Afghanistan news channel TOLOnews last week disclosed the contents of a letter that US Secretary of State Antony Blinken had written to Afghan President Ashraf Ghani. It concerned the slowness of progress in the peace process and the US’ intention to withdraw its forces from Afghanistan by May 1. This was one of the first major concrete steps of the Biden administration in terms of foreign policy.
Both the content and narrative of the letter varied from the established diplomatic practice. Since it was signed by the secretary of state, it should have been addressed to Blinken’s counterpart, the foreign minister of Afghanistan, or it had to be signed by President Joe Biden and addressed to Ghani.
Blinken’s letter stated: “We are considering the full withdrawal of our forces.” The established practice in international relations requires that, when such an important step is being considered, it is more appropriate to present the move as a common decision of the two countries.
As a reaction to this unilateral approach, Amrullah Saleh, the first vice president of Afghanistan, said: “They (the US) make decisions on their troops, not on the people of Afghanistan. We will never accept bossy and imposed peace.” Ghani, in turn, said that the future transition of power would occur via elections based on Afghanistan’s constitution, not plans made by “others.” The US should have avoided such an exchange of harsh sentences.
In the letter addressed to the Afghan authorities, there was a reference to two sets of meetings with a view to relaunching the peace process. One of them was proposed at the ministerial level with the participation of Russia, China, Pakistan, Iran, India and, of course, the US. The State Department declined to disclose whether these countries were consulted beforehand. If not, some of them may decline the invitation simply because this news was prematurely divulged.
We also learned from Blinken’s letter that the second set of meetings is scheduled at the senior officials’ level and that it will be held in Turkey in the coming weeks. The State Department also declined to disclose whether Turkey had agreed to host such a meeting. I presume that, if Ankara was informed beforehand, irrespective of whether it would agree to host the meeting, it would have jubilantly announced it to demonstrate how Turkey could be helpful to the US in its initiatives.
Meetings between senior representatives of the Afghan government and the Taliban are at present taking place in Doha, Qatar, but the Taliban is doing everything it can to drag the process out. The Biden administration may believe that Turkey has stronger leverage with the Taliban and that more concrete progress might be achieved by moving the meetings from Qatar to Turkey. If this assumption proves to be true, the Afghan peace process may be revitalized. If not, the limits of Turkey’s leverage will be displayed. The US will not lose anything in either case.
Blinken’s letter also says that US military assistance will continue after the withdrawal of its troops, so the emphasis is still on a military solution. The international community may now reassess the entire process of the Afghan crisis, bearing in mind that the country has been at war for more than 40 years. It might be more appropriate to look for nonmilitary options.
The US last year disclosed its military budget for the Afghan crisis. In 18 years — from 2001 to 2019 — it amounted to $778 billion. This does not include the funds spent by the other countries that contributed soldiers to the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan. More importantly, it does not include the human suffering, casualties and damage caused to the physical infrastructure.
One may wonder whether Afghanistan would not have suffered less if this $778 billion had been channeled into education and agriculture. It is, after all, a mainly agricultural country. It is not easy to quench the defense industry’s thirst, but if even a fraction of the US military budget for the war in Afghanistan were allocated to agricultural development, Afghan society could be transformed. Together with an emphasis on education, this could transform Afghan society completely and the country would cease to be a den for terrorists.
This opportunity has been missed, but we may now turn to the next generations. The time to act is now. If the emphasis could be shifted from military assignments to civilian and developmental assistance, Afghanistan may become a completely different country in just one or two generations.