The Afghan Elephant in the Room

By Shaun Tan

By Shaun Tan

Founder, Editor-in-Chief, and Staff Writer


Those who’ve been following the 2020 presidential race might be forgiven for thinking the Democrats care about women’s rights. The Democratic presidential candidates spent significant time debating solutions to the alleged gender pay gap. They dig into each other’s pasts for evidence of alleged sexism and sexual harassment to use as ammunition. Kamala Harris, Julian Castro, Elizabeth Warren, and Beto O’Rourke practically tripped over one another calling for Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh to be impeached over dubious sexual misconduct allegations.


They don’t care, though, not really. For proof of this, look at the debate on Afghanistan. 18 years after the American invasion of Afghanistan in response to the 9/11 terror attacks, and the US still contends with a Taliban insurgency. Seeking an end to America’s longest war, the Trump administration sought to strike a deal with the Taliban, over the head of the democratically-elected Afghan government, which was excluded from negotiations, and withdraw US troops from the country. Peace talks (including a meeting at Camp David) were only derailed at the last minute after a Taliban terror attack in Kabul killed 12 people, including an American soldier, but a deal could be back on the table before too long. Such a deal, and the subsequent withdrawal of US troops, would undermine the Afghan government and will probably allow the Taliban (the Islamofascist organization that harbored Al Qaeda) to retake Afghanistan. If this happens, it’s Afghanistan’s women who will suffer the most (under Taliban rule, girls were not allowed to go to school and were forced to become child brides, and women were excluded from the workforce and forced to wear burqas in public). “[W]hat’s going to happen to Afghan women?” former US ambassador to Afghanistan Ryan Crocker asked in an interview with Foreign Policy. “The women we encouraged to step forward, the ones that we made a major effort to get back into schools. What about them?” “[E]verybody is tired of fighting,” Shukria Paykan, a female member of Afghanistan’s parliament, told the New York Times, “but that peace should not be at the price of losing our rights and freedom as women.”


Yet what’s the Democrats’ approach to this issue? Alex Ward of Vox summed it up in the headline of his article: “The Democratic candidates’ debate answers on Afghanistan were terrible.” “Democrats’ Afghan Strategy Sounds Familiar,” reads another headline in the New York Times, “It’s a Lot Like Trump’s.” Instead of condemning the Trump administration’s plan to betray Afghanistan’s government and sell out its people to the Taliban, they’re competing with him, and with each other, to see who can get US troops out of the country quicker. Almost all the candidates have pledged to withdraw US troops from Afghanistan within their first term as president, and Pete Buttigeg and Tulsi Gabbard took things one step further by promising to do it within their first year. Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and Joe Biden even said they’d end the US military presence in Afghanistan without an agreement with the Taliban. Rather than make a principled stand, Democrats are joining Donald Trump in the stampede to the exit. In doing so, they forfeit all right to claim they care about the plight of women. Is there anything more absurd than posturing over a gender pay gap or feigning outrage over a candidate kissing a woman on the back of the head when you plan to abandon Afghanistan’s 17 million women to the Taliban, who will ban them from working altogether and flog them if they show their ankles in public?

Rather than make a principled stand, Democrats are joining Donald Trump in the stampede to the exit.

A member of the Taliban’s religious police beats a woman in Kabul in 2001

It doesn’t have to be this way – there are viable options other than surrendering to the Taliban. “[W]e don’t need to do this,” Crocker told Foreign Policy in another interview. “When I left Afghanistan in 2012, we had about 100,000 [coalition] troops in the country. Today, we’ve got about 14,000, yet the Taliban has not made appreciable gains, or gains that they can hold for more than a day or two in that period. That’s a quantifiable fact that is worth paying attention to. This notion that somehow the Taliban are winning and that we’ve got to give up and get out, nothing could be further from the truth.” It also should be noted that last year the US only lost 14 soldiers in Afghanistan. Even if the US doesn’t aim to defeat the Taliban completely, it could aim to support the Afghan government until it’s able to leave it in a position to hold what it has, and it could do this without a huge troop commitment.

Even if the US doesn’t aim to defeat the Taliban completely, it could aim to support the Afghan government until it’s able to leave it in a position to hold what it has.

So why aren’t any of the Democratic presidential candidates exploring options beyond abject surrender? It’s not because the women who’d suffer under the Taliban are foreign – Democrats do have the capacity to care very much about foreigners, at least those trying to enter the country (see the immigration debate). Certainly there’s the unpopularity of the Afghan War amongst the American public, but there’s also the squeamishness amongst the left towards war in general, the refusal to acknowledge that the greater good sometimes requires the expenditure of blood and treasure, that protecting the innocent sometimes means killing the people who would do them harm, the notion that the use of force by the US is always morally tainted.


It’s a pity. If there was ever a good fight, it would be this. Not only would maintaining a troop presence in Afghanistan be the right thing to do, it would be the smart thing to do. An Afghanistan under Taliban control would once again become a haven for terrorists, including Al Qaeda, who would threaten the region and the US homeland. “If the US withdraws its troops under these circumstances, it will simply be a surrender, giving up with nothing to gain in return except worsening death, suppression, and chaos in the country and beyond,” said Charles Hill, diplomat-in-residence and lecturer in International Studies at Yale University, who also served as the Deputy Assistant Secretary for the Middle East at the US State Department. Barack Obama’s premature withdrawal of US troops from Iraq, it should be remembered, later allowed the terrorist organization ISIS to seize 40% of the country, and he was later forced to redeploy troops to fight to drive it out. Standing by the Afghan government would also show that the US keeps faith with its friends, bolstering its credibility and moral authority.


Afghanistan is now the women’s rights elephant in the room. He who is bold enough to name it might also be able to ride it to victory.