Pandemic or Not, the U.S. Can't Afford to Drop the Ball on Peace in Afghanistan | Opinion

The coronavirus pandemic disrupted a number of U.S. international engagements, but some of them are so vital, they cannot be postponed. Superpowers have duties other nations may not have.

On Monday April 13, U.S. envoy to Afghanistan Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad departed to Qatar to discuss with the Taliban the "current challenges" in implementing the peace deal signed by the United States and the militant group in late February. Dr. Khalilzad's visit comes on the heels of a successful prisoner exchange between the Taliban and Afghan government, a positive sign of rapprochement between embittered rivals_a plot straight out of the last season of Homeland.

Reconciliation brings the United States one step closer to its longtime stated policy objectives of calm and reconciliation in Afghanistan and stability in the lager Middle East. The landmark agreement reached by U.S. negotiators and the Taliban in Doha includes a number of concessions on both sides. For its part, Washington will begin a phased troop withdrawal, reducing its troop levels to 8,600 over the next 135 days. In return, the Taliban have agreed to sever ties with al-Qaida, ISIS, and other international terror groups, and sit down for peace talks with the Afghan government. The deal also promises work on a massive prisoner exchange.

The pact is the best hope for the West to facilitate a peaceful power-sharing in the country: a tall order. With the world under lockdown due to the coronavirus pandemic, however, there may be an urge among policymakers to simply rush through a peace deal. This would be a mistake. Abandonment of Afghanistan after a 19-year commitment that cost thousands of Afghan, allied and American lives, and trillions of dollars, would be a victory for Pakistan and U.S. rivals in Beijing and Moscow.

Great powers and regional neighbors should support the government in Kabul while looking for ways to integrate Taliban into an eventual solution. We can't just leave its fate up to regional players. Central Asia—and the world—does not need another jihadi regional conflict theater, like ISIS created in the Middle East since 2015.

Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, the heavyweights of Central Asia, must be part of any effective US foreign policy strategy vis-à-vis Afghanistan and the Middle East. Both countries understand that Afghanistan's peace and development is critical to regional prosperity—a sentiment echoed by U.N. Secretary General António Guterres and the U.N. Security Council.

Uzbekistan was among the first Central Asian countries to offer the use of its military bases to the U.S.-led coalition that attacked the Taliban following the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the United States. It has been a reliable partner in the Afghan peace process since. In February, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) announced a new $1 million program to facilitate cross-border trade between Uzbekistan and Afghanistan—part of the State Department's efforts to build stronger ties between the neighboring countries in pursuit of regional prosperity.

Kazakhstan—a leader in regional security and counter-terrorism policy – has proven itself to be a dependable and committed partner of the United States in Afghanistan's peacebuilding process. From the earliest days of the War on Terror, Kazakhstan was a key part of the Northern Distribution Network—a major transit artery to resupply coalition forces. In late March the country appointed Ambassador Talgat Kaliyev as its first Special Representative to Afghanistan under the orders of President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev

Kazakhstan's JUSAN program was implemented to repatriate women and children from Syria and Iraq who were victims of jihadi brainwashing. This successful initiative serves as an excellent model to emulate, as regional partners and the West work toward de-radicalizing the Afghanistan's youth and the terrorist networks created by the Taliban. Last summer the U.N. Children's Rights Committee lauded JUSAN, calling it an unprecedented example. Kazakhstan has also demonstrated its commitment to the economic empowerment of women of Afghanistan. In October 2019 Nur-Sultan announced a joint initiative with Uzbekistan, the EU, and UNDP to host an education program for hundreds of Afghan women. Over the next five years, students will receive bachelor's, master's and technical degrees in agriculture, applied statistics and mining in universities across Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan

The United States and the West should be interested in the stability in Afghanistan and greater Central Asia for the exact same reasons they have vested interests in the outcome of the Syrian civil war and the demise of ISIS. As long as a power vacuum persists in Afghanistan, so too will the looming threat of terrorism, which costs not only lives but the welfare of America's allies in Central Asia.

The United States should therefore deepen it coordination with Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan in the name of peace in Afghanistan. This means expanding the training programs of Afghans in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, encouraging cross border trade, providing additional security assistance, and ensuring that both Central Asian nations have a role in Afghanistan's reconstruction, including a seat at the upcoming Afghanistan development assistance conference in Geneva, hosted by Finland and the UN.

If the U.S. caves to domestic pressure and forces a quick exit from Afghanistan, we will be stuck in another quarter century of instability and terrorism. By working closely with the nations of Central Asia, the West can finally guarantee a lasting, stable, prosperous future for Afghanistan. It is in the United States' own interests, as well as those of the people of Afghanistan and U.S. regional friends and allies to see through peace taking root.

The West, and especially the United States, needs to continue its support of Afghanistan and faithfully implement the pact signed in Doha. The coronavirus epidemic clearly demands resources and top leadership attention, but the U.S. can walk and chew gum at the same time—as great powers should.

Ariel Cohen, Ph.D., is Senior Fellow (non-resident) at The Atlantic Council and Director, Program on Energy, Growth and Security at International Tax and Investment Center. He is the Founding Principal of International Market Analysis Ltd.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.