As the US grapples with a worsening economic situation stemming from the Coronavirus pandemic, it should not abandon its commitment to support Afghanistan. Doing so may help America save its position as a global superpower.
Afghanistan links three key geographic regions: the Indian Subcontinent to the southeast, Central Asia to the north, and the Iranian highlands to the west. Due to the fact that it bridges the Middle East countries, Afghanistan has long been both a target of invasions and a pathway for empires and world powers to invade neighbouring regions. Throughout history, global powers have sought to obtain strategic goals in Afghanistan with regard to their long-term economic, ideological, and political interests.
Afghanistan became a focal point of US foreign policy in 2001. On October 7, 2001, the US attacked Afghanistan in order to oust the Taliban, an extremist Islamist group which had harboured Al-Qaeda, the group that orchestrated the September 11 attacks. On December 22, 2001, Afghan ethnic leaders and US officials gathered in Bonn, Germany to establish a democratic government in Afghanistan called the Afghan Interim Administration. Since the creation of the interim government, the Taliban has been involved in an armed opposition to it. US forces, along with the Afghan National Security Forces, have fought against the Taliban for last eighteen years. 2,400 US military casualties and more than 38,000 Afghan civilian causalities have been recorded.
The US congress has allotted nearly $137 billion for reconstruction of Afghanistan. Approximately $52 billion has be allocated to the US’s commitment to consolidate democracy, advocate human rights, and safeguard women’s rights in Afghanistan since 2001. Congress has also provided funds for Afghanistan to hold elections, develop economic, humanitarian, and political projects, and equip its national army.
In early 2018, following an increase in violence, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani proposed a peace deal with the Taliban. An intra-Afghan reconciliation has been planned through several meetings among the Taliban delegates, Afghan elites, and US officials but has not yet been brokered. One of the major prerequisites of the Taliban for signing a peace deal with the Afghan government is a complete withdrawal of the US and other foreign military forces from Afghanistan.
On February 29, 2020, the Taliban and the US signed a bilateral peace agreement without involving the Afghan government. In this agreement, US delegates have agreed to complete the withdrawal of remaining foreign forces from Afghanistan. Despite the downsides, it seems that an American withdrawal will pave the way for an intra-Afghan compromise and the prospective self-sufficiency of the Afghan forces. However, Afghanistan became perplexed when US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced on March 23, 2020 that the State Department was going to cut down aid to Afghanistan by $1 billion. The decision was made by the US after failing to avert the recent political crisis between Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah, the two electoral rivals of 2019 presidential elections.
On 28 September 2019, presidential elections were held in Afghanistan for the fourth time since 2004. The results announced in February 2020 showed incumbent president Ghani as the leading candidate with 50.64 percent of the vote and Abdullah in the second position with less than 40 percent of the vote. Ghani and Abdullah accused each other of fraud after the results came out and disputes continued until the two rivals decided to hold separate, parallel inauguration ceremonies. The US, in response, condemned the creation of parallel governments. Pompeo stated that a unified and inclusive government was a prerequisite for the peace talks and for the future of the country. Many Afghans also fear that the parallel governments and the disputes of the two rival presidents may place hurdles in the way of peace negotiations and paralyse the administrative and political engines in Afghanistan.
How the Pandemic Changes the Situation
Since signing the peace deal with the Taliban, the US has become one of the countries hit the hardest by the Coronavirus pandemic. As a result of the lockdown, the US economy is degrading, and it seems that for now, it cannot afford to allocate huge funds to support other developing countries like Afghanistan. However, there are some critical reasons why the US should continue supporting Afghanistan, despite current conditions.
On April 16, 2020, President Trump stated that he was going to cautiously ease the lockdown and resume the normal economic activity. The US total expenditures in 2020 financial year have been estimated to be $7.70 trillion. In 2020, the US officials have afforded $14 billion for direct war in Afghanistan, $32.5 billion for enduring requirements, and $16 billion for Afghanistan’s base requirements. Thus, supporting Afghanistan may not damage the American economy as its related expenditures are a relatively small proportion of overall expenditures. Moreover, the US has been committed to helping Afghanistan economically and martially since 2001. Continuing to work toward this aim will prove that the US has not forgotten its long-term goals as a superpower.
Secondly, as China celebrates its recovery from COVID-19, the US might fear the rebirth of its biggest economic rival. This is relevant because China is a neighbour of Afghanistan. Since 2001, China too has contributed to reconstruction of Afghanistan with economic assistance and support. As a case in point, China invited the warring parties of the Afghan peace talks to negotiate in Beijing. In September 2019, the Taliban diplomatic mission met with China’s special representatives for Afghanistan in Beijing. After President Trump called off the peace talks and the meeting in Camp David due to a suicide bombing in Kabul that killed 12 people along with an American soldier in October, a Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman said China was interested in supporting the Afghan peace process.
China is particularly interested in Afghan peace talks as its shared border with Afghanistan is near Xinjiang, which is home to the Muslim Uighur people. Chinese officials fear that Uighur insurgents in Xinjiang may take advantage of the Afghan war. China also wants US troops out of Afghanistan in order to expand its economic influence in the region. China has two major economic projects in Afghanistan, the Aynak copper mine and the Amu Darya oil project. It has also received reassurance from the Taliban about the security and protection of its future projects in Afghanistan. Thus, an American withdrawal of support for Afghanistan would favour China.
Finally, Afghanistan is surrounded by the countries with desirable foreign policies towards China. Pakistan is a major junction in China’s Belt and Road Initiative and Iran benefits from Chinese investment, which offers a life insurance policy against US sanctions. These relationships can be a major regional concern for the US foreign policy. Thus, continuing to financially support Afghanistan at this time seems to be a more favourable option for the US than abandoning it. The US should not be eager to lose Afghanistan as one of its oldest friends to its rival, China.
Maryam Jami received a bachelor degree from the Faculty of Law and Political Science at Herat University, Afghanistan.
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