Joe Biden seeks to restore the United States’ reputation on the global stage following four years of detachment, his administration has placed the promotion of human rights at the top of its foreign policy agenda. From the return to international organizations like the UN Human Rights Council to the willingness to address these violations in conversations with adversarial leaders, the Biden administration has validated its words with firm action. But there is one geopolitical issue where it will be difficult for the United States to reconcile its affirmed commitment to human rights with the realities on the ground: the US withdrawal from Afghanistan.

After the Trump administration signed a historic peace accord with the Taliban a little over a year ago, the United States is closer than ever to full withdrawal, with the agreement stipulating a removal of all foreign forces by May 1, 2021. The Biden administration has paused all future troop withdrawals to review the Taliban’s compliance and determine the best course of action. Any future calculation on the number of deployed service members will have much broader implications than the status of the peace deal. It is in the defense of human rights that the United States should maintain a small contingent of counterterrorism forces until an agreement between the Taliban and current government is finalized.

At this point of its multidecade occupation, the United States has a significant moral responsibility to look out for the safety and security of the Afghan people. With a median age of 18.4, more than half of Afghanistan’s population has never lived in their country without US troops, nor witnessed the carnage of intra-Afghan conflict that picked up following the Soviet Union’s withdrawal. The congressionally-established Afghanistan Study Group validated the concern of future conflict stating a withdrawal of US forces could lead to a renewal of civil war and a rise in terrorism, potentially threatening both Afghan stability and US security. As Taliban forces build up their positions outside of major population centers, these predictions are growing increasingly more plausible.

In addition to the violence that could affect all Afghan civilians following a US departure, certain vulnerable demographics within the country would become especially susceptible to human rights abuses. A full US troop withdrawal would critically risk jeopardizing the gains and protections afforded to women in the era of post-Taliban rule. While the Taliban claim that their views on women’s rights have softened, it is difficult to take them at their word given their disregard of the obligations of the peace agreement. Even though the rights of women vary across Taliban-control territory, the significant gains women have made across the board since the arrival of US service members are substantial. Nor is it easy to overlook the multiple human rights violations against women by the Taliban on the grounds of “immoral” acts that the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan has documented as recently as 2019.

Afghanistan’s ethnic and religious minorities would also face an increased risk of repression and outright persecution. Non-Pashtun Afghans and non-Sunni Muslims have been frequent targets of the Taliban’s ire in the past including Tajiks, Uzbeks, and Shi’a minorities, namely the Hazaras. Throughout the US deployment the Hazaras’ position in Afghan society advanced significantly. But their advancements face significant uncertainty with a full US departure. Memories of fierce discrimination and slaughter, including the 1998 massacre in Mazar-i-Sharif, still burn viscerally in the minds of many Hazara. In recent years, the Taliban have stepped up their attacks on Hazara strongholds and the Hazara are increasingly preparing for a fight to defend their right to exist. 

But the biggest risk to human rights in the country that could stem from a full US withdrawal would be a rise in terrorism and indiscriminate attacks. The increasing presence and ruthlessness of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant – Khorasan Province branch (ISKP) is a worrying portent to this belief. Although ISKP is a relatively new participant to the Afghan conflict, their brutality and indiscriminate targeting of Afghans is gaining outsized notice in a country that has grown accustomed to violent attacks.  The May 12, 2020 attacks are an illustration of the group’s mercilessness, as a funeral bombing and maternity ward shooting claimed the lives of over 50 people including babies, mothers, nurses, and mourners. Additionally, the peace agreement creates a prime recruiting opportunity for the group to welcome Taliban defectors unwilling to compromise with the Kabul government, as estimates range from 5-20% of current Taliban fighters switching allegiances. Herein lies the crucial utility of maintaining a small contingent of US counterterrorism forces in the country who can limit the attacks carried out by terrorist groups that will not only claim the lives of innocent Afghan civilian, but have the potential to extend attacks beyond Afghan borders.

While there are no good options for the United States to extract themselves from the Afghan quagmire, there are certainly better choices among the possibilities. And if the Biden administration is committed to promoting human rights on the global stage it would be an unequivocal mistake to turn our back on our allies of 20 years to bolt from the country. We do not need to look too far back in history to evidence the violence and human rights catastrophes that can emerge from a hasty withdrawal.  Many opponents of US troops in Afghanistan point to the continuation of the “forever war,” but won’t bat an eye at the continued deployment of 63,690 service members in Japan, 46,562 service members in Germany, or 28,503 service members in South Korea, all of which began before a US service member ever arrived in Afghanistan.

Why do we continue to station tens of thousands of our service members in democratic, developed countries that have significantly less violence and terror than Afghanistan? Because we care about the safety and security of the citizens where our troops are deployed and the same conviction should apply to Afghanistan.President Biden began his political career only a few years before the world watched the North Vietnamese forces lay siege on Saigon as helicopters evacuated American personnel from the embassy rooftop. These images were ingrained in his memory and he has noted privately the possibility of a repeat of similar events occurring in Afghanistan following a full troop withdrawal. But even worse than witnessing a departure from the country, we risk letting Afghan human rights possibly crumble before our eyes should the US precipitously withdraw from Afghanistan.


Connor Paul

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