How to Keep the U.S. From Forgetting About Afghanistan

The case for a standing commission to ensure our government stays engaged with the beleaguered country—even without any troops on the ground.

Many Americans who advocated or quietly yearned for our withdrawal from Afghanistan believed that doing so would leave the troubles of this two-decade engagement behind and allow the United States to get on with more important national business. Others argued that a troop withdrawal would allow diplomacy and development to flourish.

Unfortunately, what’s unfolded since President Joe Biden’s pullout have undermined the validity of those beliefs. The Taliban took control of Kabul in only a matter of days—and our diplomats were obligated to leave on the last military airplanes. Now, development funding cannot proceed under the Taliban, a terrorist organization and noted enemy of the U.S. This new reality has been a nightmare for innocent Afghans. Due to a freeze on financial transactions, many of them are running out of household goods to sell for food.

Simply put, our Afghanistan withdrawal set in motion a cascading humanitarian crisis by allowing a band of violent tyrants to topple a U.S.-affiliated government, scoring a propaganda win for global terrorist groups. It left behind vulnerable allies and entire categories of people whose lives will be shattered by policies prohibiting free movement, education, and work for women and girls, and constraining religious pluralism within Islam.

But even though the United States has left the country, we can’t—for moral and strategic reasons—turn our backs on Afghanistan. Instead, we need to create a powerful domestic mechanism to compel the U.S. government to remain engaged, to monitor the unfolding situation for instability, and to use whatever levers we can to stop the further decay of Afghan lives and American interests: a standing congressional commission.

Such a commission would make it clear that we have a role to play in the management of this catastrophe, since our own actions contributed to it. The primary remit should be forward looking, which would complement a historical review of American military involvement in Afghanistan that some in Congress are already seeking. Looking back has its merits, but it must be coupled with facing our responsibilities. That’s why the commission should consist of nonpartisan experts, who would provide members of Congress with information about the situation in Afghanistan and then report findings and recommendations for how the U.S. can assert its influence without troops on the ground. These reports would have to be public, to allow visibility and transparency. Other news cycles will inevitably supplant the Afghanistan tragedy—leaving the crisis out of sight and out of mind for many Americans—which is why the regular publication of these reports is imperative.

The commission’s focus should include issues relating to the social and economic crisis confronting Afghans and the availability of humanitarian assistance; prevention of atrocities and protection of basic human rights, especially for women and girls; the status of internally displaced Afghan persons and the plight of would-be refugees, including those eligible for special immigrant visas and “P1” and “P2” refugee status; the ways in which Russia, China, Pakistan, Iran, and other regional actors are engaging with the new Afghan regime; and whether the U.S. can effectively counteract the activities of terrorist organizations in Afghanistan from “over the horizon.”

Beyond our moral obligations, we have to consider our strategic and geopolitical interests in a region that has nuclear-armed states, vast energy reserves, and millions of people potentially joining the already-unsustainable refugee problem in Pakistan, Turkey, and western Europe. A commission should also ensure that we assess whether our drones can truly hold back the terrorism that is likely to emanate from Afghanistan, and how we can manage China’s increased power and influence with the Taliban.

A congressionally mandated and overseen commission will ensure that the State Department, the Pentagon, and other parts of our national security, intelligence, development, and diplomatic operations remain focused on this mission.

To take one example of why this is needed, consider our stranded allies: In the wake of the unfolding crisis in Afghanistan, the Biden administration pledged to carry out a long list of efforts to resettle Afghans who have fled their country and to use diplomatic and economic measures to protect those left behind at the mercy of the Taliban. I don’t doubt the administration’s sincerity that it wants to follow through on these admirable intentions. But a commission could require interagency cooperation to break down the stovepipes that previously crippled the Special Immigrant Visa process and that continue to bedevil issues of evacuation and resettlement. This must also be the case for the administration’s promises to protect human rights and to watch for reinvigorated terror networks. The plight of Afghanistan calls for comprehensive answers—and a lack of them helped to get us where we are today.

We can’t look away when people who worked with us, such as translators, advocates, and advisers, are specifically targeted for retribution, nor when Afghans lose their media freedom and ability to speak out against the regime. And certainly not when women, girls, and minorities are in the position of once again losing basic human rights.

Our responsibility to Afghanistan—and the need to protect our own interests—continues well past the departure of the last troops, diplomats, and development experts. Our business there is unfinished.

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Annie Pforzheimer

Annie Pforzheimer is the former acting deputy assistant secretary of state for Afghanistan, the former deputy chief of mission in the U.S. embassy in Kabul, and a member of the steering committee of the Alliance in Support of the Afghan People.