The United States has bailed out of Afghanistan with an incomplete evacuation that left many of our Afghan allies behind and the Taliban back in control of that country. We are still in the chaotic aftermath of that exit, our immediate focus the effort to ensure safe passage for Americans who remain in the country.
As painful as it was, ending the US military role in Afghanistan was the right call. America invaded Afghanistan after the Sept. 11 attacks of 20 years ago because that country’s repressive Taliban government was sheltering the attacks’ mastermind, Osama bin Laden. US forces killed bin Laden in 2011 and have arrested other 9/11 planners, but stayed in Afghanistan in an ultimately failed effort to build a more open country that embraces democracy and women’s rights.
But the United States can’t simply wash its hands of Afghanistan’s future. Although our military is gone, we shouldn’t leave in the lurch our Afghan allies or the women and girls of that country.
Advancing their causes will be challenging. Still, the world community has some levers of influence, formal and informal.
One, says Heather Barr, associate director of the women’s rights division at Human Rights Watch, is the assistance mission the United Nations has had in Afghanistan since 2002. Part of that mission’s charge is to monitor the human rights situation there, with specific attention to the status of women and girls. Its mandate comes up for Security Council renewal this month. The Security Council needs not just to renew that mandate, but also to “emphasize that this monitoring function is more important than ever” and to ensure that the UN mission has the resources and the staff and facilities it needs, Barr said. Taliban acceptance for the continued presence and work of that UN mission is a specific the world community should press for.
“They should be publishing reports every couple of months about what they are finding in different parts of the country,” said Barr, who noted that the Taliban has an obligation to protect women’s rights under the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), which Afghanistan ratified in 2003. Under international law, treaties don’t expire when national governments change.
Then there are the broken or unfulfilled set of promises the Taliban themselves have made about amnesty for Afghans who worked with the United States or the governments this country backed, about respecting women’s rights, and about permitting girls to attend school.
“We should hold them accountable on what they have promised the world,” said Sher Jan Ahmadzai, an erstwhile aide to former Afghan president Hamid Karzai and now executive director of the Center for Afghanistan Studies at the University of Nebraska. “Nothing of those promises have been delivered on,” Ahmadzai said.
There, informal pressure points and bargaining chips can come into play. Some 75 to 80 percent of Afghanistan’s national budget has come from the international community. Over the long term, the absence of international aid will leave the Taliban in a frantic scramble for resources.
Afghanistan assets frozen in Western banks offer another such lever, as does the long list of things on which the Taliban desires accommodation from the rest of the world.
“They are asking for international recognition,” noted Ahmadzai. “They are asking for international assistance. They are asking for financial assistance. They are asking the international community not to freeze Afghanistan reserves, and to reinstate flights to Afghanistan.”
Odd as it may seem, one such carrot is the possibility of a continued American diplomatic presence in the country, which would confer some legitimacy on the Taliban. That provides an opportunity for the United States to have some continuing influence, says Peter Galbraith, the former United Nations deputy special representative for Afghanistan.
“I would maintain a diplomatic presence without having formal diplomatic recognition,” Galbraith said, pointing out that we have done the same with other countries whose governments we don’t formally recognize. The former diplomat sees one on-the-ground reality that could help world efforts. Since 2001, when the US initially toppled the Taliban, Afghanistan has witnessed the growth of a middle class connected to the world community through cell phones and digital technology in Kabul and several other cities. To consolidate its rule in Afghanistan, the Taliban will have to find some sort of accommodation with that group.
Noting, “Afghanistan is almost like a colony of Pakistan right now,” Ahmadzai said the United States should also seek help from Pakistan, long an enabling ally of the Taliban, to moderate their behavior. It hardly need be said that Pakistan is not an exemplar of women’s rights. Yet the situation there is far superior to what we saw in Afghanistan last time around under the Taliban, when women couldn’t work outside the home and girls weren’t allowed to go to school. After the ousting of the Taliban, that changed significantly in urban areas, though not in much of the countryside.
The United States and the West, then, have some reasonable tools at their disposal. What’s needed now is the commitment and the will to bring continued pressure to bear. The United States is notorious for losing foreign policy focus over the long haul, something we’ve done before with Afghanistan. We owe it to our Afghan allies and the women and girls of Afghanistan not to let that happen again.
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