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Cyr column: Afghanistan peace negotiations move forward

Arthur I. Cyr
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Representatives of the government of Afghanistan and the Taliban movement have begun formal direct peace negotiations. The two sides held their first meeting in Doha, the capital of Qatar, on Sept. 12.

The timing has symbolic importance, in particular for Americans. The horrific, bloody al Qaeda terrorist attacks in New York City, Washington D.C. and the Pennsylvania countryside took place just under two decades ago, on Sept. 11, 2001. An al Qaeda group based in Afghanistan planned and carried out the attacks.

In response, the military forces of an international coalition of nations led by the United States occupied Afghanistan and overthrew the ruling fundamentalist Taliban regime. Both the United Nations and the NATO alliance support and have helped to implement this long-term effort, which has economic development and political along with military dimensions.

Last February, after nearly two decades of occupation, the U.S. government and the fundamentalist Taliban movement signed a formal agreement for the phased withdrawal of international troops. The accord includes detailed stipulations to help protect the population and discourage the return of terrorists.

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 emphatically includes the White House.

Afghanistan’s disputed presidential election of September 2019 complicated matters. In February incumbent President Ashraf Ghani was formally, finally declared the winner, with just over 50% of the vote. However, challenger Abdullah Abdullah refused to accept this and vowed to establish a separate government. On May 17, both leaders agreed to a power-sharing agreement for joint government - a major breakthrough.

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.

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. After signing of the agreement, a multinational conference convened in Tokyo, where donor nations pledged $16 billion in development assistance.

The 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 spreads steadily. Cellphones and the internet, as well as traditional television, are now features of isolated communities.

The U.S. and allies were right to overthrow the Taliban in Afghanistan and are now right to withdraw. In future, disciplined regional strategy should guide Washington policy.

The Afghan people are responsible for their nation. That also is right.

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.