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Why the US needs to stay in Afghanistan

February 28, 2021

A year ago, the US struck a deal with the Taliban — but it wasn't about Afghanistan. It was about Donald Trump and "America First," and the consequences have been catastrophic, writes DW's Sandra Petersmann.

A US marine in front of an armed vehicle watching as Afghan soldiers raise the Afghan flag
Trump's 'America First' policy had a disastrous impact on the peace process in AfghanistanImage: Getty Images/AFP/W. Kohsar

On the table are, sadly, two very bad options: The withdrawal of all international troops by May 1, as agreed in the Doha accord, or the extension of the US-led intervention that began nearly 20 years ago.

I favor staying, and let me explain why. 

International soldiers will not win this war, nor will they bring peace. But they are an indispensable bargaining chip in the difficult peace negotiations underway in the Qatari capital.

Thirsty for power and recognition, the Taliban are demanding the end of foreign occupation and the easing of all sanctions against them. These are the only two levers the West has at its disposal to put pressure on the radical Islamists to agree to a cease-fire and advance negotiations. 

Sandra Petersmann
Sandra Petersmann has been reporting on Afghanistan since 2001Image: DW/R. Oberhammer

Bitter truth about 'America First'

To put it bluntly, troop withdrawal and sanctions are not a panacea that will work overnight. People will continue to die in Afghanistan in the coming months as a result of terror and war. According to the UN, between October and December of last year alone, at least 30 civilians on average were killed or injured each day. 

This is the bitter truth of the "America First" policy. Former President Donald Trump took it to extremes with the Doha Accord. The narcissist desperately wanted to go down in history as the president who brought US troops home. He was all about ending America's longest war to win an election. But that plan backfired.

Trump was not the only one

Trump was not the first to decide on Afghanistan's fate based solely on domestic political considerations. "America First" began with the revenge-driven invasion after the 9/11 terror attacks. How else can we explain the United States and its Western allies' unsavory alliances with war criminals and human rights abusers (for example the warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum) for the sake of hunting down al-Qaeda and punishing the Taliban? 

A German soldier securing a base standing in front of a group of Afghans
Germany's Bundeswehr has been on duty in Afghanistan for the past 20 yearsImage: picture-alliance/dpa/Anja Niedringhaus

The hasty invasion took no account of the Afghan civil war which began in 1978 and remains unresolved to this day. Nor did the intervention at least consider the wounds left by the Cold War and Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. The military campaign was carried out without any regard for the dangerous role played in Afghanistan by regional states such as Pakistan, India and Iran. They, too, are igniting the Afghan battlefield with maximum national egoism.    

The German perspective

And that is why now — after 20 years of war for the US coalition and after a total of four decades of continuous war for the Afghan people — there are no better options on the table. 

America's allies, including Germany, will follow the beat of Trump successor, Joe Biden's administration. If the US goes, all coalition troops go. There are currently about 10,000 left in the country. If the Americans stay, NATO allies will stay. Germany currently has around 1,100 troops stationed in Afghanistan, making it the second-largest troop contributor after the United States.

Taliban must do more to reduce violence: AKK

But the Afghanistan mission is just as unpopular in Germany as it is in the US. Germans also question why the Bundeswehr is still on the ground. Germany is now facing a federal election, but the political elite in Berlin do not want to spoil their campaigns with the issue of Afghanistan — and they refuse to provide much-needed explanations to the public. Germany first!

High time for 'Afghanistan first'

It is time for truth: Those who invaded Afghanistan 20 years ago in an ill-considered manner should not pull out equally recklessly and deal a death blow to the young and however imperfect Afghan democracy — which was created by, and is totally dependent on, Western support. Dodging responsibility means admitting defeat. 

Afghanistan needs maximum pressure on the Taliban as well as on the divided, often corrupt government and the many warlords. It needs maximum political and diplomatic involvement of all the major regional states and the other two global powers, Russia and China. This will be strenuous and dangerous.

But those who still refuse to put the necessary strength, willpower and patience into an "Afghanistan first" policy risk further displacing a terrorized Afghan population from their homeland — an outcome that will also have consequences for the rest of the world.

DW's Sandra Petersmann
Sandra Petersmann Head of Research & Investigations
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