Pelosi and Esper in Afghanistan: To Leave or Not To Leave?

Two United States envoys visited Afghanistan this week: the Secretary of Defence Mark Esper under the direction of President Trump and a congressional delegation headed by Speaker of the House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi. These trips signify the growing divide in opinion related to the US strategy in Afghanistan.

Trump’s growing impatience with the presence of American armed forces still entangled in the Afghan conflict — fueled by the 2020 presidential election — is matched by Pelosi’s urgency to maintain a presence in the region. The Speaker counters that US troops are needed for the sake of stability and the possibility that Afghanistan might return to its previous role as a haven for terrorism.

Esper’s unannounced trip on Sunday marks his first visit to the country since being confirmed as Pentagon chief. His unannounced arrival comes amid uncertainty about the administration’s strategy after the collapse of peace talks with the Taliban.

The Secretary told reporters on Sunday that the number of US troops in Afghanistan could be reduced to 8,600 — while maintaining counterterrorism operations — but the reduction would have to coincide with a peace agreement. The United States currently has 14,000 troops in Afghanistan. This is significantly less than the 130,000 troops that were stationed there in 2009 as part of broader counter-insurgency operations.

The Pelosi-led delegation met with President Ashraf Ghani, Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah, Afghan women and ‘briefly compared notes’ with Secretary Mark Esper. Pelosi concluded: “While Afghan women have made some progress in some areas, more work is needed to ensure their security and durable economic and educational opportunities for women and girls in Afghanistan,” which highlights her belief that US support is integral to peace and development in Afghanistan.

Trump consistently critiques any US involvement in the Middle East and a series of tweets reflected that sentiment. He noted: “Fighting between various groups has been going on for hundreds of years. The USA should never have been in the Middle East. The stupid endless wars, for us, are ending!”

Although these tweets were specifically defending his withdrawal from Syria, the president’s view on US military involvement in Afghanistan is clearly in support of exiting the region. Meanwhile, Pelosi’s comments — especially those urging the need for support of Afghan women — appear to support the need for extended US involvement in the region, providing both military and societal support.

Esper told reporters “the aim is to still get a peace agreement at some point, a political agreement.” However, the Taliban’s propensity for violence continues to divide opinion in US circles as Trump’s initial decision to host a Taliban delegation at Camp David was met with heavy criticism.

The Taliban refuses to compromise on their demands, such as their desired institution of the patriarchal Islamic Emirate, characterized by strict social and cultural policies based on man-made principles and radical ideologies. As long as their use of violence and patriarchal political ideologies continue, the US will face divisions over its Afghan strategy.

The US is by no means the only international stakeholder in Afghanistan. The European Union envoy to the region Roland Kobia said, “The EU would like to see a swift resumption of the US bilateral talks with the Taliban and the start of negotiation between the government and the Taliban.”

The EU diplomat also called on the Afghan presidential candidates to contribute to the transparency of the electoral process and avoid any moves that could create problems for the election results.

Kobia’s comment on the presidential candidates re-enforces an important factor to consider when assessing the differing US opinions on the region: the Afghan elections. Putting aside the US-Taliban talks and the conflict itself, it is important to note that all of this is taking place while the country’s politics are in limbo.

Afghanistan is awaiting the results of the September 28 election. Riddled with accusations of fraud and voter-discrepancies, the post-election period has been tumultuous. This chaos is multiplied with the constant onslaught of Taliban instigated violence.

Opening a dialogue with the Taliban will be one of the most significant challenges facing the victors of the September 2019 elections.

Dialogue between political actors is integral to the maintenance of peace in Afghanistan whilst allowing a US withdrawal. However, intra-Afghan dialogue will be impossible without continued support from the US. It is integral that the US keeps its policy towards Afghanistan distinct from its withdrawal from Syria, despite growing criticism and support for Trump’s decision in the Middle East.

Military support in the region remains crucial, especially during this fragile transitional period as Afghanistan nervously awaits election results.

Although the envoys are divided in opinion, they must focus on insight gained during the 18-year Afghan intervention and put domestic political conflicts aside for the time being.

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