The current escalation of global conflict is exacerbating domestic turmoil and putting further strain on already overwhelmed economies. How the United States and its allies manage and address the growing threats to peace and democracy is a challenge facing policymakers, academics, military strategists, and professionals across a variety of sectors. At the University of Chicago’s annual Pearson Global Forum last week, thought leaders came together to collaborate and discuss ideas, draw from experience, and lend informed analysis to uncover strategies that may reverse the negative impact of conflict worldwide.
One area of focus shed light and perspective on Afghanistan’s unique and perpetual struggle for freedom. A panel of experts ranging from humanitarian aid groups to former victims of local conflict allowed for a productive review of past actions and thoughtful insights toward a potential path forward. Their consensus was that it won’t be easy or fast. After 20 years of international involvement and oversight, Afghanistan is left an isolated country and a forgotten piece of land. Under the Taliban regime, the Afghan population faces widespread poverty, civilian displacement and isolation, and a growing humanitarian crisis with no clear end in sight. While international aid is essential, it does—unfortunately and inadvertently—end up feeding the priorities of the Taliban rather than those for whom it’s intended. Panelist Naheed Sarabi, a Non-Resident Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution, pointed out that some in leadership believe it’s the international communities’ job to feed the Afghan people, not the government. This presents an enormous challenge for aid organizations and political leaders who must balance an extraordinary humanitarian crisis with a government unrecognized by the global community.
Despite promises to the contrary, the Taliban has adopted policies that have resulted in its opponents being targeted and killed, women and girls treated inhumanely, and young and old left to watch their dreams vanish, according to panelist Anne Richard, Afghanistan Coordination Lead and Distinguished Fellow at Freedom House. In fact, the Taliban’s oppression of women and girls in Afghanistan—or gender apartheid—could be considered a crime against humanity, as defined by the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court.
The Taliban’s restrictions on Afghan women’s rights, however, is perceived by the regime as virtuous and responsible. According to Carter Malkasian, Chair of the Defense Analysis Department, Naval Postgraduate School, U.S. Department of Defense, who was on the ground during the U.S. withdrawal in 2021, the Taliban views their policies as protecting women, keeping them safe so they can’t be harmed from the rest of the world. In fact, they suggest that it is in the West where bad things happen to women because they are let out of the house to work and socialize. The reality, of course, could not be more stark. An illiterate and economically dependent girl is essentially imprisoned, facing early and forced marriage, repeated domestic and sexual violence, and an endless cycle of giving birth.
Despite its severity, using gender apartheid as a negotiating tool with the Taliban for increased transparency and democracy would be foolhardy. As noted by Naheed Sarabi, it is the only real leverage the international community holds over the regime. If played, the result will be a stalled and unproductive discourse—not to mention a risk of sanctions on continued and necessary humanitarian aid. The international community has to be consistent about defining gender apartheid as a crime and aware of the implications once determined for the sake of Afghanistan’s future and the safety of its people.
While it’s true that many people left during the chaotic evacuation in August 2021, it wasn’t everyone. There are still millions of people who want to preserve dignity, who want to preserve whatever is left of the past 20 years of progress, including an entire structure of civil servants who are functioning inside the government despite the Taliban. But under this brutal leadership—which for seven years lost an average of 200 people daily—it’s important to remember that the Taliban’s form of governance is abolishing a ministry of women affairs and replacing it with a ministry of vice and virtue ministry. The goal is to control every aspect of social life inside the country, making barriers to progress even more severe and the tools needed for change elusive.
Complicating this situation is international fatigue about Afghanistan and its role in counter-terrorism. A recent Pearson Institute/AP-NORC Poll found that more adults view Afghanistan as an adversary than an ally, and two-thirds say the American war in Afghanistan was not worth fighting. Less than a quarter say the U.S. was successful in achieving their other foreign policy goals, such as helping develop a functioning Afghan government and eliminating the threat posed by Islamic extremists.
Pearson Forum panelist Andrew Wilder, Vice President of Asia Programs at the U.S. Institute of Peace, framed the war in Afghanistan as a series of missed opportunities. He noted that by 2009/2010, it was clear that the insurgency couldn’t be defeated purely by military means, and, at that time, there was an opportunity to pivot to a politically negotiated end of the conflict. But—as the main source of leverage in that negotiation—the U.S. military doesn’t have a doctrine for war termination other than to win the war. So, for some, the idea of peace at that time was akin to defeat. While there may be a role, and an important one, for the military in regional global conflicts, there is a need to be thinking about how to use the military more as a strategic, political tool rather than a hammer, perceiving everything as a nail.
Arguably, the objectives in Afghanistan were uncertain from the beginning. The ability to achieve lasting peace and security will remain elusive in the absence of a universal understanding and acceptance of end goals, both military and political. As Naheed Sarabi pointed out in the closing moments of the panel, peace has different meanings for different people. For a lot of people, peace is not just an absence of bullets. Peace is a collection of values, a collection of norms, and a social structure and governance structure that extends opportunities—not one that destroys fundamental human rights.
Carter Malkasian noted that today when it comes to Afghanistan, the U.S. government is undergoing an enforced exercise in forgetting. It’s not fashionable to talk about Iraq or Afghanistan—it’s perceived as out-of-touch. There is a focus on “new issues,” such as strategic competition and technologies. Afghanistan is a relic of the past. Subscribing to this idea is, in my mind, shortsighted and dangerous. As the world encounters ongoing and emerging conflicts every day, understanding what went wrong in Afghanistan and why could not only inform a roadmap for engagement but, ultimately, mitigate lasting humanitarian crisis and damage that will threaten democracy and peace for generations to come.