This week, during the Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s White House visit, U.S. President Barack Obama announced that he will delay the schedule for U.S. troop withdrawal from Afghanistan and current troop levels will be maintained through the end of 2015. While I have reservations about the use of U.S. military power abroad more generally, a brief extension of the American military presence in Afghanistan makes sense to secure the substantial U.S. investment there.
Obama’s announcement should allay Ghani’s concerns over Afghanistan’s ability to manage the security transition. As the Afghan president said in a CFR meeting on Thursday, “2015 is going to be a very difficult security year… We have demonstrated our capability and will, but we are going to be tested.”
Yet in his address to Congress, Ghani maintained an emphasis on Afghan self-reliance. “I know American people are asking the same question as the Afghan people. Will we have the resources to provide a sustained basis for our operation? And the answer is: within this decade, we will.” However, for now, Afghanistan’s own security forces have limited airlift capability—a serious shortcoming in light of Afghanistan’s mountainous terrain. Afghanistan also currently lacks the high-end intelligence-collecting technology that American forces possess and have used to secure Afghanistan against insurgents.
While the United States cannot and should not remain in Afghanistan indefinitely, Obama’s decision reflects the realization that the transition envisioned by both the U.S. and Afghan governments cannot happen overnight. Slowing the pace of U.S. withdrawal will allow Afghanistan time to build up their self-reliance and capacity without fear of collapse.
As I have written before, the success or failure of the security transition has implications for women’s rights in Afghanistan. Afghan women have made incredible strides since the fall of the Taliban in 2001—especially in education and health care, as Ghani reminded Congress. And the Afghan president has plans to continue increasing women’s rights and opportunities in Afghanistan. In his address to U.S. lawmakers, Ghani described the three pillars of his approach to empowering women: education, economic opportunity, and a “mental and cultural revolution… over the treatment of women.” Empowering Afghan women and girls is critical to their own dignity and wellbeing first and foremost, but it also has benefits for Afghanistan’s prosperity and stability more broadly. Yet without a foundation of security, none of these reforms will be possible; women and girls have been under attack on their way to work and school, and female politicians have been threatened. A short extension of the U.S. presence in Afghanistan—to provide more time for the Afghans to strengthen their own security apparatus—is critical for the development of Afghanistan’s programs for women.
Of course, there are good reasons to be wary of the extension of the U.S. military presence—given that it is reportedly in part geared toward bolstering capacity for U.S. secret drone strikes from United States military bases. Cross-border CIA drone strikes in Pakistan’s tribal areas have caused resentment against the United States, are troubling from a legal standpoint, and set a worrisome precedent for other governments to use drones strikes against American citizens and potentially against political dissidents and other disfavored groups.
I am also generally cautious about the use of American military power and wary of the trend toward militarizing women’s human rights, when diplomacy and soft power may be more effective and sustainable, less costly, and more protective of American and Afghan lives. Plus, military interventions can undermine—rather than support—local women’s rights efforts. However, in the short term, maintaining U.S. troops in Afghanistan is a practical step, and since their mission is advisory, not combat, the dangers of exercising U.S. power is reduced. Plus, whether through U.S. Army female engagement teams or USAID and State Department programs, the U.S. strategy in Afghanistan has actually supported and worked in partnership with community-based women’s organizations. Supporting such local capacity continues to be the right and smart thing to do.
In an ideal world, military power would never be necessary to create conditions of gender equality. Yet given Afghanistan’s history—including the allegations of fraud in last year’s election that delayed the political transition and Ghani’s ability to stand up a new government quickly—the United States would be remiss if it did not extend support to Afghanistan while it regains its security footing.