Cyr column: America leaving Afghanistan - at last

Columns share an author’s personal perspective.

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An agreement at long last has been signed between the United States and the fundamentalist Taliban movement of Afghanistan for the withdrawal of American troops. The accord includes detailed stipulations to help protect the population and discourage the return of terrorists.

The horrific terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, were carried out by an al Qaeda group based in Afghanistan. In response, a multinational military force authorized by the United Nations occupied the nation.

This struggle to find a reasonably responsible, acceptable diplomatic route for departure reflects subtle but sustained sentiment among Americans that the involvement has surely gone on long enough. That sentiment includes the White House.

Afghanistan’s disputed presidential election complicates matters. In February, incumbent President Ashraf Ghani was formally declared the winner, with just over 50% of the vote. However, challenger Abdullah Abdullah has refused to accept this and vows to establish a separate government.

Context is important. Afghanistan has no established history of formal representative elections, Western-style rule of law or reliable national government. Local tribal leaders remain influential, powerful, lethal in armed conflict.

The 2014 election is a much more reassuring benchmark of progress in Afghanistan. Turnout of approximately 60% of eligible voters was high, despite Taliban intimidation and violence. The national election commission testified corruption was much reduced from the earlier 2009 presidential election.

Then-President Hamid Karzai could not run for reelection. World Bank veteran Ashraf Ghani was victorious among a field of eight candidates. With the election, Afghanistan completed a peaceful democratic transition in leadership. This is an historic first.

Further complicating matters is the March 5 decision by the International Criminal Court (ICC), established in 2002, to investigate alleged war crimes by American personnel. The politically driven character of the ICC is reflected in the refusal to participate by the U.S. and other governments.

Despite policy disagreements and insurgent attacks, institutional ties between Afghanistan and the U.S. are strong. In July 2012, the two nations became formal allies.

As a result, Afghanistan joined 14 other nations in the distinctive, special category of Strategic Partner of the U.S. These include Argentina, Australia, Israel and Japan. Other partners are notably stronger economically and more stable politically, than Afghanistan.

The bilateral partnership brings closer cooperation encompassing regular delivery of military equipment, supplies and weapons. This in turn becomes more important with U.S. withdrawal.

President Karzai and U.S Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced the alliance, then jointly attended a conference in Tokyo where donor nations pledged $16 billion. Foreign aid is perennially unpopular among the American people, yet remains important for political leverage as well as economic progress.

The long and frustrating nature of the South Asia struggle can mask such positive changes as reasonably honest elections and growing participation of women. Despite lack of infrastructure, technology is spreading steadily. Cellphones and the internet, as well as traditional television, are now features of isolated communities.

History is instructive. While the disastrous Soviet military invasion and consequent defeat in the 1980s is well known, the more complex long-term involvement of Britain is generally neglected.

Through the 19th century, sizable British military expeditions experienced frustration in Afghanistan. However, London eventually was reasonably successful through economic aid, force and diplomacy. This is a good guide for U.S. policy.

The Afghans should be responsible for their nation, after nearly two decades of occupation. The U.S. and allies were right to overthrow the Taliban after 9/11. Now, we should withdraw.

Arthur I. Cyr is Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College and author of “After the Cold War” (NYU Press and Macmillan). Contact acyr@carthage.edu.